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.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Natural England's concerns not addressed

Natural England has now responded to Aggregate Industries' latest plans and reports, but complains that none of its previous concerns have been answered: "The Hydrological Position Statement… makes no reference to the Natural England response [to the June 2012 consultation]". NE's previous concerns were that:
...dewatering would create an unacceptable impact on the waterways leading to Cadhay Bog ancient woodland. Mitigation in the form of recharge ponds… appeared not to be viable; the Airport Authorities require no ponds in the vicinity or continued pond maintenance to ensure that they are biodiversity free to avoid the significant potential impact of bird-strike. Such water features, devoid of biodiversity, due to chemical in-balances, are unlikely to be suitable to recharge a wetland and moreover continued permanent maintenance long after extraction ceases, does not seem viable as would be required for a permanent recharge pond.
Natural England comments that whilst AI's Hydrological Position Statement does recognise the need to maintain groundwater flows it is unsure how this would be achieved, and, as with the Environment Agency, it has been left looking for further answers.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Action Group photos in an official AI report - whatever next?!

Someone said "Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery". Perhaps that's going a bit far, but imagine our surprise when an official Aggregate Industries Report: Test Pitting & Plant Trial Summary, supplied to a local councillor, contained our photographs.

We always try to make it a habit of attributing our sources, and of asking permission before publishing any of AI's reports and drawings; a number of AI items have been held back accordingly. The photographs AI pass off as their own do appear on our website, but that's the website with © Straitgate Action Group at the bottom.

And it's not the first time either. Consultants have been found using our maps, again with copies finding their way into official reports. Are we making life easier for AI? This is not our intention. Our intention is to get the facts about the area into the wider domain, to show the raft of constraints to a quarrying operation, to make sure - if a quarry should ever transpire - it would be done properly… and with sensitivity - if that were ever possible - to the surroundings.

Our intention is not to make life easier for a global cement conglomerate. Use your own pictures and maps! Or at the very least ask permission.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The dangers of messing with groundwater

This article - Left without safe water for year ‘due to quarry’ - in the Northumberland Gazette is simply staggering. It is a sobering reminder of why you don't quarry below the water table in an area where people are reliant on groundwater for their drinking water supplies.

Aggregate Industries is, however, planning to quarry below the water table at Straitgate. The land here supplies water, not for two properties as in Northumberland, but for ONE HUNDRED people.

Blaxter Quarry - Les Hull [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The story is also reproduced below:

Is a Minerals Plan worth the paper it's written on?

Is it any wonder that Aggregate Industries wasn't in a hurry to provide supporting documents for Straitgate Farm's inclusion in Devon's Minerals Plan? If what happened in Staffordshire is anything to go by, AI probably doesn't care too much what's contained in the new Minerals Plan.

We have responded to more DCC mineral-related consultations over the years than we care to remember. It was perhaps naive to think we might in some infinitesimally small way shape Devon's future minerals policy, but respond we did, as the council asked, and as many others did too. In the Big Minerals Debate DCC asked people to "Have your say on future mineral extraction in YOUR local area". Last year DCC said "Have your say on Future Quarrying in East and Mid Devon". Hundreds did.

But what was the point? DCC promises that "The Devon Minerals Plan will provide the long term, strategic planning policy direction for mineral development in Devon, informing decisions on mineral planning applications." But can we rely on that? It's not what happened in Staffordshire. Its Minerals Plan did not inform decisions.

In 2012, AI applied for planning permission for a 400 acre extension to a sand and gravel quarry in Staffordshire - 13.5 million tonnes to be extracted over some 15 to 20 years. Was this site allocated in Staffordshire's Mineral Plan? No - the plan allocated another area. Was Staffordshire running short of minerals? No - the county had over 13 years of reserves already. Did it get approved? Yes - earlier this month.

There may always be a case for deviating from a plan, but a 400 acre deviation? AI, and other mineral companies, must surely think that a Minerals Plan is now an irrelevance. Plead that jobs are at risk. Plead that £6m was invested in plant just 8 years before the existing permission was due to expire. Bingo. Approval. Easy.

So what is the purpose of a Minerals Plan? Why bother to consult local people? What's the point of a landbank? Or the method used to calculate it? If a 400 acre, 13.5 million tonne quarry - that's not aligned to the strategic and democratically approved vision of a county, and not needed to meet a county's shortfall in reserves - can be rubber stamped, local people will rightly think that a Minerals Plan is of no relevance to them, not worth commenting on, not worth the paper it's written on.

