Friday, 21 December 2012

Merry Christmas and a Happy quarry-free New Year

Just for fun because it's Xmas...


Aggregate Industries has kept us informed of its investigations at Straitgate Farm. Grading analyses (deriving silt, sand and gravel proportions) have now been performed on the raw material removed from the test pits. Results have been supplied and "continue to confirm the quality". Further physical and chemical tests have been arranged. Piezometers have been installed in the six boreholes, and data-loggers are expected to be fitted early in the new year to start recording groundwater levels. AI has commissioned AMEC to act as its hydrogeological consultants.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Two more quarries that didn't get restored back to farmland

Two more novel uses for old quarries - a 15MW solar energy 'farm' with 62500 panels, and a round-the-clock testing ground for articulated dump trucks. Not perhaps the restoration plans that local people had either hoped for or expected. Not farmland. Not nature trails. But Aggregate Industries is not a charity. If it quarried Straitgate, who could blame it for wanting to persuade DCC in the future that the county no longer needed the woodland clearing with picnic area, or footpaths with education boards, detailed on the imaginative and colourful plans used to win permission way back in 2014. Who could blame it for arguing that what Ottery really needed was, for example, an aggregate recycling centre on the old Straitgate Quarry site? Would the company listen to local people? Did it listen to "Objectors [who] had pleaded to AI to abandon its [78 metre] wind turbine proposals for Hulands Quarry"?

AI calls for more road spending

Just as a turkey might sponsor a campaign calling for a rethink on how we celebrate Christmas, Aggregate Industries is sponsoring a CBI report calling on government to support greater private investment in the road network. Lobbying like this should surprise no-one, but the tab for increased road investment, and the aggregate it requires, would have to be picked up by somebody, and if not directly by the state then in higher charges for road users. The CBI is proposing a similar model to that used in the water and rail industries, but is privatisation, profits and road tolling really the answer? We know where water charges and rail fares have gone.

AI's chief executive officer, Alain Bourguignon, writes in the report's foreword "By transferring the management and maintenance of essential road infrastructure to long-term investment vehicles, we could see far better planning, procurement and design of the assets, leading to far better outcomes for all stakeholders." And far better business for AI of course. It's a "no-brainer" according to AI's blog - just not for the communities next to any one of its asphalt, concrete or quarry operations.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

AI's flow meters will need to be securely fixed

This watercourse feeds into the top of Cadhay Bog. It is fed by water from Straitgate, carried by culvert under the intervening field. The photo on the left shows the water flowing out of the culvert towards the road. Over the past few years the water has undercut the road and eroded a four feet deep trench through the pebbled subsoil. Aggregate Industries' hydrogeology consultants will be putting flow meters into watercourses originating from Straitgate in due course - the meters will have to be firmly anchored. This watercourse is recorded on the Environment Agency's Historic Flood Map, and has exceeded its capacity twice this year in July and November. It was the Cadhay Bog watercourse that flooded 50 properties at Thorne Farm Way in 2008, prompting the EA to build a flood defence scheme, completed this year, but which makes no allowance for extra run-off caused by removing all the gravel and its water retaining properties at Straitgate Farm.

The EnviroCheck maps are copyright © 2012 Landmark Information Group drawing from sources which themselves are protected under Crown Copyright (Ordnance Survey, Environment Agency, British Geological Survey, and other public authorities) or under copyrights owned by private enterprises. You are kindly requested to use these maps solely for activities relating to the Straitgate Action Group, as other uses may not fall under the licence granted.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Webcast viewing figures tell the story

Thank you to Roger Giles, County Councillor for Ottery St Mary Rural, for providing us with DCC's webcast viewing figures for 2012. The special meeting of the Development Management Committee on 26 April, the purpose of which was to receive representations from local communities on sites being consulted upon by DCC for future sand and gravel supply in East and Mid Devon, was the third most watched webcast. The issue of minerals and particularly where they are extracted is demonstrably important to the people of Devon.

Could DCC ever call an end to "Mineral Madness"?

