The Duke of Northumberland, worth £300m last year, has leased land to a British oil company to build a giant gas platform in a beauty spot that is home to some of Britain's rarest birds and reptiles.
Exploratory geological surveys have convinced the duke that underneath his 3,000-acre Albury Estate in south-east Surrey lies a giant methane gas field that could be commercially valuable. But the sandy heathland, one of most unspoilt parts of Surrey, is a site of special scientific interest and natural habitat of the sand lizard, one of Britain's rarest reptiles, as well as many rare birds, including the Dartford warbler, the woodlark and the nightjar.
The proposal has provoked outrage among residents and environmental groups who claim the oil company Star Energy has tried to get the plans through without public consultation.
A confidential report drawn up by Star Energy, and seen by The Independent, shows that up to 40 lorries would have to drive through the middle of the heath to get to the gas extraction platform every day.
In this screening report, given to Surrey County Council, the company argues that the gas plat-form and boreholes do not require an environmental assessment report under the terms of the Town and Country Regulations 1999.
The company argues that the proposed 38-metre high gas rig will be sited on land owned by the Duke of Northumberland's Albury Estate and will be "small scale with minimal production of waste and pollution". But English Nature, one of the country's foremost environmental campaign groups, has told the council that it has serious concerns about the impact of the project on the local environment and in particular the number of lorries that would have to pass through some of the protected parts of the heath.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England is also opposed to the proposal which it said would be "highly intrusive in such an area of beautiful countryside". It raises concerns about the impact on the environment of burning off the gas extracted from the boreholes, a process known as flaring.
In its submission to the council, Blackheath Village Society says: "Blackheath Common is an environmentally rich and sensitive site. Its unspoilt beauty is appreciated and enjoyed by people from all walks of life from as many as 20 miles around." Jonathan Lord, spokesman for the society said: "[We] urge Star Energy to withdraw from any intention to drill at this special site, and to reassure the public of this fact at the earliest opportunity".
After sustained protests, Surrey County Council has asked Star Energy to carry out an environment impact assessment that will look at what effect the gasfield exploration project would have on the local flora and fauna as well as pollution levels.
The Duke of Northumberland owns 120,000 acres of land from London to Morayshire. This includes Alnwick Castle, the family seat in Northumberland, Syon House, a magisterial pile on the Thames, and a 9,000-acre grouse moor near Lauder in Scotland which was bought for a reputed £5m.
While many aristocrats have been content to sit on their inherited wealth or sell off land to "new money" financiers, the Duke of Northumberland, a trained land agent who was educated at Eton and Oxford, has acquired a reputation as a shrewd businessman.
Married to Jane Richard, he inherited his title in 1995 after his elder brother, Harry, was killed by an accidental drugs overdose.
Although he was already acknowledged as the driving force behind Northumberland Estates, the family company, the new duke made his priorities clear at the time of the tragedy. He said: "Other places sell things off and they end up without an economic base to maintain the central core. We want to keep it going for a few more hundred years."
The family began accumulating its fortune in the 11th century when William de Percy came to Britain with William the Conqueror. Henry de Percy, who helped Edward I in his attempts to subjugate the Scots, was later rewarded with Robert the Bruce's forfeited titles in the north of England.
The current duke also owns the 3,000-acre Albury estate near Guildford in Surrey, which is valued at £13.5m. The income from this land catapulted the Northumberlands into the headlines recently because it was supposed to fund a £1m inheritance that their eldest son, George, was due to receive when he turned 18. Claiming that it was a case of "too much, too young", the duke and duchess convinced a High Court judge to defer payment until their son's 25th birthday.
The Duke of Northumberland received a substantial farming subsidy from the European Union of £450,740 in 2003-04. And a few years ago he was given a £9,450 grant from Ettrick and Lauderdale District Council to make improvements to a cottage on the Burncastle Estate.
A spokesman for Star Energy confirmed that there were exploratory plans to develop two boreholes on private land on Blackheath Common but emphasised that this would be for a temporary appraisal of the gasfield. He said the exploration would last for only 90 days and that they were "looking to mitigate" the impact of the lorries by finding an alternative route to the site.
The spokesman confirmed that the land had been leased from Albury Estates but declined to disclose how much had been paid to the Duke or how much gas they believed was in the gasfield. He also denied trying to avoid carrying out an environment assessment study which he said was standard for this kind of development.
After the results of the study the company said it would consider whether to make a formal planning application to Surrey council.
Star Energy says its plans are in line with Labour's own energy commitments. In its report it quotes a government energy White Paper from 2003 which states: "UK oil and gas production will decline significantly over coming years ..." And goes on to repeat the Government's commitment to "maintaining an active and successful oil and gas industry in the UK and to promote future development of the nation's oil and gas reserves". A spokesman for Star Energy said: "What we are looking to do is an exploration that will be as non-intrusive as possible."
Michael Baxter, the land agent for Albury Estate, said: "Obviously we are concerned that they [residents] are concerned. But the estate's position is that it is under part of the planning process and it is a matter for the planning authorities, after all that's what they do. The council will weigh up all the views and then decide."
Species at risk
Blackheath is an area of 250 acres of registered common land consisting of heathland and woodland. It is a man-made landscape created 7,000 years ago by farmers who cleared the dense forest. The creation of this treeless habitat has benefited many species of wildlife, such as the Sand Lizard, Nightjar and Silver-Studded Blue Butterfly, which are only found on heathlands. Blackheath is a recognised ecological haven within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and substantial areas are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
* SAND LIZARDS live on the edges of woodland, heathland and in dunes. The best places to see them are in central and eastern France, but a few live in southern Britain. Sand lizards come in a variety of colours and patterns. Those found in Britain are often highly patterned, while those found in France are mainly one colour and may be green, brown or black.
* DARTFORD WARBLER This small, dark, long-tailed warbler, below, is resident in the UK and has suffered in the past during severe winters. Its population dwindled to a few pairs in the 1960s, since when it has recovered, increasing in numbers and range. But it is still regarded as threatened.
* The SILVER-STUDDED BLUE BUTTERFLY is found mainly in heathland where the silvery-blue wings of the males provide a distinctive sight. This tiny butterfly has a restricted distribution but occurs in large numbers in suitable heathland and coastal habitats. It has undergone a decline through most of its range.Reuse content