Sunday, 30 September 2012

Lose the battle against a sand and gravel quarry and our children could be fighting an "asbestos dump"

If there's anybody who thinks that a sand and gravel quarry at Straitgate Farm would be innocuous, consider the campaigners in the Chew Valley who have been fighting against the disposal of asbestos at nearby Stowey Quarry.

If Aggregate Industries was to quarry Straitgate it is all too likely that after extraction has finished a change in planning conditions would be granted, and the site sold to an inert waste contractor. With sand and gravel profit margins so low, selling the resultant void adds a significant amount to a quarry's overall profit, whilst restoration costs only reduce it.

Stowey Quarry is an example of how planning conditions change. The site was originally granted planning permission in 1954 for the extraction of limestone. In 1979 permission was granted for the tipping of demolition and construction waste and other inert materials. In 2011 permission was sought for the tipping of Stable Non-Reactive Hazardous Waste, including asbestos. 

An extensive local campaign was waged and the application was refused last week. The waste operator can appeal.

It's not just the sand and gravel, the noise and the dust, the disruption to watercourses and the drinking water supplies, the flood risk, the haulage past people's homes and across Woodbury Common. It's what could happen to that big hole in the ground that should also concern people.

Aside from polluting watercourses, the above photograph makes it clear why the site could not be used for household landfill, attracting gulls directly under the approach for aircraft landing at Exeter Airport

Monday, 24 September 2012

What 'Earth Scar' would be OSM's legacy?

After the ground has given up its mineral, the agriculture gone, Aggregate Industries' profit made, what then for Ottery St Mary and its surrounds?

Aggregate Industries is proud to supply Windsor Castle with 80-100 tonnes of crushed Blackhill gravel each year, but is it as proud of the 'Earth Scars' it leaves behind for local people?

If Aggregate Industries was ever allowed to quarry Straitgate Farm, the 'Earth Scar' would not be as deep as in the pictures above. If the company was restricted in the same way as at Thorn Tree Plantation at Blackhill, it would only be permitted to quarry down to one metre above the maximum water table.

But over time the 'Earth Scar' could grow to be almost as extensive, due to the extent of the deposit - with the sites S1-S10 at risk of befalling the same fate. Aggregate Industries already has most of the mineral rights, and could make OSM its home for generations.

And what imaginative ideas would Aggregate Industries or DCC have in mind for all those holes created so conveniently close to the Exeter populace? Housing, inert landfill, industrial units, composting? Any natural restoration scheme that increased the potential for bird habitats in Exeter Airport's flight path would of course not be permitted.

Monday, 17 September 2012


Councillors should take care before dismissing local consultation respondents as nothing more than NIMBYs. The BBC article "Would YOU live next to a NIMBY?" considers that:

"To be called a NIMBY can be a devastating insult, undermining one's well argued case and labelling it as simply a statement of self-interest (...) But environmental lawyer Professor Peter Kunzlik says the instinct to be a NIMBY can be valuable (...) "One of the slogans that came after the Rio Summit was Think Globally, Act Locally. Governments claim to want everybody to do that, and so far as the environment is concerned, where do you experience it? It's where you live. So if you're going to take issues seriously, you do so locally, otherwise it becomes a bit hypothetical.""

A survey by The Saint Consulting Group (SCG) found that "nearly nine out of 10 people in Britain are NIMBYs". In fact "almost a quarter of all UK households have objected to a planning application of one kind or another in their local area over the last 12 months". In other words, for the very people who elect councillors into office, the act of defending their home and neighbourhood against threats from local government or Swiss multinational giants is natural. It is certainly no more selfish than the profit motives of the world's largest cement producer

And it's hardly surprising when you hear of plans passed such as the one in Plymouth last year - it's obviously not just DCC that doesn't listen to local concerns. Would the councillors who voted for the waste incinerator and its 95m chimney stack, just 60m from the closest home in a socially deprived part of the City, have voted differently if they had lived in one of the 450 homes within 250m of the site?

Whether one agrees or not with its conclusions, the think-tank Policy Exchange recognised in a recent paper that "...local people see many costs and few benefits from new developments". "As 'neighbourhood' is people’s number one priority for homes, many NIMBYs are not selfish or unreasonable but defending their property rights" and "the legitimate fears of NIMBYs must be acknowledged, rather than NIMBYs being insulted".

According to SCG "quarries remain one of the most disliked forms of development behind casinos, power plants and landfill sites". When the BGS warn "Quarrying can significantly deflate the perceived and actual value of local property prices by reducing the desirability and demand for housing near the quarry as a result of noise, traffic, safety, dust, and visual intrusion concerns observed or envisaged by potential purchasers" are councillors surprised that not everybody might be in favour? Would they be happy living next to all that? Losing value on their home? And then losing their water supply too?

SCG advice to mineral operators is to "engage with the local community and educate members of the public (and likely opponents) about how important the aggregates sector is, and the positive impact that a quarry can have on the community." But if it won't bring any new jobs, the 384 consultation respondents would be interested to hear from Aggregate Industries what positive impacts a quarry at Straitgate Farm would have for the population of Ottery and West Hill. And they don't just want talk about restoration, because those plans have a habit of changing or simply not happening at all.

Signs produced by
Ottery Quarry
Action Group
SCG adds "Operators need to establish close ties with their local communities early on, as it is much easier to present the industry’s message to local residents whose position has not already been influenced, than it is to change their preformed opinions." Yet at the recent consultation Aggregate Industries was nowhere to be seen, and was not even prepared to share the working or restoration plans drawn up for the site. "Preformed opinions"? Sorry - too late.