Whilst DCC's Local Aggregate Assessment (LAA) seems a more balanced document than many of the past, with a comprehensive overview of Devon's aggregates market, in the end actions and allocations of Preferred Sites will speak louder than words. Nevertheless there are signs, possibly, that DCC has listened to the representations made at the meeting on 26 April and in the public  consultation on the issue of need. In the LAA for example:

  • Devon has the capacity to support increased production of secondary and recycled aggregates
  • there is potential for increased substitution between the different types of aggregate, including the use of crushed rock fractions instead of sand and gravel
  • during the later part of the period to 2031 covered by the LAA, some of the sand and gravel supply previously delivered from Devon will be met from Somerset
  • indicating a potential need for this Plan to provide for further sand and gravel resources if the minimum landbank of seven years is to be maintained to 2031, subject to monitoring through future iterations of the LAA (our emphasis)
  • A more appropriate method is the use of a weighted ten year average, with greater emphasis given to the figures in later years than those earlier in the ten year period

On the flip-side, the LAA points out that:

  • [the] Minerals Plan will need to consider the relationship between the location of the reserves making up the landbank and the spatial pattern of working to be pursued
  • it would be unwise to assume that full substitution of one resource by another is feasible, or always desirable, as technical requirements may constrain this
  • Information from the minerals industry [Devon Stone Federation (2012)] highlights the particular qualities of the Pebble Beds resource

So whilst DCC's position may have shifted, it might only be towards a more balanced discussion, and it remains to be seen how the Council will support increased substitution by secondary, recycled and crushed rock fines, and allow for this in its forecast shortfall for sand and gravel. It is nonetheless a welcome indication of local people having some small influence in Devon's corridors of power, but not enough to become complacent. The irreparable loss of Devon farmland is at stake, and DCC has a long way to go before it embarks on a campaign on behalf of its electorate, as Staffordshire County Council did in 2010 by calling to end "Mineral Madness", prompting a "new allocation system [resulting in] ten million tonnes less quarrying over the next decade across the county".

Thursday, 6 December 2012

For AI it's all or nothing

The Head of Geological Services at Aggregate Industries explained to a number of people at a meeting today why, in his view, Straitgate Farm is so important to his company. For AI it's all or nothing. All if it wins permission, because in the decades following on from Straitgate, and with a foothold in the area, it will look to exploit its surrounding mineral rights. Nothing if permission fails, since any other application in the area would have a high chance of failure too. AI would instead turn its attention to Penslade, necessitating a new plant costing c.£2-3 million and losing geographical sales coverage.

AI's initial proposals for Straitgate were presented in a number of concept maps, computer models and cross sections. AI is only at the early stages of its investigations, but local people voiced their concerns, particularly about water. AI's Head of Geological Services admitted that, in his view, it was unlikely that permission would be extended at Blackhill beyond 2016, and that processing plant would more likely be moved to Rockbeare, where there are adequate water supplies and silt voids. Whilst the concept maps did show site access at the western point of the site, he thought it extremely unlikely this would transpire, recognising the more suitable location on the north side onto the old A30, if land access could be secured. He confirmed that the eastern half of the Straitgate site has been removed from AI's resource book, retrieval being uneconomic with the sand and gravel largely underwater and also covered by a thick seam of sandstone. AI has promised to supply further maps, images, drawings and information, which, permission forthcoming, will be posted here in due course.

Overall there's a lot at stake for AI, but the same could be said for the people of Ottery St Mary and West Hill - decades of quarrying here and in the surrounding area.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Mineral industry supports pond creation

RAF C-17 Globemaster flying
low over Straitgate Farm on its
way to land at Exeter Airport
Another press release from the MPA extolling the environmental credentials of its quarrying members has been issued, this time encouraging the creation of ponds. "MPA members are uniquely placed to create new clean water ponds, and existing important ponds and small lakes on restored mineral sites make a critical contribution to biodiversity."

Which is all very noble for those sites that do get restored back to nature, rather than something more industrial, but if quarrying at Straitgate Farm were ever to be given the go-ahead, the creation of ponds, which "quickly become biodiversity hotspots" attracting birdlife, would never be permitted. This photograph from last week clearly shows why. 

And with all the water issues at Straitgate Farm, both DCC and locals await details on how Aggregate Industries proposes to overcome that.

Monday, 3 December 2012

DCC publishes draft of its first Local Aggregate Assessment

DCC has today issued this comprehensive document to inform decisions on the level and location of future aggregate production. Secondary and recycled aggregates supply is discussed in some detail. DCC proposes to use a weighted 10-year rolling average in future, giving more emphasis to recent production figures, meaning the County "has a [sand and gravel] landbank of 15 years which indicates that DCC may have to make additional provision if a minimum landbank of seven years is to be maintained for its Plan period to 2031". DCC has invited a number of organisations to comment.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Did AI stick to its permitted exploration rights?

