Sunday, 28 April 2013


Straitgate Action Group is now on Twitter @straitgateactgp          

Friday, 26 April 2013

AMEC reports on surface drainage at Straitgate Farm

Aggregate Industries has now received a copy of AMEC's report on surface drainage at Straitgate Farm, advising on suitable locations for stream gauging, following a walkover survey by an AMEC consultant last month. For such stream gauge monitors to "capture flows from the proposed extraction site with minimal dilution from surrounding catchments" groundworks would be required for "channel manipulation" in order to produce reliable and informative data. AI is keen that the "monitoring is seen in the wider interests of local flooding not just the effect of any proposed development at Straitgate". AMEC's thorough 21-page report concludes that:
There is extensive evidence of natural flooding across the eastern extent of Straitgate Farm. The capacities of roadside ditches and streams have not been adequate to deal with recent levels of rainfall in the area. Flow gauging on Straitgate Farm under current conditions would be problematic… The nature of AI’s development proposals would also need to be considered in deciding upon the need for and type of installation of gauging equipment.
AI is still in discussion with AMEC about exactly what monitoring to employ and in what locations. This is an important matter. Any quarrying AI pursues at Straitgate Farm would not be permitted to change stream flows to wetland habitats in Ancient Woodland or downstream communities prone to flooding.

Devon's sand and gravel production figures for 2012

Figures provided by DCC show that Devon's sand and gravel demand continued to flatline in 2012, with just 0.49 million tonnes produced - only 50,000 tonnes more than 2011, despite heightened construction activity at Cranbrook and the Exeter Science Park. Last year was the fourth consecutive year where production was less than 0.5Mt - about half the figure required a decade earlier. However, the county's sand and gravel reserves - resource with planning permission for extraction - fell by 0.87Mt to 8.29Mt - a drop of 0.38Mt more than the level of production - as operators reassessed reserve levels at a number of quarries. Whenever reassessments of reserves are undertaken by operators, invariably the net result is down rather than up, as operators over-promise and under-deliver; something local people should be mindful of when revised resource figures are presented by Aggregate Industries for Straitgate Farm.

Despite the reserves reassessment, the 10 year weighted moving average detailed in DCC's Local Aggregate Assessment still gives Devon a sand and gravel landbank of 14.5 years - double that required by the NPPF. That's not something AI cares about. It thinks Devon needs another quarry, and no doubt expects to get its way - fully aware of the helpful guidance in the Government's new Managed Aggregate Supply System, which says that the size of a county's landbank should play no part in deciding a planning permission. Completely the reverse of housing then, where a 5 year supply of ‘deliverable’ housing is certainly - and some would say the only - material consideration in determining planning applications. MASS may stand for managed aggregate supply system but means something altogether more muddled, inconsistent, irrational, and unsustainable. In other words, all the signs of mineral industry lobbying.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

AI to rationalise concrete product plants and "concentrate manufacturing at Calne"

Is this the sort of colourful scene that Aggregate Industries has in mind for the Otter Valley in East Devon? Surely not. But it is already on the doorstep of the people in Calne, Wiltshire. It may be screened from view on the ground, but AI's earth scar and Viridor's landfill operation is revealed by Google Earth in all its glory.

It's where AI recently submitted - and then withdrew - planning permission to extend the life of its concrete products plant, left on the image above. Why was it withdrawn? AI thought it could get away without supplying a Transport Assessment with the application - an application proposing over 20,000 HGV movements p.a. passing within yards of two brand new housing developments. Wiltshire Council thought differently - Calne already has issues with air quality from excess traffic. AI says the application will be re-submitted. Not surprisingly, residents are angry.

AI first operated the plant in 1989, with permission to 2014, using sand from its adjacent Sands Farm Quarry and aggregate from elsewhere, and built Sandpit Road for access - the same road which now serves the new housing. However, the plant was mothballed in 2009 (due to poor demand) and the homes were subsequently built. Local people claim the area is now residential not industrial, but AI says it wants to start operations again, with an output of 150,000 tonnes p.a., and last year made an application to extend the plant's lifetime to 2022, claiming:
Since [2009], the demand for building materials has reduced further and the company has experienced a significant downturn in sales. As a consequence, the business is over capacity and the company has sought to rationalise its operations. Of the company’s concrete products factories, Calne is one of the most modern facilities within the company’s ownership. It is therefore proposed to concentrate manufacturing at Calne.
Local people at Calne have been lead to believe that AI will "transfer staff from its other operations in the South West", and with changes to the block works at Hillhead and talk of redundancies at Rockbeare (a request for confirmation from AI went unanswered), they may be right.