As it was DCC pitching northern and southern sites against each other in the consultation, respondents did not deserve to be brushed aside with the misconceived accusation of NIMBYism. It's only too apparent from the documentation that locals know more about their locality than either Aggregate Industries or DCC. Councillors should appreciate people taking the time to furnish the facts, rather than criticise.

Local people are pragmatic enough to accept the need for sand and gravel, but Devon has over nine million tonnes already reserved and is using less than half a million tonnes each year. "But don't we need to build for economic recovery"? Like Spain, Ireland et al?

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Strike ballot at AI

If the company treats its workers like this, what hope would there be for our community?
GMB is in dispute with the Company following a history of total disregard of our members' right to be consulted about major changes. Aggregate Industries has a track record of imposing not consulting, telling not asking and, in general, treating its loyal and committed employees with no dignity or respect. 
Aggregate Industries, however, said the financial climate meant it had no choice but to alter the pay date...
One can understand GMB's position. Workers are being forced to subsidise AI and its £13.8bn parent, "by a few days each month", without the company first seeking agreement. The Employment Rights Act 1996 makes it "unlawful for an employer to make any deduction from the wages of a worker employed by him unless the worker has agreed in writing to the deduction being made or it is required by law". 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

SSSI - a denial of AI's Human Rights?

If Aggregate Industries was denied permission to continue operating on Woodbury Common due to SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and other designations, would it again complain, as it did at the High Court in 2002 - R (on the application of Aggregate Industries UK Ltd) v English Nature, that it was a "breach of section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act"? 

In February 2000, shortly after AI was notified that new European nature conservation designations would restrict quarrying at Blackhill on Woodbury Common, the company purchased almost 700 acres of land in Hampshire, only to see it then designated a SSSI by English Nature in July 2001, to safeguard the habitat of rare birds - the Nightjar, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler.

AI sought a Judicial Review of English Nature's decision, claiming the land had been deprived of its development potential, but this was rejected on the grounds that the site is "rightly regarded as an area of European importance".

Woodbury Common, the largest continuous expanse of heathland in England, is also recognised to be of European importance - Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area (SAC, SPA) - with populations of Nightjar, WoodlarkDartford Warbler, and other legally protected species.

Yet having first been served notice in 1999, AI is still there, now with permission to process sand and gravel until 2016. How did DCC let that happen? Firstly in 2002 AI persuaded DCC to allow it to quarry a site adjacent to the SAC/SPA at Thorn Tree Plantation. Then in 2008 AI persuaded DCC to allow it to process material at Blackhill from Marshbroadmoor, Rockbeare. Then in 2011 AI persuaded DCC to allow it to process material there from Venn Ottery.

And now AI wants to persuade DCC again, this time to allow it to continue beyond 2016 to process material there from Straitgate. Until when? 2026? Longer? Hauling millions of tonnes past peoples' homes and across the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths - SAC, SPA, SSSI, AONB?

Is Woodbury Common the right place for a sand and gravel "factory" processing material from further afield? Blackhill's processing plant was only ever intended to process material extracted from the site, and that finished in 2009. At some point AI will have to expense a move. In 2003 it was intending to move to Rockbeare. By 2008 plans had changed and the intention was to move to Houndaller at Uffculme. Those plans were then put on hold. Desperate times may call for desperate measures - but a round trip of 15 miles, transporting each load of as-dug sand and gravel from Straitgate for 10 years or more? 100 movements or more a day? The profitable supply radius reduced by half. What can AI be thinking?

So never mind AI's "Human Rights". What about the rights of those - be they birds or people - who make this area their home, not just a profit centre?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

SA "audit" raises inconsistencies

Now that it is clear that the Sustainability Appraisal (SA) was performed as an "audit" of the site appraisals rather than to inform them, as Dave Black explains in his letter of 10 August, an inconsistency arises that DCC will need to explain. Specifically, how did the Aggregate Industries owned Straitgate Farm (S7), with the joint second most references to "significant negative impacts" (where there is no likely mitigation) in the SA summary for the southern sites, manage to conveniently avoid any "showstoppers" in DCC's earlier site appraisal?

The Environment Agency (EA) also recognised the inconsistency, and wrote "It is apparent from the SA that some of the excluded sites may [be] preferable in environmental terms". DCC would argue that the site appraisal assessed a smaller area for S7 than the SA, but as the EA pointed out for one of the impacts "distance is irrelevant, as the wetland functioning of the [County Wildlife Site] is reliant on the watercourse supply". The SA considered S9 "too small to be viable" and did not assess it.

To many it will look like site ownership influenced DCC's judgement; the site appraisals would hardly have been different if Aggregate Industries had performed the exercise themselves.

If you have a private water supply the Environment Agency needs your help

The Environment Agency has recently sent a letter to households who are potentially reliant on water from the Straitgate area. In the first instance they wish to put together a list of all the wells, boreholes and springs in the area "...with the aim of being better able to protect the source of that water, now and in the future." For those who have received a letter it is important to reply, not only to confirm and enhance the information they already hold, but also so that the Environment Agency can gauge the importance of the Straitgate aquifer and make an informed response to any future quarrying proposal. If anybody has not received a letter but lives near Straitgate Farm and has a private water supply, please contact the Environment Agency on 01392 354057.