Monday, 27 November 2017

“The combination of rural roads - statistically the most dangerous - and HGVs can be lethal”

That’s the warning from Brake, the road safety charity responsible for coordinating Road Safety Week.

Aggregate Industries’ plans for Straitgate Farm would put up to 200 HGV movements a day on Ottery’s busiest and fastest road - 44 tonne monsters loaded to the gunnels with sand and gravel turning right up a hill on a B road that’s less than 6m wide in places.

Each load would entail a 46 mile round trip for processing near Uffculme - some 2.5 million miles in all; enough reason alone - you would think - to reject this madcap application out of hand - on climate, air pollution and sustainability grounds alone.

All this together with a woefully deficient Transport Assessment, that contained no accident modelling or road safety projections, failed to take into account the 25% growth in Ottery’s housing, but did contain fictional traffic counts and who knows what else.

It’s shameful; a disaster waiting to happen.

And it looks like DCC is prepared to go along with it all; hook, line and sinker.

We’ve all been aware of the stories in the press in recent times - detailing a multitude of HGV horrors. There’s no need to repeat them here.

Despite making up a small percentage of overall traffic, HGVs are involved in an unacceptably high number of fatal road traffic collisions and these figures show things are not improving. Whilst cars are getting safer, HGVs continue to be extremely dangerous in a collision. There are far too many large, heavy lorries on roads which are often totally unsuitable for them, as the high rate of crashes on minor roads shows.

And why are HGV crashes on the increase? Take a look at this article from 2015 reporting that "Quarry firms and heavy hauliers are blaming politicians and public policy makers for an apparent rise in crashes involving heavy goods vehicles":
Last week a four-year-old girl and three adults were killed in Bath when an 18-year-old driver lost control of a 32-tonne tipper truck. Until recently, the minimum age for driving this size of truck was 21 and insurance restrictions and safety concerns normally meant that few drivers younger than 24 were actually allowed behind the wheel. However, there has been a mass exodus of experienced drivers from the industry and transport managers are forced to use less experienced, foreign and agency drivers to keep vehicles on the road.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 lorry drivers changed jobs or retired rather than sit their CPC, compounding the shortage of experienced HGV drivers.
But whatever the reasons for the increasing number of HGV crashes, DCC could never pretend they weren’t warned of the dangers of AI's application; by countless local respondents, highways consultants - and this blog too.

Why are Devon’s highways so dangerous?

"Devon is most dangerous county to drive in according to this new online tool", reports DevonLive, revealing how Devon is the worst performing county in the south west for road safety.

In fact, Devon's record on road safety "is falling behind Britain as a whole", according to The Road Safety Foundation - "a UK charity advocating road casualty reduction through simultaneous action on all three components of the safe road system: roads, vehicles and behaviour".

250,000 people have been killed or seriously injured on Britain's roads in the past 10 years. More than 70 people every day.
More than £36 billion is lost in road crashes annually. That’s nearly 2% of GDP - more than we spend on primary schools and GP services combined. The lifetime care of a single victim can cost more than £20m.
But we no longer need to accept road deaths. Research shows that for every £1 spent on road safety engineering treatments the economy is typically saved more than £3.
The Road Safety Foundation has ranked the UK's most improved roads, and has praised Gloucestershire County Council.

The Road Safety Foundation has also ranked all 78 counties by road safety improvement since 2010. So, how’s Devon doing?

Why is Devon doing so poorly?

Perhaps DCC’s relaxed attitude to Aggregate Industries’ Straitgate Farm plans to put up to 200 HGVs a day onto a dangerous B road, for an onward 46-mile round trip, gives you a clue?

“Mineral rights could undermine £25m plan”

We have previously referred to this issue in Does Devon's new Minerals Plan stand for anything? asking where Mineral Safeguarding was when Sibelco needed it, and how DCC had said:
The Minerals Plan features the introduction of "Mineral Safeguarding Areas" which aim to secure valuable mineral resources from sterilisation by new development, to ensure that they remain available for use by future generations.
CLAY company Sibelco has raised serious concerns over a £25 million development to create a mini new town on the western edge of Newton Abbot.
Known as Houghton Barton, the area is earmarked for a sustainable development of 1,800 new homes, a school, employment land, community centre and green space as well as a new road linking the A382 with the A383.
Part of the site is considered to be an important location for ball clay and Sibelco urges the planning authority to ‘seek the most appropriate use of land that has been identified for strategic growth.’ 
Sibelco say using the land for employment will mean it is unable to access the ball clay beneath. 
Devon County Council has already had to delay plans to widen and realign the A383 as it lies within the mineral safeguarding area. The scheme may now have to go to a judicial review unless the parties can reach agreement by the end of this month.