It is unclear how much impact any of this will have on Straitgate Farm, or how much less mineral DCC would need to provide for in its emerging Minerals Plan - 50% of the aggregate required for the plant would be limestone from Somerset. What it does show, however, is the pressure that AI is under to 'sweat its assets', by the Holcim high command in Zurich, and the conflict AI's business model continually brings upon people and their everyday lives.

Sand and gravel figures still sliding

The Mineral Products Association, the trade body representing 90% of aggregate production, reports that sand and gravel figures for the first quarter of 2013 were down 12% on the same quarter of 2012, itself down 12% on 2011. Sand and gravel figures for 2012 as a whole were also down 12% on 2011. DCC expects to report Devon's sand and gravel production figures for 2012 shortly.

Workers protest at Holcim’s AGM

Aggregate Industries' Swiss parent Holcim has more troubles. Last week over 200 employees from all over Europe protested outside Holcim's AGM "to send shareholders a strong message that their CHF 1.5 billion profit target for 2014 at the expense of the workforce is unacceptable". A director of the IndustriALL union said:
We have gathered here to tell management to stop insisting to gain extra profits by dismissing people and without proper information and consultation from the responsible bodies

Friday, 19 April 2013

Active bird management - is that the answer?

Ponds? Birds? Risk of birdstrike to overflying aircraft? "No trouble" - Aggregate Industries might say when contemplating the introduction of bodies of water by quarrying for sand and gravel under a safeguarded international flight path landing at Exeter Airport's Runway 26 - "we'll get ourselves a bird management plan". Think again.

According to Dr Allan, Head, Birdstrike Avoidance Team, Central Science Laboratory - now Fera:
Such bird management agreements may seem initially appealing, but they should be carefully considered. They will need to be adopted in perpetuity, or at least as long as both the wetland and the aerodrome continue to exist. They may be expensive and difficult to carry out, especially on large sites where large investments in manpower and equipment may be needed to achieve effective dispersal. They also need to be policed, so that the aerodrome can be satisfied that it is being adequately protected from birdstrike risk.
Bird management plans should thus be regarded as an additional measure to give aerodrome managers confidence that no additional risk will result after location and design modification measures have already been used to minimise any additional risk from a wetland development. They are not a means by which otherwise unacceptably hazardous developments can be transformed into acceptable ones.
On the wider issue of birdstrike risk and planning he says:
It is important for the wetland developer to understand that airports have relatively little scope for compromise in safeguarding negotiations… Once an airport has allowed a development to proceed without objection there is no other action that it can take to control a birdstrike risk if it develops at a site. Thus, unless an acceptable compromise can be found airports are left with little option other than to object if they are to remain compliant with their regulatory framework. In the event that an LPA approves an application despite an objection from an aerodrome, the CAA or MOD have the power to have a planning application ‘called in’ for determination by ministers.
So the answer, of course, is to find a "compromise" to minimise the risk. Think again. The starting position should be to assess the risk of development at Straitgate Farm.
Disregarding all other factors, the distance of a proposed wetland development from a safeguarded aerodrome can be used as one factor that will influence the risk that will be generated.
For a development "beneath approach or departure corridors" the "likely level of additional risk" is classified as "high". In any case:
Whatever the actual increase in risk, the key test that an aerodrome manager applies is one that asks the question ‘if there was an accident involving loss of life at my aerodrome could I defend allowing this development to proceed without objection when I believed that it would cause an increase in the birdstrike risk, however small?’ A planning inspector is likely to ask him/herself the same question.
So DCC and AI should think again:
Wetland creation is one of the most problematic development types in terms of birdstrike prevention at aerodromes. Wherever possible developers should seek to keep proposals as far from aerodromes as possible and outside the 13km safeguarded zone of major civil and all military aerodromes.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

