The UK is transitioning towards renewable sources of energy but, so far as planning policy is concerned, extraction of fossil fuels for now remains essential to meet the nation’s needs. The point was made by the High Court’s decision to uphold planning permission for an exploratory gas drilling operation in an area renowned for its scenic beauty.
The site was within an area of great landscape value and very close to an even more heavily protected area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). An energy company applied for planning permission to sink exploratory boreholes, together with construction of on-site and highways infrastructure. The temporary permission sought was for a period of three years, after which the site would be restored to agriculture.
In refusing the application, the relevant county council cited highway safety concerns and the impact of the development on the appearance, quality and character of the landscape. On the recommendation of a planning inspector who presided over a lengthy public inquiry, however, the company’s appeal against that refusal was upheld. Planning permission was granted by the Minister of State for Housing.
The minister, who made the decision on behalf of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, accepted that the proposal would cause harm to the area’s character and appearance and degrade the setting of the AONB. However, he found that such harm would be tempered by the short-term nature of the project. In the light of the role fossil fuels continue to play in meeting national energy needs, he gave great weight to the benefits of natural gas exploration.
The planning permission was challenged by the borough council for the area and a local campaign group. They argued that the minister disregarded Paragraph 176 of the National Planning Policy Framework, which requires great weight to be given to conserving and enhancing the landscape and scenic beauty of AONBs.
The campaign group further contended that the decision was fatally inconsistent with another ministerial ruling, published on the same day, by which planning permission was refused for an exploratory gas drilling project in another part of the country.
Rejecting those complaints, however, the Court noted that harm to an AONB from a temporary development can, in principle, attract moderate, as opposed to great, weight in the overall planning balance. The inspector recognised the area’s high sensitivity and conducted a focused analysis of the harm to the AONB. He made specific reference to Paragraph 176 in his report following the public inquiry and that indicated that he had it well in mind.
Turning to the question of alleged inconsistency, the Court observed that the sole reason why planning permission was refused for the other project related to climate change and unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions from the site. Climate change was not one of the main issues in the case before the Court and the decisions were not so similar as to give rise to an unlawful inconsistency.