Aggregate Industries' personnel on site this week were friendly and professional, whilst being sensitive and accommodating to local peoples' concerns. Nevertheless, the simple task - relative to a full-scale quarry operation - of digging test pits still resulted in breaches, requiring intervention, of AI's permitted exploration rights - the same rights that AI reminded us of in its "To whom it may concern" letter.

There were three cases. Firstly, AI's operations were at times within the permitted limit of "50m of any part of an occupied residential building" which resulted in a heap of as-dug gravel having to be moved. AI may have had no other reasonable access to the site, but this was of no comfort to the those affected, especially when they had received no direct communication from the company before work started. Secondly, before a reminder of its permitted rights, AI planned to dig two 35 metre long trenches, substantially exceeding its allowed limit of "12 square metres in surface area" per pit. Finally, the pits "shall be filled with material from the site" but were actually refilled with as-dug sand and gravel from Venn Ottery quarry, which was a different colour and contained a high clay fraction. AI did not have the required written permission from DCC for this at the time it hauled the Venn Ottery material to Straitgate. Such permission was only received after pit-refilling had already started.

Minor transgressions, perhaps, but embarrassing for AI all the same. Based on what's been seen so far, would local people trust AI not to breach one or more of the multiple operating regulations of a full-scale quarry operation?

A few facts learnt from AI's week at Straitgate Farm

Digging test pits to assess the suitability of the gravel, and drilling boreholes to monitor groundwater levels, marks the start of a 12-18 month period of data-gathering by AI about the Straitgate Farm site. Consultants will be instructed to investigate biodiversity, highways, and hydrogeology. In 2014, AI hopes to be in a position to apply for planning permission, subject to the information collected showing no 'showstoppers'. AI is currently not interested in the Penslade site at Uffculme for sand and gravel.

Eight test pits were dug, providing almost 400 tonnes of sand and gravel to be processed in AI's plant at Blackhill. The Environment Agency visited the site to check on proceedings. No archaeology of note was found. The excavator made light work of the 6-7m deep pits, but the 6-wheel-drive haul truck frequently needed its help after becoming embedded in the wet muddy ground. The geology showed smaller pebbles than at Venn Ottery, but size distribution and the quality of the material will be assessed in due course in AI laboratories. A proportion of the sand and gravel from the test pits will be made into concrete blocks for strength analysis, and to determine the most efficient blends of gravel/sand/cement. Results are due around February 2013. There was more overburden than expected in a number of pits, up to 4 metres, or even more in places. Boreholes for six groundwater monitoring stations will have been drilled by next week, 3 more than originally planned. Data on groundwater levels will be collected over an 18 month period.

AI admits it must do better

To invade someone's neighbourhood with excavators, dumper trucks, low-loaders, HGVs, and borehole drilling rigs requires care and attention. It also needs communication, not only directly with local residents, but also with its men on the ground.

AI has agreed this week that it fell down on a number of issues, and recognises that it must do considerably better in future if it is to ever forge any sort of working relationship with local people. From this point onwards AI intends to be more open with the community. It intends to share data on, for example, groundwater levels and grading analysis results. It also intends to communicate its future plans in a more timely manner. AI recognises it has much ground to make up to repair its local image.

Cynics might think AI would say all that, now that it has embarked on its journey to win planning permission. Only time will tell exactly how open AI will be, and how much respect it will show to local people and their surroundings.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

AI's third day at Straitgate - repairing the damage

(iv) the surface of the land on which any operations have been carried out shall be levelled and any topsoil replaced as the uppermost layer, and
(v) the land shall, so far as is practicable, be restored to its condition before the development took place, including the carrying out of any necessary seeding and replanting.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

AI's second day at Straitgate Farm

There has been disturbance and disruption to local people and destruction of farmland, but Aggregate Industries has succeeded in extracting the sand and gravel it needs for grading analysis. Boreholes are being drilled and groundwater monitoring stations are being set up around the site. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

AI dig test pits at Straitgate

Today Aggregate Industries' excavators moved upon Straitgate Farm for the first time.

No introductions in AI's first formal communication with Straitgate locals

AI's "To whom it may concern" one-working-day-warning letter was sent to us and local councillors, but surprisingly not to those residents most affected. We forwarded the letter, but, as the company's first formal communication to residents around Straitgate, it lacked any message of introduction.

No "Let us introduce ourselves. We are a big friendly Swiss-based multinational building materials giant who has owned Straitgate Farm for some time. We are sorry to inform you that we now want to dig up your neighbourhood."

