Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Straitgate Farm, the subject of a 1968 Public Inquiry

Straitgate working scheme 1967
The people of Ottery St Mary and West Hill have been through all this before, in 1968.

It was the time of Harold Wilson and The Beatles, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam war. On 10 July five inches of rain fell and Ottery St Mary flooded, as did other parts of East Devon. Several people drowned. By coincidence a Public Inquiry was sitting on the same day at County Hall deciding the fate of Straitgate Farm.

We were interested to see if there was any more behind the refusal of the planning application of 1967, and it transpires that the Planning Authority was in fact in favour of the proposal to quarry Straitgate Farm. However the application was called in to be decided by the Minister, together with extensions to Blackhill and a new quarry on Colaton Raleigh Common, and a Public Inquiry was held in view of representations made by the East Devon Water Board and Devon River Authority on the adverse effects of the proposals on water supplies in the area. From the Express & Echo of 9 July 1968: "The inquiry which is being held at County Hall is expected to last a fortnight. Its outcome may decide the future of quarrying for sand and gravel in the area for many years. It concerns proposals by E.C.C. Quarries Ltd., who have existing workings at Rockbeare Quarry near Ottery St Mary, and Blackhill Quarry near Woodbury. They are seeking permission to work 134 acres at Straitgate Farm, a 325 acre extension at Blackhill and a new 385 acre quarry on Colaton Raleigh Common. Bodies represented at the inquiry include the National Parks Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Nature Conservancy, Devon County Council, Devon River Authority, the East Devon Water Board, the urban councils of Ottery St. Mary, Budleigh Salterton, and Exmouth and St. Thomas Rural Council". West Hill Ratepayers Association raised funds for a barrister to represent them at the Inquiry. Long petitions from local residents were sent to the Council opposing the application.

The story was followed virtually every day in the Express & Echo and some of the articles are below. The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food strongly objected to the Straitgate proposal and said "The quality of land is such that in a rapidly expanding urban society its retention is more than ever necessary to maintain production from a fast contracting acreage." which seems as relevant today as it did 44 years ago. "Mr Douglas Franks Q.C. for the Devon River Authority, East Devon Water Board, and others, commented today that they could not get away from the basic fact this proposal was introducing an "obnoxious industry" into an area of magnificent countryside." In the 10 July article ECC claimed to have appreciated the increased risk of flooding quarrying might cause and had proposed flood prevention lakes with overflow weirs to meet the objection of the Devon Rivers Authority from the point of view of the increased danger of flooding.

Straitgate restoration scheme 1967
Aggregate Industries in 2012 have not yet released plans of how they intend to quarry the site and mitigate the flood risk, but in 1967 the plans show how ECC intended to do it. (We are grateful to the Minerals Officer for recovering these plans from the DCC archives.) The eastern side was to be worked first and the material processed at Rockbeare. Processing plant was then to be built at Straitgate in the resultant void, with accompanying silt ponds, and the rest of the site worked. Straitgate Farmhouse was to be demolished. The company estimated the resource to be 20 million tonnes with work expected to start in the mid 1980s. The imaginative, and if we are cynical, somewhat unlikely restoration scheme proposed a 32 acre lake (with beach, boathouse and landing stage!) for flood mitigation with an overflow weir sending water running down through Cadhay Wood. ECC were "agreeable to paying a capital sum now to the Devon Rivers Authority, discounted over 50 years, in order to set up a sinking fund to provide for the cost of maintenance of these works after the company had vacated the land". ECC added "Some domestic wells at some properties in the Straitgate area might suffer a lower yield or dry up altogether as a result of the quarry development. But it would not be expensive to make mains connections to affected properties."

After the Inquiry the Inspector said: "The company has tended to under-estimate the importance of the natural storage capacity of the aquifer.... the Straitgate loss would be likely to exceed the company's estimate." (Sounds familiar!) The Inspector concluded that regardless of the "water supply considerations" with reference to Straitgate "any approval would be premature". The Minister accepted the Inspector's conclusions.

Express & Echo 1968: 
June  "Ottery to fight plan for minerals excavations"
9 July "Quarry plan for Common is probed"
9 July "A nibble is no good Q.C. tells quarry inquiry"
10 July "Quarry site to be screened by 15ft. trees"
11 July "Quarries provide jobs and trade inquiry told"
12 July "Quarry site could become playground"
18 July "Farm should not be taken for gravel"