Tuesday, 20 November 2012

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

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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?