Monday, 29 July 2013

From one side of the Otter Valley to the other

Or from one part of the East Devon AONB towards another. It is a captivating sight - looking from White Cross on East Hill out across the Otter Valley. This view is towards Venn Ottery Common, with Tipton St John and its church in the foreground. The photograph is only taken with a phone, but, even 5km away, Aggregate Industries' contribution to the scene is clear to see. AI (or English China Clays as then) was given permission to quarry on Venn Ottery Hill in 1965, two years after the AONB was first designated. The company is only now fully working the deposit, and this is the scar being created. It is what AI would call a small quarry. Any quarry at Straitgate Farm would be bigger, and therefore even more visible from East Hill and the AONB.

Second quarter sand and gravel figures

Show a 9% increase nationally on the same period in 2012. However, according to the MPA, the underlying annual trend for the year to June is still showing a decline of 6% compared with the previous year. The MPA considers that "construction activity may be close to the bottom of the decline which started in mid 2011" and says that although “private housebuilding has improved, [ ] this sector represents only 14% of construction and it is sobering to see the latest GDP figures showing that construction output in the first half year was 4% lower than the same period of 2012". So, with housebuilding representing only a small part of the construction market, when the Express & Echo report "Big leap in new homes starts in Devon and Cornwall" it does not therefore follow that there will be a comparable 'leap' in overall aggregates supply or production.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tesco and Aggregate Industries - what on earth could they have in common?

Are all big companies the same? What for example do Aggregate Industries and Tesco have in common? Well, more than you would think.

We have already established that AI takes - from the ground and communities, but does not give anything meaningful back. Donations of 0.02% of sales mathematically rounds to zero. Meanwhile Tesco's boss, Philip Clarke, was recently quoted as saying "We were hearing that Tesco has got to put in more [to society] because people think that all we do is take out". Tesco claims it wants to change, and has a new "core purpose" added to the list on its boardroom wall - "We use our scale for good". AI on the other hand thinks it is just a matter of presentation, promotion, marketing, spin - its Chairman recently calling for the quarrying industry to do more to promote itself to the public.

But there are other similarities. Both have been no good for farming - an industry in crisis, with 30 dairy farmers quitting in April alone. Invariably, any new quarrying application has the word "Farm" in there somewhere - and let nobody claim that soils will be better following any restoration that may or may not happen. Tesco and other major supermarkets have also been devastating for farms, with tough contracts forcing many to quit and moving the UK's food self-sufficiency from 70% in the early 1990s to nearer 50% now. Tesco again wants to correct this, Philip Clarke saying "We've got to produce more food at home and we've got to make better deals with producers". That won't be easy with AI and friends digging up farmland everywhere.

Closer to home, both companies have also been accused of "sharp practices". AI by flouting planning conditions at Hillhead, and Tesco only yesterday by setting up a marquee selling "summer essentials" in its car park in Ilfracombe, without planning permission, angering local shopkeepers. Tesco too has applied for retrospective permission, but can carry on in the meantime, says North Devon Council, until permission is either granted or refused.

No doubt people can think of other similarities. Pile it high, sell it cheap etc. But it can be different. Companies can do good. Companies can give back. The application by Sirius Minerals for the York Potash Project in the North York Moors National Park has been mired in controversy and debate about its economic merits and environmental impact, and has been delayed yet again. But whatever the arguments, or maybe because of the arguments, the company is pledging to give back. Not AI's 0.02% of sales but 0.5% of sales - 25 times more. And it doesn't stop there. A Section 106 agreement would see £13m put into a range of community measures - tree planting, promoting tourism, road improvements and educational projects. Sirius Minerals is even paying for three displays from the Red Arrows for the annual Whitby Regatta whilst construction takes place.

Whether Sirius Minerals is buying off the community or making a serious effort to do the right thing, something would at least be flowing back to the North York Moors and the region suffering most impact - not least by creating about 1,000 jobs and paying tens of millions of pounds in royalties to landowners. At a market capitalisation of £270m the company is not small, but Holcim, AI's parent, is almost 60x bigger. AI gave back just £164k in 2011 - it's most recent figures - 5% of the figure paid to Holcim's boss in 2012. It needs to think about giving back something more significant to the communities it affects. AI would surely have more chance of persuading people of the merits of quarrying by doing so, than by any amount of spin and self-promotion.

