The decision to allow Cuadrilla to continue its exploratory activities in Balcombe by the county council is an ‘announcement of war’ according to villagers fighting proposals.
In front of a large crowd at Horsham’s County Hall North, West Sussex County Council’s Planning Committee approved Cuadrilla’s proposal for flow testing at the Lower Stumble Exploration Site off London Road.
This was despite calls from Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association (FFBRA) to defer the application because in their opinion the officers’ report had ‘not satisfactorily addressed the risks of the application particularly in water and air pollution’.
After the meeting Charles Metcalfe, chairman of the FFBRA, said they would be taking legal advice and had already talked about the possibility of launching a judicial review.
He added: “It’s devastating. We deployed so many good arguments that were tossed out.
“We really think this has been a political decision rather than a decision which was based on the facts of the case, and I think this decision is going to be one that forms the basis for a lot of the oil and gas industry’s future development.
“It’s going to be a decision that changes the face not just of the Weald but 60 per cent of England forever and I deplore that.”
He continued: “Common sense would have dictated a deferral but they decided not to do that and in so doing it’s an announcement of war.”
Balcombe resident Kathryn McWhirter added: “I can hardly speak I’m so angry and that’s why I screamed ‘shame’ at the end.
“They did not really address the questions. They did not consider the submissions we had made and they had clearly not read the objections.”
Cuadrilla previously had temporary planning permission for exploratory drilling followed by flow testing and monitoring activities, but this expired in September 2013.
Protests at Balcombe gained national media attention last summer amidst fears that exploratory drilling could be the first step towards the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, at the site.
The technique involves pumping water and chemicals underground at high pressure to split apart porous shale rock to release trapped oil or gas.
Cuadrilla have made repeated assurances that they have no intention of fracking, but FFBRA fear that if significant energy deposits are found at Balcombe the licence for the area could be sold to another company who might frack.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Cuadrilla welcomes the decision of West Sussex County Council to approve our planning application to flow test the well and complete our exploratory works at Lower Stumble.
“Our next step will be to liaise with the council about the detailed conditions.”
Anti fracking protesters gathered outside County Hall North before the meeting waving banners and placards, while at one point the meeting had to be adjourned after repeated outbursts from the public gallery.
Objections centred around water, noise, and air pollution, the impact on wildlife and the environment, the amount of lorries driving through Balcombe, and the ‘weakness’ of the conditions attached to the application.
County councillor Bill Acraman (Con, Worth Forest) called for a deferral ‘until more satisfactory answers are forthcoming by all the parties involved’.
He explained: “Otherwise we would be a hostage to fortune and with far too many things to be done behind closed doors.”
Balcombe Parish Council’s Kevin Bottomley said that at times the impact on Balcombe last summer had been of ‘biblical proportions’, and added to thunderous applause: “Stand shoulder to shoulder with us. Do the right thing and say no.”
Sue Taylor of FFBRA said the officers’ report relied too heavily on information from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who have not even visited the site, and the Environnment Agency.
Mr Metcalfe added: “If approved this application will lead to more and more exploration sites across our beautiful county and beyond.”
But officers replied: “We have to assume they [the EA and HSE] are doing their jobs just as we are doing ours.”
Duncan Crow (Con, Tilgate & Furnace Green) said he could not see any planning grounds on which the application could be refused, while Jeremy Hunt (Con, Chichester North) thought they were limited in what they could look at when making their decision.
Mr Crow added: “It’s this application we are here to determine not any future planning application.”
After the debate members decided to strengthen the conditions including 24-hour light monitoring around the edge of the site to protect wildlife,and continuous sound monitoring on the site. They also agreed to set up a liaison group between residents and Cuadrilla, and to reconsider proposed access routes for site traffic.
Only Sue Mullins (Lab, Gossops Green & Ifield East) voted against the application.
When the decision was announced members of the public shouted ‘shame’, ‘disgusting’, and ‘into battle then’.
Heidi Brunsdon (Con, Imberhorne), chairman of the Planning Committee, said: “As chairman I thought the debate was robust.
“Members gave all the issues a good airing and the further conditions we agreed might not go as far as some would have wanted, but we feel they were proportionate and fair in addressing the issues that members of the committee had surrounding this application.”
Actors Susan Jameson and James Bolam were two of the many protesters who attended.
After the meeting Ms Jameson said: “I’m afraid it seemed like a foregone conclusion and I worry that I do not think democracy works unless people have power and access to open information.”