Friday, 27 May 2016

What happened at the Examination?

The Examination of the Devon Minerals plan was adjourned today, after four days of hearings. An eight week consultation on modifications will begin in August; the Inspector will consider responses and produce his report by the end of October.

DCC and Aggregate Industries faced a number of difficult questions from the Inspector in relation to Straitgate. The Inspector learnt that despite Straitgate being one of DCC's Preferred Areas for future sand and gravel quarrying, despite the site being championed by the Council since 2012, despite consultations, discussions, reports and planning applications - we still don’t know how the site will be accessed or how the material will be processed. Fundamental unanswered questions. A Preferred Area is meant to be:
areas of known resources where planning permission might reasonably be anticipated
The draft Devon Minerals Plan puts forward two such areas. Even on the first day of the Hearing, in relation to over-provision of resource, the Inspector said:
I suppose the question is, do you need two Preferred Areas?
On the second day, questions started on Straitgate. On access, AI confirmed that it had no rights over the northern part of the site, leaving the only possible access on the southern side. The Inspector read out to AI what the company had previously said in its planning application to quarry Straitgate:
The southern option, onto the B3174, was dismissed early in the process on highway safety grounds. It would have been too close to existing accesses, including the access to Straitgate Farmhouse, and the vertical alignment of the highway at this point would compromise visibility. 5.44
Despite having had six months to sort this out, AI said it was still 're-assessing' this option; the option where the recent safety audit indicated that HGVs could only turn left - not right, where they would need to go; the option where only this week a DCC Highways Officer said "nothing has been resolved nor even tentatively agreed".

The Inspector moved on to processing. Having first ruled out Whiteball in Somerset, the Inspector read out to AI what the company had previously said in its planning application to quarry Straitgate:
It has been demonstrated that processing at Rockbeare is not physically possible due to a lack of silt space and clean water storage, insufficient stocking and processing area and the presence of great crested newts in existing ponds. 8.37
The Inspector wanted to know if AI had ruled out Rockbeare. AI wouldn't go that far, but did confirm that 'a detailed assessment had ruled it out as a viable option'. So, if not Rockbeare, what about Blackhill?

The Inspector read out to AI the objection from Natural England in response to the recent Blackhill/ Houndaller application; an application to process a fraction of the amount of nitrate-rich soils that would come from Straitgate:
At the current time, Natural England does not concur with the applicants view that the importation of the proposed material will not have an adverse effect on the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths SSSI/SAC for the following reasons... The unit of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths adjacent to Blackhill Quarry contains sensitive wetland habitats including areas of M14 - Schoenus nigricans-Narthecium ossifragum mire which is dependent on low nutrient status. This habitat is more sensitive than any other wetland habitats and is very sensitive to any nutrient change...
AI said it was working on a response. DCC said it was not putting Blackhill forward as a processing site in the Minerals Plan, relying on the phrase:
Proposals for the off-site processing of extracted materials should be located outside of the AONB unless exceptional circumstances can be demonstrated.
Which is all well and good, but where does DCC think the material will be processed?

The Inspector also raised questions on the risk of birdstrike, soil storage, B3180, hydrogeology, ancient woodland, archaeology, hedgerows and dormice, heritage, visual impact on AONB, flooding and tourism.

A further question addressed the amount of resource, and this issue was also considered at the hearing today. Earlier on in the proceedings, it was made clear that AI had dropped the 460,000 tonnes of overburden from its plans; an issue we had raised last year.

On the remaining resource, only last month DCC had advised:
Given that Aggregate Industries has stated the quantity by which their original resource figure would be reduced by compliance with the requirements of Table C.4 of the Plan, I consider that it would improve clarity of the Plan if the currently-modified reference to "Up to 1.2 million tonnes" be replaced by "Approximately 0.9 million tonnes".
This was in line with the EA's position:
In addition, although it was our understanding that the minerals development at Straitgate would entail above max water table working, we note that the operator is now proposing an operation that does not conform to the requirements of this policy or the mitigation proposed in Appendix C.
DCC has now backtracked on its statement, relying on the number in AI’s hastily produced resource statement, which "assumes a working base that coincides with… the maximum recorded winter water table" - not 1m above it - and the Council persists with the notion that Straitgate could provide "Up to 1.2 million tonnes"; a ridiculous show of faith when you consider how many times AI has revised that number. The dry working scheme sanctioned by the EA - see post below - could only produce 900,000 tonnes, according to AI’s own Regulation 22 response, and this point was made to the Inspector.

To safeguard private water supplies, the Inspector recommended more consistent wording in the main body of the Plan to reflect the wording in Appendix C.4:
The development of this site will only involve dry working, above the maximum winter (wet) level of groundwater with an unsaturated zone of at least 1m maintained across the site.
In summary, the Inspector was left not knowing how processing of any material from Straitgate would take place nor how access to the site might be safely achieved; a ludicrous situation for a Preferred Area; a ludicrous situation when you consider how long DCC and AI have had to prepare for this.