Friday, 19 July 2013

How it should be done

Aggregate Industries et al. take note. Some of the content here might cause readers to double-take. We had to read it twice, and check the date. Rest assured the story is real, and a model of how developers can work with the community when restoring an old quarry to some practical and acceptable use. For background, Coles Quarry - a limestone quarry that opened in 1867 and ceased production in 1999 owing to "inherent environmental problems" - is located in Backwell, just south of Bristol. Here are a few lines from an article that appeared yesterday in the Weston Mercury:
The owner of Coles Quarry in Backwell has submitted the first phase of a planning application to turn the site into a business park, school car park and recreation ground.
Villagers will be able to determine what happens to the rest of the land and the owners are appealing for residents to send in their ideas.
“Phase three is what to do with the quarry itself. Whether that’s rolling grasslands or a recreation ground, it will be down to the village to decide.”
“We are very pleased with the support we’ve had from the village. We are doing our best to work with the community.”
Once the plans have been completed, 89 acres of woodland on the site will be given to Backwell Environment Trust for use as a nature reserve.
The development could create up to 250 new jobs in the area as well as much-needed facilities for the school and villagers.
And from an earlier article:
Existing dilapidated buildings, which used to be the bagging works but have more recently become a target for vandals, will be replaced by business units for village firms.
“It is quite exciting because we are taking an old quarry and doing something useful and creative with it, which will then be given to the people of Backwell.”
There are some additional photos at Angus Meek Architects. You have to pinch yourself.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

AI's bagging plant application for Uffculme gets nodded through by DCC

Staff at Aggregate Industries must be smiling. They must think DCC is a pushover, following the council's approval of its bagging plant application this afternoon. Robert Westell, AI's Senior Estates Manager, gave a faltering defence of his company's retrospective application, noted by a DCC officer as being "fairly disastrous" from a public relations point of view, seemingly unaware of one of the basic planning conditions - that there were to be no retail sales from the site.

Cllr. Bob Evans wanted the planning committee to remember one number - 55,000 - the number of HGVs local residents would have to put up with every year. But, bar the local councillor, the committee gave its unanimous support - members worried that the council would be taken to appeal if they rejected it. In one baffling comment, the chairman reminded local residents that they were "getting quite a lot out of this" [53:36]. With no new jobs, it's quite unclear what he meant. If he meant the slightly modified working hours 0600 to 1900 hours Mondays to Fridays and 0700 to 1300 hours on Saturdays - big deal. If that many HGVs went past his front door he might feel differently.

Monday, 15 July 2013

When ancient woodland becomes the price for crushed aggregate

Woodland Trust
Following a public inquiry, permission has been given for an extension of Gallagher Aggregates' Hermitage Quarry in Kent which will lead to the loss of 32 hectares (80 acres) of ancient woodland at Oaken Wood. A statement from the Secretary of State said:
The very considerable need for both crushed rock aggregates and dimension stone, together with the eventual biodiversity improvements, and the ongoing socioeconomic benefits, would clearly outweigh the loss of the ancient woodland and the other adverse effects of the development in this case.
Is there no limit to the quality of landscape quarrying operators destroy for basic aggregate? Do they have no moral compass? No appreciation of the natural world? A little closer to home, how many people have gazed down at the beauty of Cheddar Gorge when flying into Bristol Airport, only to be shocked moments later by the scars of Hanson and Aggregate Industries quarries next door? Eric Pickles' decision shows continuing wanton destruction of irreplaceable parts of the landscape.

At Straitgate, the ancient woodlands in Cadhay Bog and Cadhay Wood are at risk from AI's proposals. A sand and gravel quarry would disturb the water supply to the woodlands, changing wet and boggy habitats, that, by the very nature of the topography, will have remained virtually undisturbed for possibly thousands of years.

The Oaken Wood decision will mean the direct loss of ancient woodland. Gallagher's boss dismisses any concern saying "everybody acknowledges that it is sweet chestnut coppice planted 150 years ago" and that "it will be replaced by native species woodland and there will be twice as much planted as lost". Which of course misses the point by a mile. The site has been wooded for more than 400 years. Ecosystems have developed in undisturbed soils over that time. Talk of "biodiversity improvements" is disingenuous. Ancient woodland is irreplaceable.

The Woodland Trust, which campaigned for two years with Kent Wildlife Trust and ‘Save Oaken Wood’, has called it "one of the UK's largest losses of ancient woodland in the last five years", and the "first real test of whether the Government’s recent planning reforms would offer sufficient protection to ancient woodland". The Trust's CE said:
This is a landmark decision, but for all the wrong reasons. This so-called ‘greenest Government ever’ stated that the new National Planning Policy Framework would give sufficient protection to irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland. It clearly does not – it seems no green space is safe.

How is it that quarries turn into industrial sites so easily?

At Oaken Wood, Gallagher Aggregates have said the ancient woodland destroyed will be eventually replaced by new planting covering twice the area lost. How can we be sure? How is it that quarries so easily turn into industrial sites? Quarry companies make a loud shout about nature sites and restoration. In practice, local people see things differently.