Indeed, irrespective of whether Straitgate is in Devon's Minerals Plan or not, AI will be applying for planning permission next year. In Staffordshire the council may have been mindful that the 400 acre extension received little objection from the statutory bodies or others. In Devon, the council is acutely aware that for Straitgate this is not the case.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Were we guilty of "cyber-bullying" Aggregate Industries? #FreeSpeech

Straitgate Action Group's Twitter account has been suspended. 

In our view we have not breached any Twitter Rules. Has something more sinister taken place?

Listed below is the last batch of Tweets we made before Twitter suspended our account. Do they amount to cyber-bullying a Swiss multinational, or do they highlight legitimate concerns that people across the country have with quarrying and the minerals industry? Each Tweet is linked to its source. 
It is perhaps ironic that the very last tweet made - innocuous looking enough, but the one that appeared to trigger the suspension a minute or two after it was tweeted - contained both the phrase We want to protect locals and the name Aggregate Industries...

We have appealed against the suspension.

Friday, 13 September 2013

"Protect it from further quarrying" says Aggregate Industries

A new tactic from Aggregate Industries - the tacit threat of a further 30 years of quarrying on one hand or a 7MW solar park on the other. Who could refuse AI's solar proposals near Penryn in Cornwall when faced with that 'choice'?
As part of the solar park application, Aggregate Industries is willing to relinquish the mineral extraction permission at the site and therefore protect it from further quarrying. Subject to securing planning permission for the solar farm, the company is willing to make this commitment to the Council and local community in the form of a binding legal agreement. There are significant permitted mineral reserves at the quarry which could last up to 30 years and the current planning permissions run until 2042.
What else does this reveal? Beyond the fact that AI has more quarrying permissions than it needs, in Cornwall at least, is the admission - "protect it from further quarrying" - of the inherent destructiveness of quarrying, by an aggregates company of all people. For all the song and dance mineral companies make about restoration and biodiversity improvements, even this land - which AI claims is "low-quality agricultural land" - would still, in AI's opinion, benefit if it was  "protect[ed] from further quarrying".

And if low quality agricultural land should be protected, what of high quality agricultural land? And if that high quality land was responsible for supplying drinking water to 100 people and water for wetland habitats in ancient woodland thousands of years old, wouldn't that land need protecting even more?

Monday, 9 September 2013

Exeter Airport calls for meeting with Aggregate Industries

Exeter Airport has responded to Aggregate Industries' latest plans by reiterating its earlier advice:
To ensure aviation safety it is suggested that no ponds or body of water be allowed as part of this development.
This is plainly at odds with AI's hydrological report which makes clear that:
The contours along north-eastern, eastern and south-eastern boundaries of the site should encourage groundwater and surface water to pond along these boundaries to replicate the storage that has been lost due to the removal of the unsaturated and saturated zones at the site. 
The provision of water storage along the [eastern] boundaries of the site, to mitigate flooding and maintain groundwater flow, also offers the opportunity to create a priority wetland habitat and therefore enhance the ecology of the area.
This stretch of proposed ponding and wetland, along boundaries over 1300m in length, is NOT shown on AI's working or restoration drawings, NOR indicated in AI's landscape proposal, which misleadingly describes "light agricultural grazing" and only a 0.1ha "attenuation feature"/"ephemeral water body". The stretch of ponding and wetland would NOT just be during the working life of any quarry, but, in order to mitigate for the permanent loss of groundwater storage, would be for ever after - directly under Exeter's flightpath for planes landing on runway 26. As Safeguarding of Aerodromes Advice Note 6 says:
Permanent wetlands attract a variety of hazardous birds such as waterfowl, gulls, herons etc, and any surrounding trees may attract corvids pigeons or Starlings. Birds moving from one wetland site to another may cross aircraft flight paths and thus create a birdstrike risk. Even if a wetland or pond is proofed to prevent bird access, birds will continue to visit the site to check if feeding or other resources are available and then move on to another wetland when they find that they cannot reach the water.
DCC has asked AI on several occasions to make contact with Exeter Airport and explain how it proposes to overcome such a conflict. AI has not yet done so. Now Exeter Airport wishes to meet with AI "so that our concerns [can] be fully understood". As far as DCC is concerned there is no evidence yet on the table to show that the two opposing requirements - controlling flooding and maintaining groundwater flows without increasing the risk from birds - can coexist. For Devon to rely on such a site for its Minerals Plan would at this stage be foolhardy.

