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.