South Downs MP warns against ‘industrialisation of the countryside’ from oil drilling

Nick Herbert MP
Nick Herbert MP

A warning over the ‘random industrialisation of the countryside’ has gone out from South Downs and Arundel MP Nick Herbert.

He spoke out in a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday against changing planning rules which could give ‘permitted development’ rights for allowing exploratory and shale gas drilling.

‘Permitted development’ bypasses a requirement for local planning authorities to determine a planning application.

The MP said that existing oil extraction in the South Downs was currently ‘entirely uncontroversial’ because “the wells are located sensibly” near main roads and away from communities.

Under original planning rules local authorities have a duty to assess whether a proposal for exploratory drilling is appropriate. Mr Herbert highlighted the example of plans for exploratory drilling near Wisborough Green, which West Sussex County Council refused.

Mr Herbert said “the council looked at the proposed traffic movements down very narrow lanes and was very unhappy about the impact.

“It rightly reflected the concerns of the local community.”

He said he did not oppose permitted development rights in principle, for example in the conversion of office buildings to residential premises.

But he said that it was appropriate for local authorities to be able to assess the impact of drilling on traffic movements, although he added there was “no non-controversial way to generate energy.”

He said: “I know there is concern about the potential random industrialisation of the countryside. We cannot allow that to happen through one tick in a ministerial box and then find that we have no control over it.”

Housing minister Kit Malthouse also emphasised the importance of the countryside and said no final decision had been made on whether to bring the proposals forward.

He said that the consultations have been part of a range of measures to make planning decisions faster and fairer for all those affected by new shale gas development and to ensure that local communities were fully involved in planning decisions that affected them.

Mr Malthouse also said that any potential permitted development rights granted for shale gas exploration would not apply to hydraulic-fracturing operations or the production stage of shale gas extraction.