Monday, 30 December 2013

Bird culls - the bloody price paid across the world in the fight against birdstrikes

Stories abound of birds threatening the safety of aircraft. Stories also abound of birds being routinely culled because of this - 25,000 geese culled annually in the US, 10,000 geese gassed in Holland this year, 2000 gulls in Lancashire, endangered birds shot in France, a couple of thousand starlings each year in Seattle, black swans in New Zealand, even snowy owls, the list goes on. However, beyond the politics and conservation concerns, some argue that culls are ineffective:
There is growing agreement among aviation experts & biologists that killing geese & other birds has no long-term impact in reducing the risk of bird strikes and may exacerbate existing threats by creating vacant desirable habitat thereby inviting other birds.
In any case, culling does not address the underlying issue - features close to airports that attract birds.

Aggregate Industries, in its plans for Straitgate Farm, doesn’t see that "wetland and open water habitats” immediately under an international flightpath are an issue - or rather, doesn't want to see. AI doesn’t want to see that creating "a priority wetland habitat and therefore [enhancing] the ecology of the area” would lead to an increased population of birds, and therefore an increased risk of birdstrike to planes using Exeter Airport. Any more birds near planes descending towards the Airport would undeniably add to the risk of birdstrike, however small. If an accident were to happen as a result, whose conscience would it be on? The council? The aggregates company? The airport? “Birdstrikes are one of the major controllable hazards to aviation”.

Holidaymakers returning to Exeter Airport, flying low over Straitgate Farm

...if a bird strike were to lead to an accident, it is likely that there would be demands to know why the aircraft could not have been better protected against such an apparently simple, foreseeable event – bird strike is one of the few ‘single-point failures’ with the potential to cause a catastrophic accident.
One well known birdstrike incident in recent years happened in 2009. Three minutes after US Airways Flight 1549 hit birds and lost power it was in the Hudson River. Its pilot, Captain Sullenberger, was hailed a hero for saving all 155 on board. He is now an international spokesman on airline safety, but even he admits that culling birds does not address the underlying flight-risk problem.
The most effective thing to prevent these collisions is not to allow anything anywhere near an airport that's likely to be a bird attractant.
Which is why in Britain we have a 13 km safeguarding area around each airport, to "address potential bird attractant developments”:
The 13 km circle is based on a statistic that 99% of birdstrikes occur below a height 2000 ft, and that an aircraft on a normal approach would descend into this circle at approximately this distance from the runway.
Some even regard 13 km as insufficient. Straitgate Farm is 6 km from Exeter Airport. Planes landing at the airport fly directly over the farm, no more than a couple of hundred metres above. Exeter Airport is required, by law, to "take necessary steps to ensure that the birdstrike risk is reduced to the lowest practicable level”. If anybody's unsure of the extra birds a quarry might bring, take a look at the pictures of gulls at Aggregate Industries’ nearby quarries at Blackhill and Hillhead, or click on the birstrike label at the side of the page.

Town & Country Planning (Safeguarded Aerodromes, Technical Sites and Military Explosives Storage Areas) Direction 2002 makes it quite clear: "Mineral extraction and quarrying can create a bird hazard because, although these processes do not in themselves attract birds, the sites are commonly used for landfill or the creation of wetland”. At Straitgate, it's the creation of wetland that would be the problem. But this wetland, or ponding of water along the eastern boundary of the site, is the only way put forward by AI's consultants by which flooding could be controlled, and by which water supplies to people and ancient woodland would have any chance of being safeguarded.

And as yet, there's still no apparent solution to these opposing requirements, bird culls or no bird culls.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

AI’s final “campaign” at Marshbroadmoor to start early

Aggregate Industries has advised that quarrying at Marshbroadmoor will begin again 2 January 2014:
The duration of the campaign is anticipated to take some 3-4 months, but at this time of the year weather could play a part. The need may also arise to split the campaign in two - [i.e.] start extraction in the New Year for 6-8 weeks, then pull-out and complete at the earliest opportunity in May/June. This final phase will signal the completion of mineral extraction operations at Marshbroadmoor, following which the company will continue with its approved restoration scheme to bring the site back into a beneficial after-use.
Such a way of working - trucking as-dug material 7 miles to be processed at Blackhill Quarry - is, incredibly, still being considered by AI as an acceptable way to process any material it might win at Straitgate. This is despite DCC officers making it clear on numerous occasions that they would not support such a proposal, and despite concerns from Natural England. Transporting material from Marshbroadmoor will be for a matter of weeks. Transporting material from Straitgate would be for 10 years or more - 100 movements a day - almost 2 million HGV miles on the B3180. And the reason? For AI it's cheaper to drive 2 million miles than it is to reconstruct their plant closer to where it's needed. Such environmentally unsustainable and inconsiderate thinking - on road users, residents and the planet - plainly make these marketing statements from AI seem somewhat hollow:

Thursday, 12 December 2013

New surface water flooding maps from the Environment Agency

The Environment Agency has today released new UK surface water flooding maps with a level of detail that makes them "some of the most comprehensive anywhere in the world". This detail, on the map of Straitgate Farm and surrounding area, now reveals the four watercourses that emanate from the site, all with a high risk of causing surface water flooding - as shown on the screen shot.

