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Oil Drilling in the Green Belt – Court of Appeal Rules

In a decision with important implications for the Metropolitan Green Belt, the Court of Appeal has ruled that exploratory drilling for hydrocarbons in the Surrey hills is a form of mineral extraction and therefore capable of being an ‘appropriate’ development.

Europa Oil and Gas Limited had been refused planning permission by Surrey County Council to sink an exploratory well near Leith Hill, in the midst of Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. That refusal was confirmed by a Government planning inspector.

In challenging that decision, the company argued that the exploratory project fell within the definition of ‘mineral extraction’, contained within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and thus was exempted from the full rigour of restrictions on development in the Green Belt. That argument prevailed before the High Court, which overturned the planning inspector’s decision and directed reconsideration of the company’s case.

In dismissing an appeal brought by the Council and a local campaign group, the Court found that the inspector had interpreted the relevant part of the NPPF too restrictively. The exploratory well was an essential preparatory step, needed to discern if hydrocarbon reserves in the area were commercially viable, and the project itself therefore constituted mineral extraction. In the circumstances, the operation was ‘capable in principle of being appropriate development’ in the Green Belt.