Why is all this so important? Exeter Airport has a duty "to ensure that the birdstrike risk is reduced to the lowest practicable level". Exeter, as at every other airport, has birdstrike incidents. Each birdstrike - beyond the issue of safety - costs airlines money, through delays, repairs or both.

Friday, 6 September 2013

What do they do in Essex?

Essex County Council (ECC) is at a more advanced stage with its Replacement Minerals Local Plan than Devon, with public examination due later this year. It has allocated more than 40 million tonnes of new provision for sand and gravel in its plan. Here's what ECC said in its Pre-Submission Draft:

On sustainability and conserving minerals:
The Council promotes sustainable procurement and construction techniques and the use of alternative building materials in accordance with national and local policies.
The minerals hierarchy sets out the different approaches to the supply of minerals... The most sustainable option is to reduce the amount of minerals used, followed by sourcing minerals from alternative sources including secondary and recycled materials, and finally through the primary extraction of minerals.
The role of the plan is to promote the development of a network of minerals recycling and processing facilities and to also control the amount of land allocated for primary extraction in order to promote the use of secondary materials.
With regards to people, it aims:
To ensure that the impacts on amenity of people living in proximity to minerals developments are rigorously controlled, minimised and mitigated.
To maintain and/or enhance landscape, biodiversity and residential amenity for people living in proximity to minerals development.
And on all these matters we would hope that DCC would echo something similar in its new plan. 

Where ECC and DCC will obviously differ is on how sites were selected for future quarrying. ECC says:
Sites have been chosen with regard to their environmental and social acceptability by avoiding imposing any unacceptable adverse impacts on public health and safety, amenity, the environment, local community or highways.
DCC, if it proceeded with the preferred sites so far put forward, would of course simply have to say:
Sites were chosen on the basis of surface and mineral rights being owned by AI.
Why so? Readers may remember that of the 21 sites DCC looked at, and despite a number of other landowners being agreeable in principle to extraction, only three sites were picked - those that had surface and mineral rights owned by AI. Just a coincidence? No, DCC was more focused on sites being 'deliverable' than on the environmental impacts. Some may have seen that as pragmatic. Others that DCC was too closely aligned to the wishes of a Swiss multinational cement conglomerate. Straitgate, as one of these sites, had, in fact, more constraints than almost any other site.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

EA needs a lot more answers

The Environment Agency has responded to Aggregate Industries' latest plans and reports, and now seeks further answers from the company on a range of issues.

One matter that has been clarified by the EA is their newly delineated SPZ - groundwater source protection zone - that stretches well into the area AI wants to quarry. AI had complained that this had been wrongly calculated. The EA robustly refutes this and says:
[AI's] Hydrogeological Baseline Report states that the Cadhay Source SPZ 2 was delineated based on the assumption of a 1m thick saturated aquifer. However, just for information, the SPZ was delineated using a velocity calculation and the topographic contours, which means that saturated thickness did not actually come into any calculations.

Us and them

Whatever the arguments about building single houses in the open countryside outside villages or built up areas, it is ironic that an application for a single dwelling on the perimeter of Straitgate Farm was recently refused by East Devon District Council, on the basis:
The proposed development would result in the introduction of [development] into an attractive rural environment with resulting harm to the visual appearance and appreciation of the countryside.
What did EDDC have to say in last year's consultation regarding a 10-year multi-million tonne sand and gravel quarry in the same location? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. One rule for some?

Monday, 2 September 2013

National Planning Practice Guidance

An online planning guidance resource has been issued in draft form from the Department for Communities and Local Government for public testing and comment. Here's the link to Minerals.

The existing guidance, says DCLG, "is almost impossible for residents and businesses to use effectively". The new and heavily cut-down version will "provide clearer protections for our natural and historic environment by giving power back to communities who are generally best placed to make local decisions". No really, that's what it says.

Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, hopes the new "national planning guidance will give much needed simplicity and clarity to the planning system and bring about better community involvement" because, after all, "planning shouldn’t just be the preserve of technocrats, lawyers and council officers".