The EA hopes "the new maps, as well as providing a vital service to the public, will also help local authorities to manage surface water flood risk as required by legislation passed in 2010". Aggregate Industries, however, continues with its plans and preparations to permanently remove 3 million tonnes of groundwater storage at Straitgate Farm, on the slopes above Ottery St Mary - a town plagued by a long history of flooding.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Dormice and planning appeals, again

Following Buckfastleigh's appeal, another local planning decision has been made where the presence of dormice was material, in this case dismissing an appeal for 59 dwellings in Kennford.

Officers recommended approval, but Teignbridge District Councillors voted against. The Planning Inspector sided with Councillors. Here are a few paragraphs from his Report:
38. Hedgerows are a Priority Habitat under the Teignbridge, Devon and UK Biodiversity Action Plans and can act as ecological corridors. The presence of a protected species is a material consideration when determining planning applications and [the NPPF] advises that local planning authorities should aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity.

39. The appellant’s [Ecological Impact Assessment (EA)] identifies two hedgerows within the site as species-rich and indicates that these are an important habitat for the locally diverse population of bats. A Hazel dormouse nest was found in the central hedgerow within the site and the connecting hedgerows are also reported as supporting this protected species. A “good population” of slow worm was recorded within two discrete areas within the site. A Brown hare and common bird species also use the site and the hedgerows are also likely to be used by nesting birds. Bats, slow worms and dormice are protected species and dormice, Brown hare and slow worms are UK BAP Priority Species. The site has ecological value.

40. The proposed hedgerow removal and loss of pasture would have an adverse effect upon local wildlife. However, the proposed mitigation measures would limit this disturbance and new planting, including replacement hedgerows and bat and bird boxes would be undertaken. The EA concludes that the proposals would maintain and enhance the integrity of the habitat network within and adjacent to the site, with “probable” beneficial impacts for biodiversity in the long-term (10+ years).

41. Whilst the scheme could result in a net increase in hedgerow and the creation of new habitats, there are doubts in my mind that dormice and bats would withstand the rigours of construction and the post-constructions phases. The scheme would be likely to considerably disrupt the network of hedgerows upon which these protected species are dependent.

42. Even if the known dormouse nest was left undisturbed, it is by no means certain that dormice would remain on site or find a suitable, alternative habitat. The EA states that the new habitats would not be of value for four to five years after planting. This suggests to me that at best, it is likely to be the medium term (3-10 years) before the adverse effects upon dormice would cease.
The Planning Inspector concluded:
Moreover, the totality of this harm would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the economic and social dimensions/benefits of the scheme. The proposal would therefore fail to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. 
Would a quarry at Straitgate Farm ever be able “to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development”? As the Inspector made clear, the NPPF guides local planning authorities "to conserve and enhance biodiversity” and if "significant harm resulting from a development cannot be avoided, adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused”. A quarry at Straitgate would decimate hedgerows, veteran oaks and dormice habitats; it would disrupt the water regime supplying wetland habitats of ancient woodland and drinking water supplies. Is it a price worth paying? Aggregate Industries obviously thinks it is, but it is the powers that be that will eventually decide. Is it “sustainable development”? No.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Things on the up for aggregates, yet the MPA complains as fiercely as ever

Nothing is ever good enough for the Mineral Products Association. When it is not extolling its members’ virtues as nature’s champions, it is moaning about something or other not being right, and this time it’s a long-winded diatribe about the planning system not working in favour of its multinational friends. The MPA sees problems ahead:
Permitted reserves of sand and gravel are in serious decline and planning authorities are putting too much effort into reducing potential future supply rather than getting on with the business of adopting robust mineral plans.
Which is ridiculous, because in a sustainable society we should of course be looking at ways of limiting extraction of virgin material, leaving something for the next generation. The MPA continues:
With too few plans, low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates, increasing costs, and planning inertia fuelling uncertainty we are storing up supply problems… we need the industry and planning and regulatory systems to be pulling in the same direction...
In other words, "why can't planners and regulators be in our pockets”? Regulatory systems are precisely that, to regulate and control, not to "pull in the same direction". But the strange thing is, MPA members don’t seem to be complaining of planning problems. Things are actually looking good for the aggregates industry at the moment. When Breedon Aggregates gave a trading update on Tuesday, there was no mention of "planning inertia". In fact, after buying some of AI’s assets earlier in the year, it seems to be doing rather well:
The Group's trading performance has been very encouraging and pre-tax profits for the full year to 31 December 2013 are expected to be somewhat ahead of market expectations... Sales volumes of aggregates, ready-mixed concrete and asphalt are all ahead year-on-year in both England and Scotland, assisted by contributions from our acquisitions of Aggregate Industries' operations in Northern Scotland... Against this backdrop, we have reason to be optimistic about the coming year and remain confident of making further progress in 2014.
And when BDS Marketing Research forecasts a 5% rise in demand in the UK aggregates market in each of the next three years, it did not mention "low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates” impeding growth rates, “storing up supply problems". What BDS did remind us is that: "This is now a market of four leading national players, with Lafarge Tarmac, Hanson, Aggregate Industries and CEMEX having around two-thirds of the market". Which means these companies are more than able enough to look after themselves. It is the people, the wildlife, the landscape that do not have the backing of trade groups and corporate finance that need help.