There once was a pond

Not a very big pond, but it was close to an airport. It was not a very big airport, more an aerodrome used by private aircraft and flying schools. A farmer had built the pond, the trouble was he didn't have planning permission. So he applied for permission, but it was turned down - even though "the pond [helped] contribute to the environment and wildlife in the ward". The planning authority, Bassetlaw District Council, had decided:
The pond may result in the movement of birds within and adjacent to the flight path of the aircraft approaching Gamston Airfield with the resultant danger to those aircrafts.
The applicant appealed. The planning inspector had some sympathy with the farmer, and recognised that "he has deservedly won awards for his efforts to ensure that his farming practices bring ecological benefits to flora and fauna." However the inspector was also aware that "the danger from potential bird strike is a recurring consideration in the minds of the aerodrome operators" and that the pond "sits at a critical point adjacent to the main flight path." Moreover:
I recognise that it is a small wetland feature by comparison with other more extensive areas near the aerodrome. Although visible from the air, it does not have the same visual dominance as the lakes to the south of the facility. It will not attract birds in same large numbers. Nevertheless, because of its critical location so close to the main flight path of the aerodrome at a point where aircraft are on their final approach to the runway, aircraft safety must be paramount. I consider that this development feature which has the potential to attract birds in increasing numbers at this location poses a serous risk to aircraft safety. I find this unacceptable. I conclude that the undoubted ecological benefits of the development cannot outweigh the safety needs of the aerodrome.
The appeal was dismissed and the enforcement notice upheld. The pond was to be refilled.

Could the benefits of a quarry outweigh the safety needs of an international airport and its 700,000 passengers? DCC plainly thought it might, when it proposed Straitgate Farm as a Preferred Site for sand and gravel quarrying; a process that leaves bodies of water; a site directly under the landing approach to Exeter Airport.

Surrey County Council, on the other hand, does take the risk of birdstrike seriously:
Sandwiched between Heathrow and Gatwick Airports, with a further five smaller aerodromes and an adjoining military helicopter base in its area, Surrey County Council's planning department takes the potential for bird strike very seriously.
It recognises that:
It is unlikely that most minerals companies, planning authorities or aerodrome case officers will have the necessary technical knowledge when dealing with such cases, so it is important that expertise is sought out.
More importantly, it makes the point that, as with the farmer's pond and Straitgate Farm:
The exact position of a site within the safeguarding zone is another important factor. If an extraction operation is located directly under the take-off and landing approaches, then this is going to be far more critical than a location 12km out on the runway flanks.
It also makes the point that:
With the move away from infilling sites, those within safeguarding zones worked below the water table and with wet restorations will provide a particular challenge.
So let's face it. Working below the water table on a site directly below Exeter Airport's flightpath is not going to happen, and DCC should therefore accept that the very most Straitgate could yield is 2.3Mt, before very significant deductions for stand-offs and movements in the level of the water table.

And if Aggregate Industries claims, by some miraculous feat, it can quarry Straitgate Farm without the formation of any body of water - its initial drawings show contrary - then how would wetland habitats in Ancient Woodlands be maintained? How would surface water run-off be contained?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Activity at Hillhead Quarry

Culm Waste & Minerals Group have a new website, and can be found on Facebook. In their latest blog they are critical of Aggregate Industries' recent renewed activity at Hillhead Quarry, and have launched a petition with DCC calling for HGVs to be re-routed on safety grounds. They mention AI again not having the required consents in place before starting work*. They also make reference to AI's sale of Bishops Court Quarry in Exeter, used for aggregate distribution and a ready-mixed concrete plant, but now proposed for up to 250 houses - further piecemeal selling of the AI estate.

CWMG point to liaison group minutes where DCC confirms:
With regard to the Minerals Plan, the intention remains to publish the pre-submission draft for consultation in late summer/early autumn. No decision has yet been made on the delivery of further sand and gravel resources as we are awaiting further information from the mineral operator.
A year after the consultation, a year after communities made the effort to say what they thought of DCC's preferred sites for future sand and gravel quarrying, AI has still not told DCC how it proposes to overcome the multitude of issues raised by statutory consultees and local people alike. AI had promised a response in January, but now hopes to deliver it later this month. As CWMG say, AI "does as it pleases and its largest clients in the South West, the Councils, don’t stand in its way".

