Saturday, 14 July 2012

Why is DCC not allocating Straitgate Farm as a "Preferred Site" for food production?

With food production needing to increase by 70% over the next forty years to feed the world's growing population, but demand for sand and gravel in Devon falling for the last 20 years, why is DCC proposing to sacrifice for quarrying a perfectly good dairy farm currently producing about 1 million litres of milk each year? The loss of Straitgate as a working farm would almost certainly be permanent if quarrying took place. Restoration does not work, on the basis of other sites and according to local farmers, with soils not easily consolidating and becoming productive again. Does DCC not value farmland? Some might argue that rather than helping Aggregate Industries find their next site, the County's Planners should be safeguarding and allocating more agricultural land for the security of our food supply. Otherwise, future generations may regard any decisions by DCC to remove good agricultural land from the food chain as misguided and irresponsible. 

They had their priorities right in 1968, and the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was one of the more vociferous objectors to the Straitgate development, saying "The Minister is anxious to safeguard such valuable agricultural land so far as possible and I am directed to advise that in his opinion there is the strongest possible objection to the proposed development on agricultural grounds." Then, little more than 20 years on from a World War, people were perhaps more conscious that security of food supply was of national importance, but with some now predicting a global food supply crisis the issue is receiving renewed attention, and a report by the Henry Jackson Society, a leading independent think-tank, entitled ’Shocks and Disruptions: the relationship between food security and national security’ tackles the issues. 

In 1968, Straitgate Farm was regarded, as it is today, as highly productive, and in the Inspector's report from the Public Inquiry, "363) ...well-situated and climatically favoured" with land that "362) In the recent survey of agricultural land 48% of the site is categorised as Class II and the balance as Class III." What concerned MAFF was that "365) The application also gives every indication of being "the thin end of the wedge", and if approval were to be granted others adjoining or nearby would almost certainly be precipitated, with the greatly increased loss of further good agricultural land." With Aggregate Industries owning the surrounding mineral rights for thousands of acres this continues to worry local people today.

It is telling that many developers and trade bodies, such as the Mineral Products Association, have welcomed the NPPF, but on the subject of agriculture: "28. Planning policies should support economic growth in rural areas in order to create jobs and prosperity by taking a positive approach to sustainable new development. To promote a strong rural economy, local and neighbourhood plans should...promote the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses;" and "112. Local planning authorities should take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of a higher quality."

In East Devon, high quality farmland seems to be disappearing to development at an alarming rate, and the warning from MAFF at the Public Inquiry in 1968 "363) ...that its retention is more than ever necessary to maintain production in a rapidly expanding urban society from a fast contracting acreage" will still resonate with many today. CPRE for example have recently warned: "We think that strong protection for best quality agricultural land should be an absolutely critical part of sustainable development, given that such land is a finite resource and the pressure on food and farming from wider global pressures of climate change and population growth."