What must be remembered is that the MPA represents its members, nobody else. It needs to keep complaining to justify its existence and the fees it extracts from its members. If all was “well” the MPA would cease to exist. The MPA ought to get real. In this populated island, councils can’t just assign future quarries willy-nilly. Planning is a complicated and time-consuming business, local people must be consulted and have a right of reply. And rightly so. Without planning controls, land-grabbing cement conglomerates would trample all over the landscape. In any case, aggregate companies will apply for planning permission whether there’s a landbank of 15 years or 3 years. And environmental considerations are rightly higher on the agenda than they were in the heady quarrying days of old.

Maybe if there is an issue, it is not with planning authorities but with mineral companies for not spelling out the benefits of quarrying, for not getting communities on board before applying for planning permission, for making their proposals so damaging to people and environment, for taking so much and giving nothing back. Aggregate Industries is preparing to apply for planning permission for Straitgate Farm shortly. Has AI been out selling the idea, convincing people, making the case that what is good for Aggregate Industries is also good for Ottery St Mary?

Perhaps the MPA should put its own house in order before blaming the planning system.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

How Aggregate Industries supports the communities it works in

For a company that impacts the environment and local people wherever it goes, Aggregate Industries, a major international company with wealthy Swiss parentage and sales of c.£1billion, should be able to afford significant and meaningful donations to communities to offset the harm it causes.

At least you would have thought so. But in 2011 the amount AI gave back to communities was less than 2p in every £100 of sales. And it’s getting worse. It’s almost the end of 2013 and AI has only just published its community donations and support data for 2012. It's easy to see why AI was in no rush - donations have halved. Is AI really doing so very badly that this is the most it can find to donate to communities and local projects? £82k - less than 1p in every £100 sales. An accountant's rounding error. A crumb off the directors' table. 

Here’s what AI’s “Community Plan” claims: "All communities can expect to have a part of the Aggregate Industries PIE” - Participation, Investment, Engagement with local communities. Did AI forget the ‘I’ in 2012, or did the £82k simply satisfy the company's tick box exercise?

Oh, and what happened to Open Days in 2012? See our quarry, speak to our staff, understand what we do. Not any more. Any wonder why local people object to AI proposals?

Here’s what Holcim paid its CEO in 2012: CHF 4,950,494, or about £3,373,000. Compare the compensation to one man vs. the compensation to one country. Does AI feel ashamed? It should.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Dormice are sleeping

Dormice across the county, including in the hedgerows of Straitgate Farm, are now hibernating for the winter, but at least there are some people speaking up for them. Earlier this week it was pleasing to learn that someone had the right idea, someone valued nature, when an 11 year old girl spoke up for the endangered species at a planning meeting at Mid Devon District Council in relation to an application to erect a wind turbine.
Devon represents something of a stronghold of the dormouse in Britain, and we therefore have a particular responsibility to ensure that the County continues to provide a home for this fascinating little mammal. Fragmentation of woodlands, caused by either built development such as roads or agricultural clearance, results in isolated, non-viable populations of dormice, with little opportunity for re-colonisation (particularly problematic if hedges which connect woodlands are no longer present). Short distances, possibly as little as 100m, form absolute barriers to dispersal, unless arboreal routes are available to dormice... indirect evidence, from the losses of hedgerow length and declines in quality of hedgerows and woodlands that have occurred in the County over the past few decades, indicates that dormice have probably declined in a similar fashion.
Dormice, a European Protected Species, are rightly part of the planning process, and yet numbers are still declining as their habitat - ancient woodland and hedgerows - is being destroyed. Aggregate Industries will now have to jump additional planning hurdles if it is to quarry Straitgate and rip up two miles of ancient hedgerows, and will need to convince Natural England that:
The consented operation must be for “preserving public health or public safety or other imperative reasons of overriding public interest including those of a social or economic nature and beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment”; and
There must be “no satisfactory alternative”; and
The action authorised “will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the population of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range"
Here's the extensive Dormouse Mitigation Plan that was required by Mill Water School, in connection with its relocation to Bicton College. A new main school and sports hall will be built. The site of the hall was thought to be habitat for dormice, although as of September none had been found.

AI's plans for Straitgate are of course hundreds of times the area of a sports hall. Note again the three Natural England tests above. Note the "and" between each one...