No "We understand this will cause inconvenience and aggravation, but the hunt for minerals is of national importance and must go on."

No "We know that DCC hasn't finished deciding where its Preferred Sites for sand and gravel quarrying should be, but as an important company we expect planning permission to be a formality."

No "We know the county has enough sand and gravel for many years, but we unfortunately built an expensive processing plant in an area of European importance for wildlife conservation, and we want to keep it running with local material. What we don't want to do is spend millions of pounds building another one in a more appropriate location."

No "We are sorry that you have been suffering from the rain and flooding. We do, nevertheless, propose to take away millions of tonnes of groundwater storage in your area that has the potential to make your situation a whole lot worse. We are sorry for any inconvenience that will be caused."

No "For those with private water supplies, we are sorry about that too, but that's not our problem."

No "You are cordially invited to a drinks evening, where we can get to know each other and you can learn what plans we have for your neighbourhood, details of the the hole that we will create and the developments that will inevitably follow. You will be able to correct things that our consultants have got wrong - we value the input of local people. We find that engaging with locals at an early stage can sometimes help people to accept the damage we cause."

No "We hope we can learn to live together in harmony. Not peace because as you know our operations are noisy, oh, and dusty too. Actually, harmony may be difficult too, with the impact we will have on your views, local roads and tourism, but we do appreciate your cooperation in these matters."

No, there was none of that. Just "Please be advised that we have liaised with Devon County Council's Development Control Department with regard to these proposals which are permitted activities under Part 22, Class A of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 - Mineral Exploration."

Is this the way to endear yourself to a blighted community, when you are the cause of that blight?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Is AI ready to start groundwater monitoring yet?

Perhaps not.

As it is, the aquifers are full and there's nowhere else for the water from Straitgate to go but down the lanes and through Cadhay Bog, as these photographs this morning show.  

English China Clays considered in 1968 that after quarrying Straitgate "There would be a loss of about 90 million gallons of water storage capacity within the aquifer. However the 131 million gallons storage capacity of the lake would more than compensate that loss."

Well, any proposal now from Aggregate Industries would not include a lake, but would still include the removal of tens of millions of gallons of groundwater storage capacity.

Surely no one could be that short-sighted?

Birdcage Lane adjacent to Straitgate Farm

Birdcage Lane adjacent to Cadhay Bog

Cadhay Bog

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Having lost once, what is AI's chance of winning next time?

click to enlarge
In 1968, the planning application to quarry Straitgate Farm by Aggregate Industries (or in those days English China Clays) was turned down. What chance will AI have if, as it says, it submits another application in early 2014?

Nationally, due to reduced demand, councils have received fewer applications for new sand and gravel quarries in recent years, but, based on data from the MPA, the chance of an application being refused is low. In 2010, 8 applications were submitted, 11 were approved (some from earlier years) and 2 appeals were allowed. No applications were refused. In 2009, 21 applications were approved, 4 were refused. In 2008, 26 were approved, 0 refused. In 2007, 28 were approved, 1 refused. Even if an application was refused, "the success rate of sand and gravel appeals is 80%" - multinationals can afford to instruct the best planning barristers and consultants. Is this why AI has the confidence to plough on regardless of all the objections, challenges and issues raised?

But AI and its consultants should pause for a moment. Most other sites are not as constrained as this one. They are often extensions to existing quarries, not isolated greenfield sites with no previous history of mineral extraction. They don't have passenger planes flying 200 metres overhead. They don't supply water to 100 people, 3 farms, wetland habitats in Ancient Woodlands, and listed mediaeval fishponds. They would not have their spoils transported 7 miles to be processed in a European designated area for wildlife conservation. They don't propose, in a period of climate change, to remove millions of tonnes of groundwater storage 100 metres in height above a town world famous for flaming tar barrels, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and flooding.

Maybe AI and its consultants think they can overcome all that. Anyway, what do local people know that a global building materials giant doesn't? Well, take water for a start. AI may get a surprise when it starts measuring groundwater levels later this month. This year's rainfall has left a water table higher than locals can remember, limiting the recoverable resource above the water table. What's more, in a field that AI has earmarked for quarrying, groundwater has actually permeated to the surface. What sort of body of water would have formed if AI had already removed the 2 metres of soils and 10 metres of pebble beds in that area? Not one that AI have planned for. Not one that would be acceptable to Exeter Airport.