Even if restoration is a planning condition, companies apply for change of use - it's so much more profitable. Look at all the recent applications for wind turbines, solar panels, aggregate recycling, incinerator waste processing, etc. AI's retrospective planning application for an aggregate bagging plant at Uffculme - transferring from Bishops Court Quarry in Exeter, now to be developed for housing - is a case in point. And reading the recommendation from DCC's Head of Planning, it's easy to see how a quarry leads on to industrialisation rather than restoration:
6.20 Policy MP51 allows for industrial development within mineral sites if the operations have close links to the quarry on which the operations are sited. In this case the proposal does not have links with the adjacent mothballed quarry (although in the future it may have) but neither does the concrete products factory which has a full, free standing planning permission.
6.23 The adopted Mid Devon Local Plan policies S5 and DM7 seek to protect existing land use from inappropriate development, but in this case it is considered that the proposed development, because of its nature, links in well with the existing land use.
So with 6.20, the plant has no links with the quarry - but hey, so what. 6.23, however, is the crux of it because any industrial development always "links in well" with the despoilation of a worked-out quarry.

AI's bagging plant application will be decided by councillors this week, but officers have already made up their mind that "the site is appropriate for the development proposed". And according to AI, in its presentation to councillors, the people of Uffculme should be grateful:
[The bagging plant] demonstrates the Company's commitment to invest in the local area in a period of industry consolidation/site closures/job losses
Grateful for what? It's unclear whether a single new job - local or otherwise - will be created. So it can only be for the extra HGVs - traffic up 76% at one junction. The people of Uffculme must be thrilled.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

"Welcome to Quarryville"

Tarmac's Bayston Hill Quarry              © Copyright Richard Law and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
People can make of this what they will. It may reassure some people. It may sound like mineral company propaganda to others. It's Tarmac's idea of dispelling the, what it would call, "myths" of the effects of a new hard rock quarry in the neighbourhood. "Tarmac’s Quarryville website is an education resource for schools that supports key content areas of the National Curriculum, Key Stages 2 and 3".
The Quarryville Rock Quarry has been operating for six years – quite a short time for a quarry. When it was first announced that Tarmac, the company that owns and operates the quarry was planning to start the quarry, there was quite a bit of local opposition. Now relations between Tarmac and the local community are excellent and everybody’s convinced the rock quarry is good news for Quarryville. What do you think happened to change people’s minds? Here are some of the bad things local residents thought might happen back in 1996 and the solutions provided.
Tarmac tackles a number of issues, but concludes by reassuring readers that:
So, as you can see, most of the original concerns about the rock quarry were nothing to worry about at all. Nowadays, most people in Quarryville can’t imagine what life would be like without their big, friendly neighbour. Tarmac even sponsor the local football team, Quarryville Falcons. What’s happening at Quarryville is a small example of what happens all over the country. The total area of land permitted for quarrying aggregate is about 45,000 hectares, that’s just 0.35% of the surface area of England. And only half of that area is being quarried at present – that’s 0.17%, or less than one-fifth of one percent. We’re sure you wouldn’t mind giving up one-fifth of one percent of your food – ie, a few crumbs off your plate - to stop another person going hungry. So why shouldn’t we all give up a few handfuls of earth to help build the houses, roads, hospitals, and millions of other things we all need?
Why not indeed, when put so simply? A few crumbs - 45,000 hectares, the area of 63,000 football pitches. A few crumbs - or an East Devon dairy farm, or the prospects of an East Devon town. A few crumbs - that would also, by the way, prop up the profitability of a Swiss aggregates giant. Why not?

But unfortunately for Tarmac, Aggregate Industries and others, it's not that simple. Quarrying may be important, and help build hospitals and "millions of other things", but it's an invasive and destructive operation. Not all sites are suitable. Different sites present different environmental and locational complications. So, however good the PR, however much the local football team is supported - some complications are surmountable, some are not.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Ref. Straitgate in Broadpath Landfill & Hillhead Quarry Liaison Group Minutes

Minutes from the Broadpath Landfill & Hillhead Quarry Liaison Group meeting in June, courtesy of Culm Waste & Minerals Group, show two paragraphs of relevance to Straitgate:
[AI] responded that the company wishes to extract mineral from Straightgate [sic] Farm as the next operational area. This is subject to further consideration by DCC. An Environmental Impact Assessment report is required for this. There is ten years reserve at Straightgate so there would be no return to the Uffculme area until then unless Straightgate is rejected.
And regarding the Minerals Plan, DCC commented:
No further consultation on the Minerals Plan has been undertaken since that for sand and gravel sites in 2012. Further information is currently awaited from the mineral operator before any decision is made on how to address sand and gravel supply. The next formal consultation will be on the pre-submission draft towards the end of 2013, but it is intended that informal discussions will be held with representatives of any communities that may be affected by emerging proposals.