Friday, 8 November 2013

A thought for the trees

The trees don't feature on Aggregate Industries' plans for Straitgate - they are just something else to strip away before any quarrying can begin. They do however feature prominently on the landscape. The photograph above shows just some of the trees that would be lost, some of the farmland that would be lost, and some of the hedgerows that would be lost if AI had its way. Here's another view:

The trees also feature in the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre report of 2001:
Straitgate Farm… contains a large number of mature 'veteran' oaks... Old trees, because of their age and rarity, create a diversity of microhabitats supporting a range of species, including many invertebrates, fungi, epiphytes and lichens. Several of these are specialist species and consequently rare… Holes in rotting wood are also good as roost sites for bats. The fact that there are several of these trees in a small area increases their conservation value, as they provide more niches and habitats for specialist species.
By our reckoning, at least 11 substantial mature trees would need to be felled by AI. Another 7 veteran oaks would be at risk by being in an area AI think fit to use for the dumping of soils and overburden.

The ancient oaks and hedgerows provide habitats for European Protected Species, bats and dormice. And since dormice act as an important ‘bio indicator’, "preferring to live in rich, well managed native woodland with a mix of species for seasonal food - its presence is a marker of woodland rich for many species of wildlife", it wouldn't be just the trees that would be lost.

"Trust us", AI would argue, "your rich and ancient wildlife habitats are in safe hands. We, and our industry, protect and enhance biodiversity throughout the country."

No "Welcome" sign to Britain’s newest "National Park" here

We recently commented on Britain’s new "National Nature Park", the one proudly announced by the Mineral Products Association. Aggregate Industries' Blackhill Quarry on Woodbury Common is one of the 50 sites that make up this new Park.

Local people may ask "What's changed?" What new access points? What new nature trails? What new signage, hides, visitor centres? People will be disappointed. As far as can be seen, nothing has changed; the East Devon Way runs through the middle of the site as before. There's no "Welcome" sign to this new National Nature Park, just these:

The MPA was right - this National Park is just a “web based concept”, not part of the real world at all. Here's where you can find Britain's real National Parks

Monday, 4 November 2013

It's a question of trust

Could local people trust Aggregate Industries if it were ever permitted to quarry Straitgate Farm? Trust it to act within its planning conditions? Trust it not to harm water supplies? Trust it not to harm ancient woodland or European Protected Species? Trust it to restore the site as agreed? Trust it not to attempt to get permission for something else, not sell it and walk away from its obligations? Local people would have to take a lot on trust.

What happened when the people of Boston trusted AI? It was an episode AI no doubt wants to forget. It was called the "Big Dig", and became the most expensive highway project in the US. AI was the main concrete contractor. AI didn't deliver what it promised it would. There's no need to reproduce all the salient facts here - the headlines are all over the internet for anybody who cares to look. Here are a few to give the gist of the story:

Boston's "Big Dig" ended up with leaks and lawsuits. How would a Big Dig in Ottery St Mary end up? Would you trust this multinational to look after Ottery, its inhabitants and its landscape? A multinational that supplied 5000 loads of defective concrete for tunnels and sea walls.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Mineral operators "uniquely placed to benefit nature", or so they tell us

The quarrying industry likes giving out awards - not to local communities at the brunt of its activities but to themselves. Earlier this month the Mineral Products Association was proud to announce its Restoration and Biodiversity Awards. Its Chief Executive said:
Once again our members have demonstrated how much good work they are doing to achieve high quality restoration and to protect and enhance biodiversity throughout the country. The innovations and partnerships are delivering progress, priority habitats and assets locally and for the UK. The industry is uniquely placed to benefit nature, its legacy is growing, its potential is being realised and now we hope that this is being recognised.
Leaving aside the MPA's central argument that "the [quarrying] industry is uniquely placed to benefit nature", a phrase which would seem oxymoronic to many readers, is this really the same industry we tweet about with stories of unrestored sites and disrupted local communities? The same industry wanting to permanently disfigure a corner of East Devon removing two miles of ancient hedgerows and dormouse habitat, risking ancient wet woodlands and private water supplies, sacrificing a 150 acre dairy farm? The same industry intending to leave what in return? A footpath. Aggregate Industries is obviously not looking to win any restoration and biodiversity prizes with Straitgate.

Ok, so it's not surprising that quarry companies gloss over their impacts, whilst at the same time making out that they are the saviours of nature conservation. But if they wanted to win over local communities, we would be able to tweet more stories like this:
and less like this:
Anybody interested in quarries that have been restored can watch the MPA videos below. It could be that the industry is finally putting its house in order, or it could be more corporate spin. People can make up their own minds. One or two of the schemes look quite imaginative. Others less so.