Any application would be judged against the NPPF which, whilst less specific than previous guidance, remains clear on protecting listed buildings, "irreplaceable habitats" and areas at risk of flooding. New development should be "in locations and ways which reduce greenhouse gas emissions" - which should make AI stop and rethink its idea of processing any Straitgate material on Woodbury Common, if its pledges to "lead in environmental best practice" and "reducing our carbon footprint is an important part of our commitment towards sustainable construction" are to mean anything at all.

But putting all that to one side, how does AI expect to get planning permission for a brand new quarry when DCC states "5.1.4 For as long as adequate sand and gravel reserves (i.e. a minimum of seven years’ supply) continue to be present at the existing quarries, there are no grounds to allow their further extension or new quarries"? (Devon has over 16 years' supply.) Or before DCC has even had its new Minerals Plan, with its Preferred Site designations, examined by public inquiry or formally adopted - the latter due September 2014?

AI bought Straitgate Farm in 1965 from Escot, who at the time was in financial difficulty, on an understanding from a planning officer that permission would be "likely" (likely, not "certain"), not knowing the minerals' quality or quantity, or if extraction would be feasible or permissible. AI is not in any way 'owed' permission because of the length of time it has held the land. It was a speculative purchase.

Forty-six years after losing its first application, AI will be trying its luck again. However, as well as falling demand and increasing environ-mental concerns, there have been other changes since 1968. Not only does the new A30, and all its holiday traffic, now run through the site, but the population that would be impacted in Ottery St Mary and West Hill has grown substantially. The Environment Agency, Natural England, Exeter Airport, Councillors and local people are all acutely aware of the environmental impact a quarry at Straitgate Farm would have. There are robust planning arguments on which to defend a refusal to quarry Straitgate. But will 'the powers that be' agree?

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Hanson on the other hand is mothballing quarries

Whilst AI is busily planning to dig up East Devon farmland and open a new quarry at Straitgate, Hanson is taking a different line - mothballing quarries, closing plants and laying off workers, expecting business in 2013 to be even worse.

With construction and aggregate demand still contracting, and no sign of recovery on the horizon, DCC can robustly make the case - having 9 million tonnes of sand and gravel already with planning permission, enough for 20 years at current rates - that no further provision is needed for its new Minerals Plan. In any case, for a Plan that runs as far into the future as 2031, and in order to appease mineral operators, provision can always be made for the Council to monitor production and reserves, and make site allocations when shortfalls actually become apparent, not according to a fallible long-range forecast.

After all, how many millions of tonnes would DCC have allocated needlessly if it had made the Plan in 1990, for example, when production was almost four times higher than it is today, or in 1968 at the time Straitgate was the subject of a Public Inquiry? Building techniques, materials and demands have changed, and therefore the Council needs to remain flexible, and encourage movement away from the unsustainability of primary aggregates.

'Mountains' of sand stockpiled at Blackhill Quarry, Woodbury Common SAC, SPA, SSSI, AONB

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Where do we stand 6 months on from starting this blog?

For those who have recently found this site, as well as regular readers, here's an update of where things currently stand, a recap of what's happened over the last 6 months, and a summary of some of the main issues that have been covered in the blog so far.

View looking over Straitgate Farm towards Sidmouth Gap and AONB
- An update:

Six months on, Aggregate Industries (AI) has still not told Devon County Council (DCC) how it proposes to overcome the significant challenges raised during the consultation that ended in May. AI does still intend, however, to apply for planning permission to quarry Straitgate Farm, but not now before early 2014, due to the environmental reports and surveys that must be completed beforehand. This month AI expects to drill boreholes on the site and to start monitoring groundwater levels; at least 12 months of data is required. At the same time, AI plans to dig out a number of test pits, and deliver several hundred tonnes of sand and gravel to Blackhill Quarry for grading analysis. At the end of testing, the pits are to be refilled with material from the site and returned to their original state. An archaeologist will be on site when the pits are dug. AI plans to advise local residents of this activity next week. Elsewhere, AI did not finish extraction at Marshbroadmoor in August as planned, finding more material than anticipated. Local residents can therefore look forward to another 'campaign' next summer. For the record, AI is aware of the housing proposals to the west of Ottery St Mary towards Straitgate.

A team from the Environment Agency (EA) have in the meantime been assessing groundwater supplies and biodiversity in the area. They have visited a number of properties, including Cadhay, and also the County Wildlife Sites of Cadhay Bog and Cadhay Wood.

