THE South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) has rejected Celtique Energie’s bid to explore for shale oil and gas at Fernhurst.
Campaigners cheered as the national park’s planning committee rejected the application, on the grounds that Celtique did not ‘demonstrate exceptional circumstances’ for the development, nor was it in the ‘public interest’.
Many feared exploratory drilling at Nine Acre Copse in Vann Road, Fernhurst, could be the precursor to hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking.’
The decision came as a relief to Fernhurst resident of 17 years, John Buchanan, who has long been fighting the application.
“I’m exhausted - it’s been nearly 18 months since this unwelcome application came along,” he said.
“I’m relieved, and very pleased, it was the right decision. This is great news for us.”
Cllr Geoff Walls, of Fernhurst Parish Council, said: “There is no doubt that this application has generated the greatest level of community debate in decades.”
The committee voted unanimously to turn down the bid, which has received more than 5,500 objections - including seven local councils, and from the National Trust.
They said the national need for energy did not ‘outweigh the conservation and enhancement of the national park’.
SDNPA officers say Celtique ‘failed to demonstrate that the exploration of this national resource could not be undertaken elsewhere outside this designated area’.
Their report added: “The industrial development proposed would adversely affect the landscape character.”
Members of the public jeered as one representative from Celtique spoke at the meeting.
Celtique CEO Geoff Davies said he is ‘disappointed’ but ‘not surprised’ with the decision, and says Celtique is now considering further options.
The company believes ministers would overturn the decision if they take it to appeal.
“We are not surprised, given the SDNPA’s public stance regarding oil and gas exploration in National Parks, both in Sussex and elsewhere,” he said.
“We believe SDNPA officers appear to have made their recommendation and the committee appears to have made its decision based on a subjective and unjustified interpretation of planning guidance.
“From our detailed studies we believe that this is the best available location to undertake exploratory drilling to quantify the amount of untapped oil or gas resources present in this part of the Weald Basin, which we think has the potential to be nationally significant.
“We believe it has been refused on subjective and unjustified grounds. We believe this proposal would be supported by the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State in the event of an appeal.
“We are considering our further options and will make a decision in due course.”
Leading ‘Frack Free Fernhurst’ (FFF) campaigner, Marcus Adams, was delighted with the result.
“One thing that the last 16 months have shown is that we live in a community which is willing to work together and support each other when faced with a crisis” he said.
“We hope that our village can now return to being the peaceful and happy place that it was before we faced this unwelcome and inappropriate threat.
“FFF is delighted that the SDNPA planning committee have turned down Celtique Energie’s application.
“In rejecting this application they have not only taken the advice of their own planning officer and accepted the government’s own confirmation that such development should only take place in a national park in exceptional circumstances but also listened to the over five and a half thousand people who have objected to this proposal (as opposed to the eleven who have expressed support of it).
“Clearly a national park is not the right place for a large-scale “industrial experiment” (Andrew Tyrie MP), and we are relieved to see that the SDNPA have upheld their objectives to protect the national park and the community within it.
“Right up until the last minute Celtique demonstrated their lack of respect for our community with their continued attempts to mislead both the public and the planning authorities with disingenuous and incorrect statements and material.
“We would like to thank all the organisations and individuals who have tirelessly campaigned for and contributed to our campaign – from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, RSPB, CPRE, the South Downs Society to those who visit and love the national park and of course the residents of Fernhurst, Lynchmere and the surrounding area.”
Actress Sarah Miles has long been a campaigner against fracking, and was at the meeting to hear the decision. “This is a great step forward,” she told the Observer.
Another high-profile campaigner, actress Susan Jameson, told the Observer: “It just goes to show that if each little area can raise awareness then we can stop this.”
Susan, who also campaigned against Celtique’s application to drill for oil and gas at Kirdford and Wisborough Green, says the government must “stop chasing after the big oil companies.”
She added: “The government is to blame, They just think about the money.”
Ken Cronin, the chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), labelled the decision ‘regrettable’, adding: “The UK has a long history of onshore oil and gas exploration and production, we have drilled over 2000 wells across the UK, many in areas of outstanding beauty and national parks.
“In light of the overwhelming need and the strict regulatory regime the decision today is regrettable.”
For the full report and all the interviews, see next week’s Observer (September 18).