How did AI do in these awards? Shortlisted for three, no doubt disappointed not to win any.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Blackhill Quarry - part of our new "National Nature Park"

Sounds like big news! You'd think this would be in all the local papers; and news of a new "National Nature Park" would be in all the nationals. It's quite a claim by the Mineral Products Association:
The MPA has launched its new National Nature Park - a nationwide network of quarries that have been restored for wildlife and which are accessible to the public. The online resource includes 50 sites around the country totalling 4,000 hectares, with a range of facilities including nature trails, viewing hides and visitor centres. This is a web based concept which at launch highlights 50 sites around the country where our members can provide public access to sites where we have proven restoration success and biodiversity achievements.
On the face of it, this sounds like a great idea - the more quarries returned to nature and public access the better. But this National Park is a "web based concept", an "online resource", which is different to most people's idea of a National Park. And of course, 4000 hectares is merely a small fraction of the 45,000 hectares with quarrying permission and the thousands more hectares lying derelict, unrestored or brownfield. The size of the Peak District National Park by comparison is 143,700 ha.

But where the concept really falls apart is when you look more closely at one of these 50 sites. Our very own Aggregate Industries' Blackhill Quarry is apparently one of them - 68 ha, or 85ha whoever you believe, counting towards the 4000 ha total. How much of that area is open for public access? Well there's a footpath through the middle of the site, but otherwise the public are told to Keep Out - Danger! In fact, AI would still like this part of our new National Nature Park to be where it processes material quarried from Straitgate Farm, beyond when the site's permission expires in 2016.

How many more of the MPA's sites are like this one? Nothing seems to have changed. There is no new National Park - it's all just PR smoke and mirrors, some PR spin to give quarrying a better image.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Buckfastleigh and dormice

Hats off to the campaigners at Buckastleigh! Their perseverance and determination has paid off after a planning inspector ruled that Whitecleaves Quarry was not the right site to dump construction and demolition waste, and process incinerator bottom ash.

The appeal decision is worth reading, if for no other reason than to note what was material to the Inspector's decision. What was material was that the proposal did not deliver sustainable waste management. What was also material was the harm to biodiversity. In the Inspector's words:
The proposed facility would have some benefits, but overall I consider that the likely harm to biodiversity and the conflict with waste policy weighs against allowing the appeal.
What 'biodiversity' was pivotal in refusing the multi-million pound operation? One word - Dormice:
The spur proposed to be removed contains 0.12 ha of semi-mature broad-leaved woodland, which includes hazel dormouse habitat… The loss of semi-mature woodland and hazel dormouse habitat is a consideration which weighs against the proposal. This would be so irrespective of whether the spur includes any ancient woodland.
What would the Inspector make of Aggregate Industries' plans to destroy not 0.3 acres, but almost two miles - about 10x the area - of dormouse habitat in ancient hedgerows at Straitgate? Hedgerows identified in the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre Ecological Assessment of 2001 as being of "high wildlife value" and all on the 1840 tithe map; hedgerows identified in the same report as being a "suitable habitat for dormice"; hedgerows where the existence of dormice has now been confirmed. Would he just laugh?

AI would hope it could 'displace' the dormice - one of Britain's most endangered mammals, nearing extinction after suffering a 40% decline in numbers over the last 20 years - but this would only be in agreement with Natural England, an agency that has already had much to say about Straitgate. In any case the site is bounded by roads, and "dormice can't cross roads".

When you now add dormice - a European Protected Species - to the mix of constraints for this site, constraints that include the risk to drinking water supplies - demonstrated by the Environment Agency's newly delineated SPZs, the risk to wetlands in Ancient Woodland - a protected and irreplaceable habitat, and the risk of birdstrike to aircraft safety, AI's plan for Ottery St Mary seems more implausible as time goes on. If you add processing as-dug material off-site, up to 7 unsustainable miles away, then the whole scheme looks farcical. And for what? Not some nationally rare and precious mineral, but sand and gravel.

With any one of the above a "showstopper", as DCC would say, what local people can't understand is why the Council still seems to be entertaining the idea of Straitgate as its preferred site.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Which part of the EA's response last year on SPZs did AI not understand?

A plethora of documents on the subject of Straitgate and Devon's Minerals Plan have now been written by various parties, but the significance of one paragraph has seemingly been overlooked.

Earlier this year, the Environment Agency imposed SPZs - source protection zones - at Straitgate to protect peoples' drinking water. At the time, AI and its consultants were investigating the locality, and the significance of the SPZs was brushed to one side. Perhaps it was because AI belittled the SPZs' importance. Perhaps it was because consultants had rubbished how the SPZs had been calculated.

Whatever the reason, DCC has made it crystal clear on numerous occasions that Straitgate cannot be relied upon as a Preferred Site in Devon's new Minerals Plan if the EA doesn't consider the site to be viable or deliverable. It's an obvious pre-condition if DCC's Plan is to be found sound.

The EA has since rebutted the accusation that the SPZ calculations were incorrect. But it is the EA's earlier consultation response, written in April 2012, that needs to be re-read in the light of the new SPZs. At this time the EA said:
When our groundwater team map the Source Protection Zones (SPZs) for all of the private water supplies in this area I expect that [Straitgate] will be an important part of their catchment areas… if this area is shown to be a significant part of the catchment for the water features near Cadhay, its deliverability as a viable site would seem unlikely.
Well, the SPZs have been mapped, and they DO show that the area forms a "significant part of the catchment for the water features near Cadhay". It MUST therefore follow, as far as the EA is concerned, that Straitgate's "deliverability as a viable site would seem unlikely".