DCC will shortly be publishing a draft local aggregate assessment for comment, which will propose a different method of calculating the 10 year production average and consequently the size of the County's landbank in years, giving more weighting to the recent low figures. No decision is expected from DCC on Straitgate until next year.

- A brief recap of what's happened over the last 6 months:

The EA and Natural England (NE) warn of significant harm (11/5,21/5), 384 objections to Straitgate (14/5), DCC delays decision on Straitgate to 2013 and considers whether there may be 'showstoppers' (6/6), Consultation report (13/6), DCC's Sustainability Appraisal (SA) - negative impact on flight safety considered only "minor" (26/6), DCC's newsletter (4/7), Ottery floods again (11/7), Dave Black - conflict of interest? (18/7) and his reply (15/8), 2011 production and reserve figures (21/7), EA and NE respond to the SA report (26/7), and SA audit inconsistencies (6/9).

- A quarry at Straitgate Farm would cause significant impacts on the local area, and a number of these have been discussed since the blog's beginning:

The threat of birdstrikes on Exeter Airport (27/5,2/6,26/6,15/8,28/8,20/10), the impact on flooding (4/7,11/7), on ancient woodland (24/6), on farmland (14/7), on local roads (15/6,5/7), on Woodbury Common (12/9), on private water supplies (6/9), on health (9/8,18/10), on jobs (29/10), on the landscape (29/5,24/9), on sustainability (21/7), on history (1/8), the question of viability (31/8), of restoration (2/7,24/9,30/9,11/10,29/10), of forecasts and demand (7/7,21/7, 29/10), of climate change (24/6), of competition (18/7), of political donations (25/7), and that the people of Ottery St Mary and West Hill have been through all this before (27/6,4/7,7/7,14/7).

Further matters will be covered in due course.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Sand and gravel sales still falling

Sand and gravel production in Devon is likely to be down again this year, if national trends are followed. In 2011 production in Devon was just 0.44 million tonnes; ten years before that it was 1.15.

The Mineral Products Association's recent release Further decline in third quarter mineral product sales confirms steep decline in construction activity in 2012 claims "demand this year will be lower than the previous depths of the recession in 2009", with sand and gravel sales down 11% on the same quarter last year.

If DCC continues to call for additional sand and gravel provision in the face of continually falling demand, it will need to explain to the people of Ottery St Mary and Devon why a 20 year long downwards trend is likely to reverse, and why a perfectly good dairy farm should be sacrificed when the County still has reserves of over 9 million tonnes.

DCC refuses permission for incinerator at New England Quarry - Lee Mill, Devon

The risk to a site and its locality does not end when the minerals have been extracted - as the planning application from Viridor highlights. This was not a proposal for a boating lake or a woodland clearing with picnic area, but a £200 million energy-from-waste plant, with twin 90 metre chimneys, an Incinerator Bottom Ash plant, and landfill anticipated to run until 2043.

Fortunately, this time, the application was refused for its visual impact, the risk to Ancient Woodland in a County Wildlife Site, and access road considerations. Reasons that could equally apply to a quarry at Straitgate Farm.

Jobs - after years of decline that argument no longer has merit

Any application to quarry Straitgate would, no doubt, use the argument of "jobs for local people" - not new jobs, as Aggregate Industries have stated there would not be any, but the safeguarding of jobs.

However, the number of jobs safeguarded would in fact be small - earlier in the year there were just nine employees at Blackhill Quarry, and at-risk Straitgate Farm itself employs four. A modern sand and gravel quarry does not support anywhere near, say, the 230 jobs offered by a tungsten mine.

The jobs argument may have had merit at the Public Inquiry in 1968 to support English China Clay's application to quarry Straitgate, Blackhill, and Colaton Raleigh, but, in those days 41 people worked at Blackhill, and a further 148 at Rockbeare.

Nationally the sand and gravel business has been in decline ever since, and "consolidation through mergers and acquisitions has seen in excess of 5,000 quarrying companies in 1960 reduced to some 200 currently" of which Tarmac, Lafarge, Aggregate Industries, RMC and Hanson now account for over 80% of output. Even over the last 10 years there has been a dramatic fall in employee numbers in sand and gravel, with the UK Minerals Yearbook reporting over 8000 employees in 2001, but under 3000 in 2010. The HSE says the "industry has difficulty attracting and recruiting staff" and "anecdotal evidence suggests an ageing workforce".

