Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why on earth was AI permitted to carry on processing in an AONB in 2010?

Aggregate Industries’ plans for Straitgate Farm rely on processing plant, restoration delays and 5 miles of haul road inside the boundary of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - so let’s remind ourselves exactly what the NPPF says on AONBs:
115. Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage are important considerations in all these areas, and should be given great weight in National Parks and the Broads.
116. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of: the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy; the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way; and any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.
The Devon Structure Plan 2001-2016 Policy CO3 and East Devon’s Emerging Local Plan Draft Strategy 40 say much the same thing. Section 85(1) of the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 says all public bodies, DCC included, exercising functions affecting land in an AONB must "...have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the area of outstanding natural beauty".

So what does the NPPF mean when it says "except in exceptional circumstances"?

The recent case where the Science Museum was granted planning permission for a 67 hectare solar power scheme is an example. Its storage facility at Wroughton Airfield in the North Wessex Downs AONB houses hundreds of thousands of items of national importance. The Communities Secretary ruled that exceptional circumstances existed to justify approval for the scheme, despite objections from English Heritage and others. In the Science Museum’s case, the exceptional circumstance was not the benefit that renewable energy sufficient to power 12,000 homes would bring - but the £200k pa of ring-fenced income generated that would go towards preserving items of national importance:
399. ...given that the Science Museum is seeking to enhance its ability to conserve heritage assets of national importance, weight is given to the income it would derive from the operation of the proposed solar farm.
406. ...The circumstances of the Science Museum’s need for the development are exceptional and outweigh the less than substantial harm that would be caused to the environment and the weight that is afforded to conservation of the landscape of the AONB.
So why on earth was AI permitted in 2010 to continue its environmentally harmful operations in an AONB, with 44-tonne HGVs hauling as-dug material from Venn Ottery over the strictly protected East Devon Pebblebed Heaths (SSSI, SPA, SAC) to Blackhill - when an undesignated industrial site at Rockbeare was 2 miles closer, a site already earmarked for the job in Devon’s Minerals Local Plan 2004

What were the exceptional circumstances that allowed an isolated processing plant with no attached quarry to continue operating? It’s clear from the report to DCC’s Development Management Committee on the issue that there were none:
6.17 The option to provide fixed plant at Rockbeare has the advantage of the site being outside of the AONB. However, [AI] considered that this would be uneconomical in terms of the investment required due to the limited permitted reserves at Venn Ottery and Marshbroadmoor. Again, if mobile plant were to be used at Rockbeare the range of materials would be less, sales reduced, and the life of Venn Ottery Quarry prolonged...
7.1 On balance the continuation of processing at Blackhill is preferable in amenity terms than processing operations taking place at Venn Ottery Quarry. It is therefore considered that planning permission be granted in accordance with the recommendation of this Report.
However, Rockbeare would have obviously been preferable 'in amenity terms' to the continued processing on Woodbury Common, but DCC took AI at its word and showed it was more concerned about the economic benefits that would flow to a Swiss cement conglomerate than the environmental benefits that would flow to the AONB and nature conservation.

Because of this decision, and AI's consequent lack of investment in Rockbeare plant that could have handled Venn Ottery, Marshbroadmoor and Straitgate material, the company will be looking to DCC to roll over and make exactly the same decision again in 2015. This cannot be allowed to happen. What exceptional circumstances could there possibly be to allow Straitgate Farm material to be processed eight miles away inside an AONB, when AI has alternative undesignated sites that would result in less HGV miles on Devon roads? Because, as the AONB Unit said in the Science Museum case: "this is not a matter of making a judgement which balances competing interests, but of refusing schemes unless they demonstrably satisfy the obligations of the policy" - the policy which states "permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances...".

Monday, 23 March 2015

Claims and more claims, but who stands to gain the most?