Parties may argue about what probability is construed by the phrase "seem unlikely". What is beyond doubt is that a planning inspector would make a finding of unsoundness on any council plan relying on a site with an EA label "deliverability as a viable site would seem unlikely" stamped across it.

AI must work with a county's Minerals Plan, not against it. If Straitgate is not in Devon's Plan it will mean the county does not want the site quarried. If it's any easier for AI to understand in picture form, here's the SPZ again. It's the green line, the line within which AI thinks it can dig below the water table.

Environment Agency

Minerals Plan Timetable

DCC has revised dates, subject to approval, for the remaining stages of its Minerals Plan:

        Publication for public and statutory consultation       April 2014
        Submission to the Secretary of State July 2014
        Examination in Public November 2014
        Formal Adoption March 2015

Monday, 14 October 2013

RAF Fairford

Aggregate Industries has assured us in the past that it's quite used to running quarry operations where there are airport safeguarding and birdstrike considerations. "Just look at RAF Fairford" we were told, where AI has nearby sand and gravel operations, as an example of how the company manages quarrying, water, aircraft and birds.

So we looked at RAF Fairford. Did AI have a point? If AI can quarry near RAF Fairford, surely it must be ok - at least on the birdstrike front - for it to quarry at Straitgate, under Exeter Airport's flightpath?

However, Fairford - home to the annual Royal International Air Tattoo but "currently a standby airfield and therefore not in everyday use" - does have its share of birdstrike concerns, made worse by Cotswold Water Park. Studies have been undertaken and "concerns by the MOD over bird strike at RAF Fairford have lead to the creation of a bird strike working group". Moreover, Wiltshire County Council, in proposing three sites for future sand and gravel quarrying around RAF Fairford, has birdstrike figuring highly, e.g. Cox's Farm "The critical need to reduce the risk of bird strike associated with air traffic at RAF Fairford is a key consideration for the working and restoration of the site".

So, the issue of birdstrike is not as benign for AI in the Cotswolds as we were lead to believe. More importantly, the AI spokesman had failed to tell the whole story about how AI works its Manor Farm Quarry, Kempsford, near RAF Fairford. This 2003 article, however, does:
In response to the RAF’s concerns over the possibility of birdstrikes, the quarry will be worked dry to minimize the amount of standing water and hence reduce the site’s attraction to waterfowl. With the water table lying just below ground surface, this involves perpetual pumping and the licensed discharge of around 7,000m3 of water a day from a newly created perimeter drainage ditch into the local Dudgrove brook. 
Final restoration at Manor Farm Quarry will be to agriculture utilizing a mix of backfilling to existing levels using silt and clay from the extraction process, together with low-level restoration for the remainder of the site. Low-level restoration will be achieved using the underlying Oxford Clay to create a sealed drainage basin which will be surcharged with site-generated subsoils and topsoils. A small pumping facility will be required to remove excessive rainfall from this basin.
In other words, to avoid creating new bird flight lines, Manor Farm will be worked dry and restored back to remain dry, in contrast with AI plans supplied for Straitgate that involve digging below the water table, and restoration that encourages water to pond along the eastern boundary.

Now AI wants to extend Manor Farm Quarry, but again, as this recent article makes clear, AI
will be restoring both quarry sites to agricultural land after work has taken place. If the land was left as a pool of water, the birds attracted to the area would affect the flight paths of the nearby RAF base.
So when, in AI's own words, "due to the proximity of Fairford Airfield, water based restoration/after-use is not appropriate", why does Aggregate Industries think that for Exeter Airport, an international airport carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers a year, water based restoration would be appropriate? Why does it think Exeter Airport would welcome ponding, "a priority wetland habitat" and an inherent increase in birdstrike risk directly under its flight path, for ever after?

That's simply reckless, and shows a complete absence of respect for Exeter Airport's safeguarding aspirations and the carriers and passengers who fly in and out every day.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The significance of the humble dormouse - a European Protected Species

So now 'habitat for dormice' can be added to the list of reasons why Straitgate should not be quarried. As posted last week, Aggregate Industries' ecological consultants SLR have found evidence that the hedgerows at Straitgate are a habitat for dormice - a European Protected Species - a species estimated to number just 45,000 in England and Wales - a species protected under the Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

This is an important development. It will not be up to Aggregate Industries or its consultants to decide whether phased working or advanced planting or anything else would give enough protection to the dormice present. AI will instead need to convince Natural England that something as invasive as quarrying - tearing up some 2 miles of ancient hedgerows - would be acceptable in an area providing sanctuary to such a rare animal. Natural England states that for an activity likely to result in disturbance or killing of a European Protected Species or damage to its habitat a 'licence' would be required. "Licences for activities prohibited under wildlife legislation are only issued for specific purposes, where there is valid justification". Justification? It must be demonstrated that:
the project is for the purpose of preserving public health or public safety or other reasons of overriding public interest, and there is no satisfactory alternative, and the action will not be detrimental to the population of the species
Could this impact on AI's plans? Well in 2010, dormice impacted on Morrisons' plans, when planning officers recommended refusal for a £12m supermarket and football ground in Wadebridge because "there [was] a reasonable likelihood of dormice being present". But whereas evidence has been found at Straitgate, in Wadebridge it was enough that dormice were "spotted 2km away".