The economic ramifications of a Straitgate Quarry on the wider area would be far greater than the immediate loss of the four farm jobs, and the extract from a DCC document below highlights the "Impacts of Mineral Development on the Economy". For Ottery St Mary and surrounding communities it is clear that the "Adverse Impacts" would far outweigh any of the "Opportunities". 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

AI selling the 'family silver'

You have to feel some sympathy for Aggregate Industries' staff at the moment. Not only is their pay being delayed, but now Marston House, the company's 17th century Grade II* listed regional HQ near Frome, is being sold off - for £6mStaff will be relocated to a rather subdued leasehold property nearby.

pic name

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Is this another sign that AI is experiencing difficult times, or is Holcim, its Swiss parent, simply asset stripping? Or could it be to finance the fighting fund that AI now realises it will need to secure planning permission for Straitgate, and the cost of building itself a new processing plant away from the European nature conservation designations of Woodbury Common?

AI's trade body bemoans the planning system

Whilst to local people the odds seem heavily skewed in favour of the developer, the Mineral Products Association (MPA), on the other hand, laments the lack of progress in the planning system and the effort it takes to secure permission for sand and gravel quarries.

In its new Annual Mineral Planning Survey for 2010 the MPA, the trade association for aggregate companies, "is calling on the Government to overcome the inertia in the planning system". It claims:
Less than 50% of sand and gravel reserves have been replenished in the last 10 years [Maybe because the demand is only half what it was 10 years ago?]
Sand and gravel approvals took an average of 28 months in 2010 [Maybe because the environmental impact needs to be carefully assessed, before an operator tears into the countryside?] 
There has been no appreciable improvement in the time it takes to obtain planning permission since 1996 [Maybe because quarries are as damaging now as they were in 1996?] 
In 2010, only 9 planning applications for new extraction were submitted by members, compared with 40 in 1996 [Maybe something to do with demand again, as well as profit margins, and secondary and recycled aggregates?]
The MPA complains “It’s not surprising that the planning applications aren’t coming forward. Whilst the overall approval rate of applications is adequate, they take too long, they cost too much – between £100k and £800k - and lengthy pre-application discussions don’t help.” “With too few plans, low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates, increasing costs, and planning inertia fuelling uncertainty we are storing up supply problems for the recovery. Lack of demand is masking underlying supply problems for the future”.

Representing its minerally-minded members, the MPA would be inclined to say all that, but, it is assuming that demand for sand and gravel will recover, and for the last 20 years there has been no such indication.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Birdstrikes - the threat is real

If DCC thinks birdstrikes are just a theoretical possibility, and that Exeter Airport is being overly protective of its flightpath and the surrounding airspace, it should think again.

The dangers of birdstrike are all too apparent from the video produced by Grass Engineering, a company in the business of making grassland around airports less attractive to birds.

But birdstrikes have an economic impact too. Even though 65% of birdstrikes cause little damage to the aircraft, "the cost of bird strikes to commercial aircraft worldwide has been estimated to be in excess of $1bn annually" - 12% for direct damage and the rest for delays and cancellations. For example, Easyjet: "The aircraft operating the inbound flight experienced a birdstrike during landing and needed to undergo a mandatory safety inspection by our engineers"; Flybe: "The Embraer 195 aircraft is now being inspected by engineers and the passengers were re-accommodated on a replacement aircraft"; Ryanair: "The majority of birdstrikes Ryanair encounter do not cause damage to their aircraft, however the commercial cost from delays is significant."

Airport "operators are required to take the necessary steps to ensure that the birdstrike risk is reduced to the lowest practicable level". If Aggregate Industries was to quarry Straitgate, it would have to do so without creating any bodies of water. 

Could AI dig a deep hole at Straitgate Farm and not expect it to fill up with water? As young children learn in the sand on the beach, it's not easy. Maybe if the hole was just restricted to the limited resource above the water table. Maybe if the hole was pumped out in perpetuity. Maybe if it was infilled with inert waste. Maybe if it stopped raining.

In 1967, when the Devon River Authority considered English China Clay's application to quarry Straitgate, it was agreed that the lake created from extraction needed to cover an area of 49 acres in order to mitigate any flooding effects on nearby communities. Local residents, farmers and no doubt the Environment Agency will question any claim by AI that it is now able to quarry Straitgate creating only an ephemeral body of water, particularly as, according to some locals, the water table is now at its highest in living memory.

ephemeral: transitory, short-lived, temporary, fleeting. Unlike a quarry, or the threat of one.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

What they teach our children in schools today… and what they don't

The facts of life? Certainly. The facts of quarrying? Apparently, yes.