Remember Fife?

The application to quarry two million tonnes of sand and gravel that was unanimously rejected by Fife councillors, after hearing hearing from NHS Fife’s consultant in public health medicine "that residents living nearby, particularly children, could be harmed by dust emissions"? 

Well, the applicant has now appealed to Scottish ministers to overturn the decision. Laird Aggregates has apparently accused the council of "unreasonable behaviour and claims it had no justifiable reason to refuse planning permission". In contrast to the NHS consultant, Laird Aggregates claims the potential for noise, dust, environmental and air quality impact was "low or negligible". Whose advice would you trust more regarding your children's health? The NHS, or an aggregates company?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

NPPF effectiveness "in preventing new development from increasing flood risk"

A cross-party group of MPs sitting on the House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has made a number of recommendations in its recent report Managing Flood Risk.

The report opens by firstly acknowledging that "Record-breaking rainfall this year and last has led to a series of flood events which have had major impacts on many communities across the UK. The frequency and severity of such flood events are predicted to increase in future years."

The Committee is concerned primarily that too much building is still taking place in areas of high flood risk, and that the NPPF may not be effective enough in preventing inappropriate developments. Paragraph 54 of the report, under Planning Issues, states:
We recommend that the Government review how effective the National Planning Policy Framework has been in preventing new development from increasing flood risk. If necessary, guidance must be amended to enable local authorities to reject planning applications where flood risk will be increased as a result of building in a specific location.
The Committee may have had housing in mind, but such guidance should equally apply to quarries. The climate is changing, in unpredictable ways, and planning must ensure that any proposals are robust, or "Climate Ready". As things stand, if the NPPF is not up to the job in preventing housing being built in flood plains, how would Ottery St Mary fare when it comes to a quarrying proposal at Straitgate Farm affecting four streams, 100m above a town with recognised flooding issues?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Cyclists - pick another route

Aggregate Industries' 'campaign' to extract sand and gravel at Marshbroadmoor, for processing at Blackhill, is in full swing, with 44 tonne trucks pounding up and down the B3180. Yes, that's 7 miles along a B road - without central white lines in places - through a village, across Woodbury Common. In all likelihood there will be another campaign next summer too.

Cyclists in particular are better off choosing another route at the moment. The truck drivers may be careful, but accidents happen - as tragically on the A30 yesterday. When one of these trucks pass - and they are huge - you really know about it, not just from the blast of wind, but also from the dust and grit blown up into your face afterwards.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Minerals and the NPPF - three more viewpoints

We already know the views of the Mineral Products Association - Aggregate Industries' trade body - when it comes to the NPPF, with its press release earlier this year "One Year on the National Planning Policy Framework May Already be Failing to Deliver Certainty for Mineral Extraction". But from an article published last month by The Construction Index "Are changes in the planning regime failing to safeguard the future supply of essential construction materials? Is it a real threat?" we learn some additional viewpoints.

Firstly, the chief executive of the MPA again complains, claiming “In spite of the undoubted and well-intentioned aims of the NPPF, the weight being given to it and interpretation and implementation are proving variable,” and “What I hear from members is that they are not making applications unless it is critical to staying in business”. Apparently the MPA is trying to tackle the problem by appealing to the public directly to support quarrying. (No, we haven't had the call yet!)

But as the article says "Not everyone shares the MPA’s perspective of slothful local authority planning departments threatening construction recovery". A director of Quarryplan consultancy, which advises the industry on securing planning permissions, says:
Problems are due mainly to the vast length of time needed to go through environmental impact assessments, community engagement and planning permission itself. When you put all that together the amount of work and resources needed gives a lead-in time that can take years.
The Royal Town Planning Institute, on the other hand, says:
Our view is that this is nothing really to do with the NPPF, which is well-written and supportive of the industry. It may be the case that local authorities are interpreting it differently, but at a local level it is a locational issue, just like housing, of what communities want built in their area.
Whereas according to The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE):
The majority of local authorities have minerals landbanks above the recommended minimum, so suggesting that there is a planning problem is wide of the mark. Applications are particularly complex and controversial, and often raise issues of severe potential damage to rural beauty and tranquillity, and so the industry should reasonably expect them to take time.
Quite sensibly "the CPRE says local authorities should promote the reuse of materials, rather than continue to provide more quarry sites on the basis of past levels of use." So given this, and that arguably Devon has an adequate supply of minerals - taking long-term trends into account - for its new Minerals Plan, why is the CPRE not more vociferous? It is vocal enough when it comes to green belt and wind turbines, and - according to previous president Bill Bryson - "the only real defender of the countryside in Britain", but will it campaign as loudly, some local CPRE members ask, when it comes to defending Devon farms and countryside against the destructive threat of quarrying?