* postscript: DCC has now taken "action over illegal store" at Hillhead Quarry.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

AI sells off Scottish assets

Aggregate Industries has sold more than just its South-West HQ this time. Breedon Aggregates has announced today the purchase of a number of AI's Scottish assets for £34m, namely:

        6 active quarries, 4 asphalt plants, 7 ready-mixed concrete plants & 2 concrete block plants

Breedon chairman and ex-AI boss Peter Tom hopes the deal, which also includes "five inactive quarries" and positions "itself for work on the A9 upgrade and the controversial Aberdeen western by-pass", will allow it "to benefit from any UK economic recovery". AI presumably does not share Breedon's confidence. Either that, or AI's Swiss parent Holcim is asset stripping, seeing more future in the growth prospects of India and the Asia Pacific region.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Lush backs Buckfastleigh fight v industrial waste plant at Whitecleaves Quarry

From today's Plymouth Herald:
Lush, the handmade cosmetics company, has given £5,000 to Buckfastleigh Community Forum to help its legal challenge to stop an incinerator bottom ash plant being sited in the town. Developers Gilpin Demolition and MVV Umwelt want to site the industrial waste plant at Whitecleaves Quarry in Buckfastleigh despite planning permission being rejected by Devon County Council in 2012. The two companies have appealed the decision and a Planning Inquiry is scheduled for June this year.

Monday, 8 April 2013

'Localism' without localism - the result of more lobbying

Within one document, the good Government giveth:
the Government considers that a steady and adequate supply of aggregate minerals should be delivered by decentralising more power to Mineral Planning Authorities to determine the appropriate level of aggregate extraction, in keeping with its principles for a more localist approach to planning more generally (5)
and then taketh away:
should Mineral Planning Authorities wish to use landbanks [as a development management tool], then each application for minerals extraction must be considered on its own merits, regardless of the length of the landbank... an adequate or excess landbank is not a reason for withholding planning permission... (25,26)
In other words - Councils can determine their appropriate level of aggregate extraction, as long as this level plays no part in any decision to permit aggregate extraction. Brilliant - 'localism' without localism. 

This new guidance on landbanks and the Managed Aggregate Supply System (MASS), October 2012, supplements the NPPF, and rewrites the approach used for over 35 years. It remains to be seen what Councils will make of this guidance, but previously it was clear (MPS1 4.1):
Mineral Planning Authorities should use the length of the landbank in its area as an indicator of when new permissions for aggregates extraction are likely to be needed.
And how did this volte-face come about? As recently as July 2012, the British Aggregates Association was still "concerned that the Localism Bill would effectively put an end to new quarry planning permissions". It needn't have worried - the Mineral Products Association had started lobbying the Government long before. After the election "working draft proposals were submitted to DCLG on a future structure for the [MASS]", and the Association continued to "refine" its position, "in consultation with members and DCLG officials", leading to its proposal that:
The guidance should make it clear that landbanks are an indicator of the adequacy of planning provision, are not to be considered a target or a ceiling and should not be used as an element of development management policy.
Why such a proposal? Localism worries the Mineral Products Association and its members. In March 2012 a policy briefing stated:
Allowing minerals planning authorities to make their own decisions about the level of provision of mineral extraction could seriously threaten the ability of the industry to maintain an adequate and steady supply of materials.
The upshot? Quarry companies can now in theory make multiple planning applications, and stockpile undeveloped sites. So, whatever a County's reserves, "unless there are other planning objections which are not outweighed by planning benefits", forget localism and bring in the earth-movers.

Aggregates Levy frozen after "hard" lobbying by the MPA

The Aggregates Levy was introduced in 2002, as a £1.60/tonne tax on primary aggregates, in recognition of the environmental cost of quarrying - estimated at £380m p.a. - and to encourage the use of secondary and recycled materials. Now the levy is £2.00/tonne - equating to about 20% of the average sale price of aggregates (net of VAT) - and the European Environment Agency claims it has been successful "as a stimulus towards environmental improvements". The graph shows that since 2002 there has been a further fall in primary aggregate sales, despite an increase in construction, where taxed minerals have been replaced by non‐taxed, from waste sources such as china clay and demolition. About 7% of the levy went to the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, which attempted to compensate communities affected by the "negative externalities from quarry activities". The MPA had wanted "more of the fund (50%) to be allocated to local communities to create the opportunity for communities to say yes to extraction as opposed to just saying no", but the fund was scrapped in 2011.

