Thursday, 19 September 2013

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.