Safeguarding jobs is the old chestnut Aggregate Industries is wheeling out to support its plans to dig up an East Devon farm and haul the spoils across Woodbury Common; last week’s Express & Echo article - East Devon quarry block ‘will put jobs at risk’ - is just the latest example:
THE livelihoods of East Devon quarry employees will be at risk if proposals for a 100-acre quarry on the outskirts of Ottery St Mary do not go ahead.
Officials from Aggregate Industries, which runs quarries at Blackhill on Woodbury Common, and Venn Ottery, have confirmed that this is the reality if they cannot proceed with their plans to quarry Straitgate Farm near Daisymount roundabout.
It is not clear exactly how many jobs could be affected but it is thought to be less than 10.
This argument - and we have written about this before - may have washed in the past, when hundreds of jobs were at stake, but not any more; any local jobs secured by AI's plans should be offset against the farming jobs at risk and the negative impact on other local businesses. In any case, AI has other local reserves and resources. The jobs argument is a red herring; trucking as-dug aggregate across the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, risking drinking water supplies, and airport safeguarding issues are not.

And whilst AI claims livelihoods are at risk, its Swiss-parent Holcim claims:

Sustainable. That's us.
Being part of the solutions to the challenges of our time.
Holcim has a long history of sustainable development. Our continuous commitment to mitigate CO2 emissions, provide waste management solutions, use alternative resources, and improve quality of life in our communities, started many years ago. Our sustainability efforts today concentrate on climate, resources, and communities...
Which all seems very admirable, but its plans for East Devon, with its polluting 1,000,000 mile haulage scheme to a site of European importance to nature conservation, are the antithesis of such claims.

What is true is that the parties that stand to gain the most from all this are a long way from East Devon.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

"...working in partnership with the surrounding communities every step of the way"

This is what Aggregate Industries says about its local quarry operations in the glossy Straitgate brochure.

But when it came to a very simple request… nothing.

For all those people who didn’t go to AI’s public exhibitions, we had hoped to put the company’s display board plans on this website. SLR’s Technical Director Planning & Estate Management and AI’s Estates Manager agreed to send them to us.

However, three requests and two weeks later, these plans are still not forthcoming. Requests for AMEC's groundwater report have also gone unanswered.

Many people could be affected by AI’s plans for Straitgate - B3180 - Woodbury Common, not just those living in Ottery St Mary and West Hill - the village of Woodbury for example, AI's 'Plan B' transport route. And many people were unable to attend the exhibitions because of the late notice or other commitments; some local people - including major neighbouring landowners - simply weren’t told.

With AI’s juggernaut quarry proposal about to roll up on Ottery’s doorstep, what possible reason could there be for not making these plans - plans already made public once - available for wider scrutiny? Now is the time for openness and transparency, not stonewalling. Or does AI still have things to hide?

Those who did attend AI’s exhibitions raised a range of concerns about the company’s plans - from the younger generation pointing out AI's apparent disregard for emissions and climate change, to the older generation worried about HGVs and safety.

Not everyone at the exhibition, however, was offered the opportunity to record these concerns. If you still wish to do so, you can email them to Aggregate Industries at


1. The Barnwell Manor Court of Appeal judgement continues to have major planning ramifications:

Following the Court of Appeal judgement in the Barnwell Manor case there is a need to give considerable importance and weight to the desirability of preserving the setting of a listed building when carrying out the planning balance. Less than substantial harm does not equate to a less than substantial planning objection... 
There is then no presumptive starting point in favour of this proposal. Because of the acknowledged harm to relevant assets (listed buildings) the approach as explained by the Court of Appeal in Barnwell and subsequently by Lindblom J in Forge Field applies so that there is a strong statutory presumption against permission being granted. 
The inspector failed to give reasons demonstrating that he had given considerable weight to the harm to the setting of each of the listed buildings that he found would be harmed to some extent by the proposed development.
the council had failed in its duty to have "special regard" to the desirability of preserving the setting of listed buildings
2. Ecotricity was denied permission for two wind turbines due to the increased risk to low flying aircraft:

3. A shortage of minerals is not by itself enough to outweigh environmental considerations, this case in Scotland concludes:

In relation to the need for minerals, the reporter conceded in his report that there was not an identified landbank of permitted quarries within the area that could meet the identified need for sand and gravel over the next ten years. Nevertheless, he concluded that the scheme’s benefits did not outweigh the significant adverse landscape and visual effects.
4. Climate change and biodiversity are important, writes Pat Ward, CEO, Aggregate Industries - just not important enough to shape the company's plans for Straitgate Farm and Woodbury Common:

5. Moving goalposts again... in this case, an approved quarry restoration scheme was varied to allow the importation of 686,000 cubic metres of inert waste:

6. In a communication received last week: "This is quite contrary to what we were told at the last Blackhill/Venn Ottery Liaison Meeting in September when we were told that Blackhill would be closing."