The 2013 Budget has frozen a planned rise in the levy. "Government is clearly listening" proclaimed the MPA, who was pleased because on this issue it "has lobbied hard". Will it kickstart the economy? Unlikely - aggregates purchases typically "constitute only 2–3 % of construction costs". So who will benefit? Well, the four major aggregate suppliers representing 75% of the UK market: Cemex (Mexico), Lafarge/Tarmac (France/UK), Hanson (Germany) and of course AI (Switzerland) will more than recoup their MPA membership costs. But for everyone else there will be no further incentive towards recycled and secondary aggregates, and a loss of £70m over 5 years in tax receipts.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Landbanks - government guidance says they don't matter any more

At least when it comes to deciding if a new quarry should be permitted. Which is bad news for anybody looking to Devon's 15 year landbank of sand and gravel as a reason for denying Aggregate Industries permission to quarry Straitgate Farm.

The Government published Guidance on the Managed Aggregate Supply System in October 2012, and such advice was apparently considered when DCC prepared its LAA. However, the LAA did not allude to what surely every mineral operator will latch on to, and what was relied upon by AI in its submission to the Competition Commission (CC) released earlier this year, namely:
Moreover, as the CC notes, the new planning guidance issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government states that adequate landbanks should not be used as a reason for declining a planning application. (5.14)
Which goes some way to explaining why AI is merrily proceeding with Straitgate, despite the county having 8 years' supply of sand and gravel over and above what's required by the NPPF, and despite what DCC said as recently as 2011:
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. (5.1.4)
AI plainly couldn't care how DCC's landbank is calculated - weighted ten year average or otherwise. To AI it's irrelevant, since government guidance clearly states:
each application for minerals extraction must be considered on its own merits, regardless of the length of the landbank… an adequate or excess landbank is not a reason for withholding planning permission unless there are other planning objections which are not outweighed by planning benefits. (25,26)
Yes, such advice is but one of a number of material considerations by which a planning application would need to be judged, but government planning policy would tend be relied upon by the legal might of an aggregates giant. Straitgate would therefore have to be assessed on its "own merits" if AI were to advance an application, in which case there are a number of other substantive planning objections, as this blog has attempted to highlight.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

DCC's Strategic Flood Risk Assessment - will it protect Ottery St Mary?

DCC has just finalised its Strategic Flood Risk Assessment (SFRA), as required by the NPPF. This informs mineral planning in relation to flood risk and supersedes the unambiguous advice - "mineral development that would reduce storage capacity in areas functioning as floodplain or increase the risk of flooding of sensitive areas will not be permitted". The NPPF and SFRA do still make it clear that:
Inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided by directing development away from areas at highest risk, but where development is necessary, making it safe without increasing flood risk elsewhere
Quarrying activity can increase surface water run-off and therefore flood risk if the area of hard surface is increased, by the compaction of soil, or through the breaching of water and silt storage lagoons. The potential for groundwater flooding may be influenced where mineral extraction impact on local hydro geological characteristics and the interface with the hydrogeological regime, for example through increased transmissivity.
Yet the SFRA says (4.11) that when considering flood risk we must remember that "mineral working is a temporary (albeit often long term) activity that entails the subsequent restoration of the site to a beneficial after-use". Leaving aside the arguments on restoration, mineral working may be temporary but quarrying millions of tonnes of sand and gravel from an aquifer would permanently - not temporarily - change the hydrogeological characteristics on the slopes above a town prone to flooding.

The SFRA acknowledges the history of flooding in Ottery St Mary (6.48), and the ongoing risks it faces as one of Devon's 32 high risk communities. It refers to the flooding in 2008, as resulting in:
an estimated 350 properties flooding from main rivers, ordinary water-courses and surface water, with 25 people requiring assistance from the fire service. The incident is considered to be the worst flood event to have occurred in Devon in the past 25 years.
So why, with an unstable climate, does DCC still consider the removal of millions of tonnes of ground-water storage, exacerbating run-off at the head of streams flowing into Ottery, such a good idea?

And on the subject of groundwater, groundwater flooding may be "considered relatively rare within the Plan Area" (5.31), but despite what the SFRA says, detailed information is available on groundwater flood risk. In fact, such a map has been on this blog since it was set up. Contrary again to the SFRA, there are areas that are considered to have a high susceptibility to groundwater flooding - indeed, some in very close proximity to Straitgate Farm.

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