High Court hears legal challenge against Surrey oil development

Press release
A legal challenge to Surrey County Council’s decision to allow 20 years of oil drilling and production to take place near Gatwick airport begins in the High Court today (17.11.20)
  Published:  17 Nov 2020    |      3 minute read

The judicial review is brought by local Redhill resident Sarah Finch, supported by the Weald Action Group (WAG), an umbrella for local groups campaigning against the extraction of oil and gas in the South of England.

Lawyers on behalf of Sarah Finch will argue that the environmental assessment used as part of Surrey County Council’s decision-making process for the proposed oil development should have considered the full climate impacts in the context of the current climate emergency.

If successful, the challenge could have wide-ranging implications for planning applications for other carbon-intense projects, and for projects which have environmental impacts which occur off-site or over a period of time.

The challenge is being supported by Friends of the Earth, which has made a legal intervention on the basis that the failure to consider the downstream greenhouse gas emissions (GHGS) of the development was unlawful, drawing on its expertise in climate litigation and its perspective as a national, grassroots campaigning organisation. 

Sarah has been campaigning against the Horse Hill oil drilling operation since 2013, after the council granted planning permission for an exploratory oil well on the site. She has campaigned with others against the proposed expansion of the site, which would allow five new wells (four for oil production and one for water reinjection) and commercial oil production for 20 years. It is estimated that over 3 million tonnes of oil would be produced.

Sarah’s claim for judicial review of the decision-making by Surrey County Council is on the following grounds:

  • A failure to comply with the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations because it failed to assess the indirect greenhouse gas impacts of the development from burning the oil to be produced and it failed to consider the UK’s Net Zero Target.
  • An error of law in interpreting the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Minerals Planning Practice Guidance so as to permit exclusion of an assessment of the downstream GHG emissions from the oil.

Sarah Finch said:
 “I believe the council’s decision to grant permission for more oil production at Horse Hill without considering the full climate impacts was wholly wrong.

“The Prime Minister is right: there’s no time to waste on tackling the climate emergency. It is shocking that while the futures of our children and grandchildren are threatened, permission is still being granted for the production of fossil fuels, the very things fuelling the climate crisis.”

Friends of the Earth in-house lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said:

“It’s astonishing that Surrey County Council should declare a climate emergency in July 2019, and then give the go-ahead to 20 years of oil drilling a few months later. Government at all levels needs to wake up to the climate crisis, with actions and not just words.

“We’re delighted to be supporting this important legal challenge brought by local campaigner Sarah Finch. We believe that authorising this development was unlawful because it failed to consider the climate impacts from the use of the oil produced.

“We maintain that this is a breach of the precautionary principle as these emissions are likely to have a significant effect on the environment - and if they’re not taken into account at this stage, they won’t be at all.

“This decision leaves a yawning gap in the environmental protection regime, which is extremely dangerous in the context of the climate crisis.”

 Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, said:

“Our client believes that, when Surrey County Council gave its permission for the proposed development, it did not take account of the full environmental impact it would have. That meant no regulation whatsoever of the resulting carbon emissions.

“Since the Court of Appeal ruled earlier this year that policy approval for Heathrow airport expansion was unlawful, it has been very clear that the UK planning system must ensure at every level that all climate change impacts are properly considered. This must include consideration of the Net Zero Target.”


  1. The hearing will take place on 17 and 18 November 2020. The hearing is taking place remotely. The judicial review hearing will be held remotely. The hearing can be obtained from the Administrative Court Office
  2. Sarah Finch is represented in her legal case by Leigh Day solicitors, as well as Marc Willers QC (Garden Court Chambers) and Estelle Dehon (Cornerstone Chambers). Friends of the Earth is represented by Nina Pindham of No 5 Chambers.
  3. The application for the oil development has been made by Horse Hill Developments Ltd