Using funding that was meant to tackle the problems created by quarrying and benefit communities affected by it, the Mineral Products Association (MPA), the trade body that "represents the whole of the British cement sector, 90 per cent of aggregates production and 95 per cent of both asphalt and ready-mixed concrete", has developed an interactive Virtual Quarry for use in schools, and teaching material for key stages 1-4 of the national curriculum for science, geography and citizenship. Understandably the material does not dwell on the disadvantages of quarrying:
You're in charge of restoring this quarry to a place for people and wildlife to enjoy. You can create a lake for people to sail on, plant some trees and reeds that will attract birds and build some hides to watch them from. Just click on the item you'd like and then on the place you want it to go. Water will only go into the bottom of the quarry and you can't grow trees in water! Keep an eye on the budget at the bottom of the screen as everything you choose costs money!
Not "Choose from landfill, industrial, or incinerator bottom ash reprocessing plant."

Who would have thought that a trade body, that counts amongst its successes:

MPA successfully lobbied the Government to freeze the rate of the aggregates levy for two years, saving the industry some £7 million in 2010/11,
MPA protected tens of millions of tonnes of potential site allocations in local development frameworks as a result of revised national guidelines for regional apportionment potentially worth hundreds of £ millions,
is influencing young minds in our schools, as well as the older ones in government?

Meanwhile, BBC Bitesize for GCSE geography takes a more balanced view, listing the pros:
Quarrying creates jobs in areas where there are limited opportunities.
There is a huge demand for the products of quarrying, such as building stone and cement. This is linked to the demand for new homes in the UK.
Quarrying provides income to local councils through taxation.
Good communications are needed for transporting the products of quarrying. As a result many remote rural areas benefit from improved access.
It is an important part of the UK economy. Over 30,000 people are employed in quarrying itself and related industries.
and the cons:
Wildlife habitats are destroyed.
Valuable agricultural land is taken away.
Quarrying creates pollution from noise and dust.
Heavy traffic causes pollution and congestion on narrow country roads. The vibrations from heavy traffic can cause damage to buildings.
Quarries create visual pollution and tourists may be deterred by the scars on the landscape.
Landfill sites and waste tips need to be monitored to check for a build up of gases, such as methane.
Limestone is a non-renewable resource -
 so it can be argued that quarrying is unsustainable.
If Straitgate was quarried, no new jobs would be created and the children of Ottery St Mary and West Hill would not enjoy any advantages. They would be the ones to suffer the disadvantages, and potentially the dangers too. Quarries are not only dangerous places for workers, the HSE identifying a "fatality rate over 20 times the all-industry average" and "potential for long-latency disease from exposure to respirable crystalline silica", but also for local youngsters, for whom a quarry presents a different set of dangers. The MPA has a "Stay Safe...Stay Out" campaign, and on Facebook it hopes that "by illustrating the tragic consequences of young people entering a quarry uninvited, this page hopes to raise public awareness of the potential hazards they expose themselves to. Every year young people are killed or seriously injured in quarries". It warns of a "sharp escalation" of break-ins and metal thefts, and that "trespassers often leave broken fences – and an open invitation for children in search of adventure". Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service recently issued their own warning.

Quarrying - an important part of the UK economy maybe, but - at a price.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Is AI attempting to disguise itself as a wildlife business?

Is Aggregate Industries now more concerned with wildlife than it is with quarrying or the local people whose lives it disrupts?

Those not so cynically minded might, on reading the press release Aggregate Industries form powerful new partnership to protect London's wildlife, be inclined to think that its main line of business was actually in wildlife, with a bit of readymix on the side. 

Does AI hope that by showing people pictures of butterflies and damselflies they might overlook just how environmentally unsustainable and destructive to natural habitats quarrying is?

No damselfly survives the onslaught of AI's earth-movers, and it's disingenuous of an aggregates company to feign a love of nature. AI showed no such concern in 2002 when it protested that "the decision to protect the birds, as well as what English Nature called 'a rich assemblage of dragonfly and damselfly' restricted its use of [Bramshill]."

The recent corporate video - "Biodiversity - a priority at Aggregate Industries" (with some clips of Blackhill Quarry) - seeks to show how seriously AI now takes biodiversity. In which case we can be assured that it will not quarry Straitgate Farm and put the bio-diverse wetland habitats in the Ancient Woodlands of Cadhay Bog and Cadhay Wood at risk. Or are AI's proclamations empty words, and "biodiversity protection and enhancement" not quite the "priority" it claims?