Saturday, 5 October 2013

What does it take to make a phone call?

Culm Waste & Minerals Group will be used to making phone calls, as we are, to extract information from various sources. For others - aggregate companies, consultants, councils - this act seems altogether more difficult, as CWMG have discovered.

One of the main considerations in the planning determination of Aggregate Industries' bagging plant at Uffculme, was, in DCC's words, "highway and transportation issues". AI's Transport Assessment, performed by SLR, contained the passage:
3.1.1 The junction is a four-arm grade-separated interchange that forms part of the Strategic Road Network (SRN) and is, as such, controlled by the Highways Agency (HA). Given that some limited effects to the SRN will ensue as a result of the proposed development, it is expected that the HA would be consulted on the planning application for the proposed development. Indeed, foreseeing this, SLR issued a request for a scoping opinion to the HA undercover of an email dated 11th February 2013. Regrettably, however, no response had been provided at the time of preparation.
Faced with no reply, you might have expected SLR to have phoned the HA to illicit the response needed for such an important matter. Both CWMG and ourselves have spoken to the HA before - it's not difficult. And emails can go missing. Emails to an AI estates manager we know seem to get lost all the time.

But the surprising thing here, as CWMG have picked up on, is that even though SLR envisaged the HA would be consulted by DCC, it would seem - according to the HA themselves - that they never were, and the relevant Report by the Head of Planning, Transportation and Environment, recommending approval, indeed contains no mention of the HA as a consultee or otherwise. It would seem that DCC didn't bother to pick up the phone to the HA either. The HA should be consulted if:
Development [is] likely to result in a material increase in the volume or a material change in the character of traffic entering or leaving a trunk road.
On the face of it, moving an aggregates distribution depot to a site close to a motorway junction would constitute a "material change", and it's a serious matter if a statutory consultee should have been consulted but has not been. It would appear that DCC officers decided for themselves that the impact on the SRN was acceptable. It will now be for CWMG to consider whether to take the matter further.

Of course, and as we discovered ourselves recently, certain parties are generally less inclined to make a phone call if they are concerned about what the answer might be.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

With a bit of joined up thinking councils could conserve aggregates, divert material from landfill and save millions of pounds too

Is anyone else surprised - shocked even - that the grits and aggregates from road salt and road dressings, a large part of road sweepings and gully waste, are typically landfilled?

Across the UK, it has been conservatively estimated that some 370,000 tonnes of such material goes to landfill each year. The landfill tax alone for this amount, £80/tonne in 2014, would cost councils £30m, and with potential cost implications from new Environment Agency guidance ‘Recovery of Street Sweepings and Gully Emptyings’, some question whether councils can afford not to recycle such waste from now on.

In Europe, sweepings and gully waste are commonly recycled, and in 2012 Warwickshire County Council installed a recycling plant in Wolverhampton to work in conjunction with six other authorities. It will recycle around 40,000 tonnes of road sweepings and gully waste each year at half the cost of landfill, with the aggregates obtained being used either in construction or remixed with rock salt for use on roads in the winter.

Councils are looking for ways to save money. Here's a way to save money and landfill and aggregates. What's stopping them?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Ecological Update - Dormice at Straitgate and the significance of Cadhay Bog

A report detailing the ecological significance of the area in and around Straitgate will be produced next year. In the meantime, much investigative work has already taken place and further studies will be undertaken next spring.

Aggregate Industries' consultants, SLR, have confirmed that the hedges at Straitgate act as a habitat for dormice, but consider that phased working over an extended period would give the protected animals an opportunity to move should quarrying take place. Natural England may of course take a different view. As expected, bats also populate the site.

SLR reconfirmed the ecological significance of Cadhay Bog, and recognise that mitigation here may be problematical. Cadhay Bog - ancient woodland with wetland habitats - has been confirmed to be "in very good condition", with "significant biodiversity interest"; SLR's ecologist thought it to be "wonderful woodland". Hydrologically, SLR believe that the primary impact of any quarrying would be on Cadhay Bog, and for AI's proposal to go forward this would need to be resolved. It may be possible to maintain water flows by creating ponds that would allow water to infiltrate back into the pebble beds - but again the Environment Agency may have something to say on such proposals. Any ponding, however, would obviously conflict with the requirements of Exeter Airport and the inherent risk of birdstrike.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

What happens after the groundwater is all messed up? Who takes responsibility?