7. Wouldn't AI make more money going in to the Iron Age roundhouse hospitality business??

Nick Smith

Monday, 9 March 2015


People will take one look at Aggregate Industries’ Straitgate Farm - B3180 - Woodbury Common scheme and think is this really the best that the company can come up with - for itself, for Devon, or for the environment? Because, even from a dispassionate standpoint, it really doesn’t look like it.

AI, and its consultants SLR, will have to address why the company has chosen this way of doing things, and not any of the less environmentally damaging alternatives, in its Environmental Statement. As a minimum, AI will need to supply:
An outline of the main alternatives studied by the applicant or appellant and an indication of the main reasons for the choice made, taking into account the environmental effects.
Good practice will look for more, says the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment.

How important is it that planning applicants - whether for an environmentally sensitive potential quarry site, for a B-road haulage route or for a processing plant in an area of European importance to nature - thoroughly investigate the alternatives? Sometimes it can be very important.

Overall, there is insufficient convincing evidence to support the conclusions drawn in relation to alternative locations to clearly demonstrate that the proposed site is the most suitable, deliverable and available option for the [Liquid Sludge Import Centre]
Or take AI and its plans for a concrete plant opposite The O2 in London that were rejected because the planning inspector was critical of the apparent failure of the company to consider "alternative layouts and arrangements of structures" that would be less harmful to the surroundings.

The MPA would also strongly advise the applicant that the alternatives section of the ES should consider processing at sites other than Blackhill as the MPA has already advised AI that permission for processing of material from Straitgate at this location raises significant policy and environmental concerns. 
The relative environmental impacts of known alternative means of providing the aggregate supply should be considered including processing materials at Rockbeare and sourcing material from existing consented supplies within the eastern Devon area as advised by the NPPF. It would be helpful if any assessment of alternatives could include a “do nothing” option as the applicant has already advised the MPA that without the Blackhill option the Phase 1 working is unlikely to be viable and so it is known that this option has been considered. The applicant is therefore advised to consider the main alternatives to mitigate the likely impacts of this proposal which in the opinion of the MPA would be: (a) Sourcing material from existing permitted reserves (b) Processing the materials in a less environmentally sensitive location. (c) Do nothing.
What alternatives are there? Well, apart from using the secondary aggregate littering the county, AI could fully work out and restore its existing local sites for a start. There are still 4 million tonnes of sand and gravel with permission at Houndaller near Hillhead Quarry. AI may claim ‘it’s too sandy’, but the deposit was good enough when the company intended to move Blackhill plant to it six years ago:
Uffculme Parish Council Minutes of the Meeting held on 2 October 2008
Plant at Hillhead Quarry demolished, site closed except for storage. The current economic downturn has put movement of plant from Blackhill to Houndaller on hold
Hillhead Quarry itself still has 0.5 million tonnes. So that’s already 4.5 million tonnes, potentially 12 years worth, before even having to think about the 8 million tonnes at Penslade, a greenfield site identified by DCC in the 2012 consultation as N6/N8, to the east of Houndaller. None of these sites have the same hydrological and environmental constraints, on-site processing restrictions, or airport safeguarding issues that Straitgate has. All could deliver saleable sand and gravel to the M5 at Exeter with less total haulage-miles (using predominantly A-roads and motorway) than any Straitgate material.

