Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Why was DCC in such a hurry?

© Crown Copyright/MOD 2007
DCC recognised some time ago that airport safeguarding issues could restrict quarrying at Straitgate, and when the CAA has said that "It must be recognized that it is not possible for an aerodrome or aircraft operator to mitigate the hazard caused by water bodies and watercourses, or to prevent birds using areas of open water in the vicinity of the aerodrome" why was DCC so determined and in such a rush to select a site directly under Exeter Airport's flight path?

It's unclear who in DCC wrote Safeguarding Mineral Resources and Infrastructure in February 2011, but here it recognised that "To the north of the AONB, parts of the [Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds] have been sterilised by existing development at West Hill and Uffculme. However, the remainder of the resource is relatively unconstrained, although local designations, groundwater considerations and airport safeguarding arrangements may provide localised constraints."

These "localised constraints" plainly didn't concern DCC when it selected Straitgate as a Preferred Site. DCC had made its mind up some time before its Development Management Control (DMC) meeting of 7 March 2012, saying "All but one of the sites in the southern area were found to have at least one ‘showstopper’ impact in the site appraisals". In all likelihood DCC had decided much earlier, since Aggregate Industries had been assured enough to expense consultants' reports and plans, made available to the Council on 27 February. But how could DCC be so sure that Straitgate was the right site when the Site Appraisal was incomplete - "Conflict with Aerodrome Safeguarding Areas" being left with "In process of checking implication with airport"?

After all this was not an insignificant detail when Straitgate and other southern sites are directly under the flight path. The CAA has made clear that "almost without exception, water developments increase the bird hazard in ways that cannot be adequately controlled. Often, they are a consequence of minerals extraction, in which case there will probably be more similar proposals that will progressively surround the aerodrome with water. Even where this is not the case, there are nearly always pre-existing water bodies with populations of waterfowl nearby. In practice, isolated ponds that will not generate waterfowl movements do not exist. Any additional water will inevitably increase a pre-existing hazard from waterfowl."

DCC sent a copy of Aggregate Industries' plans to Exeter Airport shortly after 27 February, but didn't wait for their response before voting at the DMC meeting to consult on Straitgate and rejecting the alternatives. The Airport's reply arrived 2 days later, and said that "To ensure aviation safety it is suggested that no ponds or body of water be allowed as part of this development." At this point DCC could have still postponed its consultation, considered the advice, and had a re-think. But then DCC hadn't waited for the conclusions of the Sustainability Appraisal either, which reported on the "sustainability issues relevant to each of the 21 potential quarry sites". This report was redundant in this respect by the time it was published in June, since 18 of the potential sites had already been rejected by DCC, landowners having been informed on 12 March with a very final "the appraisal work has concluded that the site within your ownership is unsuitable at the present time for mineral working due to one or more environmental constraints, and the County Council will not be considering it for inclusion in the Devon Minerals Plan."

How was DCC so certain that Straitgate, with all its water issues, could be worked dry or restored without water features? Continual pumping into watercourses would be required for the former. Importation of millions of tonnes of inert waste for the latter. DCC convinced attendees at its West Hill exhibition that landfill at Straitgate was not an option. In any case, there may not be the availability of sufficient inert waste with much now recycled, or it may not be economic with recent landfill tax changes, or even environmentally acceptable.

No - it seemed that only one thing mattered - Straitgate was owned by Aggregate Industries, and DCC assumed it was deliverable. People might have hoped that when it came to aircraft safety, the Council would have considered matters more carefully and with less haste.