When quarrying in breach of planning conditions and below the water table has messed up the groundwater so much that the "water was ‘unsafe for human consumption’ and contained traces of E.coli and fuel", and local people had to "bathe and shower at friends’ houses" and "had no basic water supply for in excess of 13 months", what then?

Deny all responsibility of course, which is just what the quarry company connected has done. "To our knowledge [quarrying is] having no effect at all on the spring water" says the MD of the quarry company, and "if the residents want clean drinking water they should do what the rest of the locals have to do and pay for it”.

Not a helpful response, when the "Environment Agency, the council and an independent water specialist have all confirmed that problems have been caused because the quarry breached consents". Spring water was plainly available to these properties before the quarry polluted it, and many people in more rural areas often have no access to mains supply even if they wanted it. In this case alone, the cost of replacing the contaminated pipework has been quoted at £70k. Which is of course the reason why liability has been denied.

And if water supplies were depleted or contaminated here - not for two properties but for 100 people - how much would that cost to correct? How ready would Aggregate Industries be to accept liability?

“This will be a question of survival for the concrete industry”

DCC is making plans for a steady supply of aggregates until 2031, but what will the building industry look like then? What materials will be used? Will the cement and aggregates industry even be around? "Buildings rising from the ashes: Recycling concrete from buildings that are no longer needed requires long-term thinking at the building’s inception" reports how researchers are raising these very questions. Here are a few sentences from the article:
Urban mining is increasingly being taken seriously by industry... Concrete buildings, when demolished, can serve as an excellent source of new building materials. “Instead of transporting aggregates from far away, we can use local buildings as a source for aggregates” 
The advantage of recycling the cement component is that it does not release CO2 into the atmosphere 
Tests have shown that the concrete made from recycled aggregate has better mechanical properties than concrete made using virgin aggregates 
"As more and more buildings are required to be designed for disassembly, it will be important for the concrete industry to demonstrate that they can compete, otherwise they will be replaced by steel and other materials that are easier to use for disassembly. This will be a question of survival for the concrete industry”
Is DCC allocating the right materials? Has it factored in the future? A future when "urban mining" may replace the quarrying of virgin aggregates, when demolition material is no longer landfilled, when suitable areas to quarry have been exhausted. 

Friday, 27 September 2013

Three farms wanted to build a lake to irrigate their crops

What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, Essex County Council (ECC) turned the planning application down, and earlier this month the subsequent appeal was also dismissed. Why? The small matter of 300,000 tonnes of sand and gravel 'spoils' that the farmers planned to send to a local quarry over the three to four year 'construction' period. Why is it relevant? The case has many similarities to here: need, farmland, alternatives, groundwater, ancient woodland.

ECC was concerned that the development would involve mineral extraction "from a non-preferred site and as the landbank in Essex is greater than seven years there is no identified national, regional or local need". The council was also concerned that it would "impact upon groundwater levels which could in turn harm a number of water features and private water abstractions", and that since the site was next to ancient woodland, designated a County Wildlife Site - as Cadhay Bog and Cadhay Wood - it could also "result in damage to European Protected Species".

At the appeal, the Planning Inspector seemed to think that the mineral extraction was not quite as ancillary as the farms claimed, since the minerals were to be extracted at a rate the local quarry could accept them. Even so, there's no crime in that - quarrying companies do that all the time. The Environment Agency had no objection, and the Inspector accepted that once the reservoir was built there was unlikely to be an impact on groundwater levels. There were HGV movements, but mainly along an internal haul road to minimise use of public roads. The proposal was not against local and national policies which encourage sustainable development, including the conservation of natural resources such as storing water in reservoirs and making good use of the mineral spoil rather than just dumping it. The impact on the landscape during construction would be set against the wildlife benefits of the scheme afterwards, and the Inspector conceded that the reservoir, were it not for the exportation of the minerals from the site, would in any case be permitted development "reasonably necessary for the purposes of agriculture".

Despite all that, however, the appeal was still dismissed. The Inspector concluded, and this bit should ring bells, that there was no overriding need for the minerals, valuable farmland would be lost, biodiversity in neighbouring ancient woodland may be impacted, and - this should sound familiar too - alternative sites had not been properly explored. And despite the quarrying operation being relatively minor in nature and only for a defined period, the Inspector also concluded that the proposal would bring an unacceptable impact on health, noise, visual intrusion and traffic.

Goodness knows then what this particular Inspector would make of the plans being explored for Straitgate - with Aggregate Industries hoping for 10 times the 'spoils' of the Essex farmers. On the same basis, how could AI possibly demonstrate to a planning inspector that its 'need' for sand and gravel - not Devon's since the county already has 16 years' supply - could outweigh the long list of objections and constraints highlighted by statutory consultees and local people alike? AI no doubt has a plan, and an accompanying band of highly-paid consultants and barristers to argue its case too. Time will, of course, tell all.