So it will be interesting to see how AI argues that none of these alternatives would be more acceptable. And if AI doesn’t look properly at ALL the alternatives - for site, route and processing - local people, councillors and, if it gets to that, a planning inspector no doubt will, because hauling as-dug sand and gravel, whether 16.4 miles for Plan A or 28.8 miles for Plan B through Devon villages, to an isolated processing plant in the middle of of an AONB/SPA/SAC is patently absurd.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Things that came out of AI's exhibition

No display boards showed 'Phase 2' at Aggregate Industries' public exhibition, and all talk of Phase 2 will now, following DCC's Scoping Opinion, be dropped from the company's Environmental Statement and planning application. But Phase 2, quarrying below the water table, is - as far as AI is concerned - still very much on the table, a spokesman confirmed, despite the implications for private water supplies, ancient woodland, mediaeval fishponds and birdstrike. Local people looking at AI’s restoration plans (for Phase 1) must remember that the colourful posters are, as yet, just that - colourful posters. It is not yet the company’s aim or intention.

Processing on Woodbury Common and transporting as-dug material along the B3180 will now form part of the planning application to quarry Straitgate Farm. All the East Devon Pebblebed Heath’s nature conservation designations will now come into play when assessing AI’s application for Straitgate.

Submission of AI’s planning application is expected at the end of March or beginning of April, despite all the matters raised in the scoping exercise. SLR is of the view that the matter could take 8 months or so to determine, which indicates that many of the issues with statutory consultees will still be unresolved when the planning application is submitted. In contrast, the NPPF and DCC encourage applicants to 'front-load' applications, "the more issues that can be resolved at pre-application stage, the greater the benefits".

AI is confident enough to say that Cadhay's ponds won’t be affected by its proposal; it is still not confident enough to say that drinking water supplies to 100 people won’t be harmed. This is despite AI finally pledging to maintain a one metre depth of unsaturated resource above the water table's winter level - something we have said should happen numerous times before.

Rockbeare has physical constraints that may preclude it from being an alternative location to Blackhill, for processing Straitgate (or any other site's) material - see blog below.

A meeting was held at DCC last week to consider Straitgate's inclusion in Devon's Minerals Plan. Personnel from DCC, AI, AMEC, SLR, Natural England and the Environment Agency were present. AMEC was still unable to convince the EA that there would not be unacceptable harm to the water environment. Until such time as it can, Straitgate Farm will not be put in the Minerals Plan. If Straitgate is not put in the Plan, DCC will look to allocate other local resources (ie. S1-S10). However, AI’s comments on Rockbeare should influence that decision, because, without viable local processing locations, the allocation of such sites could be argued to be unsound. In any case, AI has indicated on many occasions that if it does not win Straitgate, it will look to return to Hillhead and surrounding area.

AI came out with a potential Plan B for transport - see blog below. Plainly matters of air pollution and climate change are not shaping AI’s thinking, at all.

AI’s plans need to be put out of their misery

Most quarries use internal haul roads to transport as-dug material from the quarry face to the processing plant. In East Devon, Aggregate Industries chooses to use our public roads. From 23 February for 34 days, as a section of the B3180 is closed, this is AI’s 'haul-road' from Venn Ottery to Blackhill Quarry:

For the Straitgate proposal, this is the route that AI wants to use:

It is an idea that has already generated much objection, from local people and other bodies alike, and AI realises that hauling as-dug sand and gravel on a B-road, through a village, over Woodbury Common, may not get approval. But if you think a round journey of 16.4 miles for each load is polluting and unsustainable, some 1 million miles over 5 years, then look at AI’s idea for Plan B:

This whole thing is becoming a nonsense: A round trip of 28.8 miles, through the village of Woodbury, for each and every load over 5 years, to an isolated processing site in the middle of an AONB, SAC, SPA. 

The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths is an area where a stand-alone minerals processing plant, not next to an active quarry, would surely be regarded as inappropriate development, much like a quarry workshop in Shropshire green belt that was refused at planning appeal last year: would not be relevant once the quarry use had ceased as there would be no reason why the cutting of stone from other quarries only need take place here in this Green Belt location. 
After the quarry has ceased, to my mind economic benefits alone can be given little weight to justify the development, as again there is no particular reason why such a building needs to be in this location.
AI’s problem is that processing at Rockbeare may not be possible either. Not only does it have physical constraints with silt capacity and water supplies, but settlement ponds necessary for processing would have the same potential to increase birdstrike risk for Exeter Airport, as any water features would do at Straitgate.

AI is between a rock and a hard place and the decent thing would be to put its plans for Straitgate out of their misery.