Surrey’s Water Protectors: 3 Reasons Protesters Are Occupying Leith Hill

by Robin Ellerson

27 April 2017

Leith Hill Protection Camp is an occupation of a proposed exploratory drilling site in Bury Hill Wood, an area of natural beauty near Dorking, Surrey. For six months, and in spite of a heavy handed protest injunction and an eviction order, this area of woodland has been occupied by a group of protesters who are fighting plans for oil extraction by Europa Oil and Gas UK.

Guarded by scarecrows and painted signs opposing oil exploration, the camp’s ‘protectors’ offer a warm and welcoming reception. A huge fort has been erected in the drill’s planned location – an imposing palace of pallets, complete with moat named the ‘Bailiffs’ grave’ – which may well need to be used to resist eviction before June.

The community of occupiers at Leith Hill have diverse and plural motivations for protecting the land from oil extraction. Here are three reasons why they are there – and why you should join them.

1. To protect future generations.

Both present and future generations are threatened by the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and wildfires, and the knock-on consequences for global stability.

The occupiers at Leith Hill know that destroying natural sanctuaries in pursuit of oil is irrational, as the majority of known fuel reserves must be kept in the ground to prevent massive ecological decline, human suffering and societal collapse.

That our government can commit to ambitious emissions targets while allowing the expansion of oil exploration goes beyond inconsistency. It is the sinister and willful condemnation of the lives and of the quality of existence of future generations, for no more than short term economic gain.

2. To stand up for local democracy.

Leith Hill Protection Camp is the last stand in a multi-pronged resistance to Europa Oil and Gas’ plans to drill for oil in the area. Campaigners from Dorking and Coldharbour in the Leith Hill Action Group have been fighting the proposed drilling for eight years. Initially, their aims were modest – to relocate the drill rather than to prevent it altogether. But last year, despite strong local support, a history of successes and over £100,000 in donations, any influence the group had on drilling decisions were rendered futile: the local council was overruled by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, acting in the ‘national interest’. The ancient forest on Leith Hill would be drilled.

One occupier told me: “The “local democracy issue [is] waking up a lot of people here. They are aware the government is not listening to them […] this is middle England, a lot of them vote Tory. And they are horrified. Rightly so.”

Locals from the community in the village of Coldharbour and the surrounding areas are very supportive, keeping the on-site protesters informed about local council processes and decisions, as well as bringing hot food to support the crew and offering them hot showers and warm clothes. They understand the government is acting undemocratically by ignoring them, and has no long term energy policy. The rural middle class have become the unlikely supporters of activists and direct action, driving by to donate designer coats to their cause.

These locals, who tried all the conventional means of expressing their democratic voice over eight years of struggle, are being intimidated by the injunction against the camp. This outlaws not only the occupation itself, but any kind of support offered to the occupiers, including coats and cake.

In spite of the injunction, the remaining occupiers are hardy, and persisted throughout the winter. They continue to build awareness of the plans for oil drilling in the area, and countryside visitors are appalled that such destruction could disrupt the peace in Bury Hill Wood. The occupiers host ‘Solidarity Saturdays’ which feature a range of practical skill workshops to welcome more people to the struggle. Now, as the sun brightens, they are hoping more will join them.

3. To defend local land.

An environmental photographer who recently documented the Leith Hill landscape writes that the hill is “a billion-and-one interconnected communities; human, animal, botanical, fungal and microbial. When one suffers, all suffer.”

But although the land is technically protected, the Forestry Commission who own it have teamed up with the government to claim their leasing of the land for oil drilling is not at all in opposition to their mission to manage the site sustainably.

Beyond the obvious negative implications of oil extraction for our climate, this claim of sustainable management comes in spite of both the likelihood of water pollution and the destruction of the woodland habitat of diverse nocturnal wildlife that the project poses. The director of Sutton and East Surrey Water noted that plans for Leith Hill “would mean drilling through water-bearing greensand rocks, running parallel to the M25, from which Sutton and East Surrey extract water. If the aquifer became polluted the water source would have to be abandoned.”

Burning oil will burn our planet. We need to be able to trust our land will not collapse, defend the remaining spaces where wild animals live in natural habitats, and protect our water supplies.

The people at Leith Hill are fighting for our lives. They would love for you to join them.

Leith Hill Protection Camp can be found on Coldharbour Lane, RH5 6HB. If you get to the pub in Coldharbour, continue half a mile on the same road.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.