Monday, 23 February 2015

Straitgate has already been a disaster for AI

When Straitgate Farm was bought in 1965 the 'available resource' was estimated to be 20 million tonnes. It has been falling ever since.

By the time planning permission was refused at the 1968 Public Inquiry, this amount was down to 17.15Mt, after "taking into account losses due to landscaping and to modifications to conserve water resources". By 1990, following extensive borehole surveys and losing part of the site to the new A30, it was down to 8.1Mt. By the time of DCC’s public consultation in 2012, the eastern half of the site had been 'abandoned' leaving 3.6Mt. Now, Aggregate Industries has revised that figure to 2.8Mt, and, determined to retrieve something, anything, after spending a fortune over the years on not only the site but on consultants, surveys, borehole drilling, monitoring, testing etc, the company is putting in a scoping request for just the 1.2Mt above the water table. It’s been a terrible investment by any metric.

Of course, the cynically minded might think AI has just split the resource into the two smaller amounts, above and below the water table, in an underhand ploy to increase its chance of winning further extensions at Blackhill, the thinking being that two consecutive 4-5 year extensions might stand more chance of succeeding than one of 10 years. However, what realistic prospect does AI have of extracting the material below the water table, when groundwater from Straitgate plays such a critical role to private water supplies and wetland habitats in ancient woodland, as indeed the Environment Agency recognises? AI's 1.6Mt below the water table is a stranded-asset and needs to be written off. Twenty million tonnes to 1.2Mt - only 6% of the figure first estimated in the 1960s.

Back in 1968, the planning inspector concluded:
… it may be that the review of the development plan will contain proposals for other land with less disadvantages, and it is not possible to say now that the need for the Straitgate site is in any way overriding. For this reason any approval would be premature, and my recommendation not to allow that application is also on that basis, apart from the water supply considerations. (408.p)
He recognised the disadvantages and the water problems with Straitgate, but could rule the site out on prematurity considerations alone. The site may no longer be as premature, but with birdstrike, dormice and archaeological assets there’s now an even longer list of disadvantages.

In 1968, before any talk of supporting "the move to a low carbon future", initial processing was to be at nearby Rockbeare; now the best that AI can come up with is trucking 1.2Mt of sand and gravel 8 miles away to Woodbury Common. That’s not a plan or a quantity that’s worth destroying a farm for, that’s worth causing so much environmental damage for.

Has AI fallen into the sunk cost fallacy? Is it making irrational decisions in an effort to recover anything from its investment in Straitgate? AI proudly claims "We are pioneers of best practice in sustainability" but then admits that "transport CO2 emissions have gradually increased since we started to monitor them in 2007". Is it any wonder, with plans like Straitgate? It’s time for Holcim's bean-counters to tell AI to stop throwing good money after bad and leave the farmers to get on with farming the land, as they have done for hundreds, even thousands of years.