LafargeHolcim’s involvement in Syria

We’ve posted on this issue before; LafargeHolcim is the parent company of Aggregate Industries.

Earlier this month police raided the Paris office of LafargeHolcim in relation to the affair. Now there are reports that "the company paid a total of US$5.6m to a number of local factions in Syria, including to the Islamic State group". As the Newsweek article concludes:
Lafarge's alleged support for militants in Syria wouldn't be the first time the group, one of the largest construction companies in the world, has found itself involved in controversial projects, according to France 24. The company reportedly participated in the construction of a massive coastal wall of bunkers known as the "Atlantic Wall" for the Nazis in 1942, a collaboration that gave Lafarge a distinct advantage over its peers for decades to come.
This is the company - the same one that offered to build Trump's Wall on the Mexico border - that would ultimately benefit from any quarrying activities at Straitgate Farm.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Blackhill Quarry: restoration, awards and great crested newts

Restoration of Blackhill Quarry on Woodbury Common continues apace.

Aggregate Industries is even winning awards from their industry colleagues for past restoration work.

However, some might find the headline "No quarrel over Aggregate’s quarry restoration" hard to swallow, after the company fought tooth and nail to cling onto the site - to process material from Straitgate Farm and to dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of nitrate-rich silt into an area that needs nitrate-deficient soils.

Anyway, it's all good news now; AI has even been finding great crested newts - a European Protected Species - at Blackhill. Readers will remember that AI has something of a history with GCNs:

At Rockbeare, the company found GCNs at the 11th hour as a reason why it couldn't use the site to process material from Straitgate; and yet, at Straitgate, AI still hasn't done a full survey of all the surrounding ponds - as highlighted by Natural England back in 2015.

In AI's application to extend the use of Blackhill, DCC had to advise the company that:
No information is provided in the ES as to whether there are protected species on the application site...
There is one record of great crested newt within 2 km of the site (at Woodberry [sic] in 2001). 4.33
The only protected species recorded within or immediately adjacent to the site within the last ten years is the butterfly silver-studded blue Plebejus argus. 4.34
So, GCNs couldn't be found when the site's planning application was being discussed, but can be found when there are biodiversity prizes at stake. Funny that.

Blackhill Closing Down Sale

We’ve already posted about Blackhill Quarry restoration and how Aggregate Industries’ signs that adorn the area warn that:
These works will involve large mobile plant being active on site for around 12 months from September / October 2017. Throughout these operations no material will be imported into the site, processed on site or taken off site.
But what AI says is often different to what AI does, and finished material is certainly being "taken off site" - as it should, if it’s not to be wasted - and sold into locations elsewhere in Devon.

In fact, HGVs have been streaming out of Blackhill Quarry in an obvious push to clear the stocking area before the end of this year - when both this area and the plant area are due to be restored.

That timetable was formalised back in 2013, but even with four years’ notice the company will struggle to meet these deadlines; the plant still shows no signs of coming down.

Friday, 17 November 2017

More delays to come

Aggregate Industries’ planning application to quarry Straitgate is unlikely to be determined anytime soon.

Perhaps the end game is now beginning to be played out. Perhaps not. Who knows? In the end, the outcome of this ridiculous and unsustainable application may hinge on clauses buried in aged legal papers - as we alluded to in Why the delay? It’s black & white and So, what’s AI planning to do?

That was how AI’s last application fell apart. It looks like it could be the undoing of this one too. In any event, it's likely that matters will be tangled up for months as solicitors to and fro.

As we've already posted, the cows have put AI in a very big hole. Earlier this month we wrote:
it’s been evident for some time that the cattle crossing proposed by AI was not deliverable. It’s obvious that for AI to proceed any further it must remove cows from the picture. And this is where the company has a problem, because it can’t; in law or otherwise.
To remove the cows from the picture, AI would need to show it can gain vacant possession of the farm. The tenants, however, have the benefit of an Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 Tenancy Agreement. AHA tenancies provide succession rights for future generations and are difficult to terminate. Nevertheless, tenants can be given notice to quit where:
the land is required for a use, other than for agriculture — for which permission has been granted on an application made under the enactments relating to town and country planning
If AI’s application for Straitgate were to be successful, the tenants could be evicted from the land for which permission has been granted for non-agricultural mineral-related development; i.e. land within the red line planning boundary.

No such grounds would exist to evict the tenants from land and buildings beyond this boundary. The tenants cannot therefore be evicted from the entire holding; the cows cannot be removed from the picture; the tenants would have no choice but to use land in their control to the south - across the Exeter Road - to replace the pasture lost to them by any quarrying.

If AI wants to rely on the tenancy agreement for Straitgate Farm, that’s clear too. The relevant clause is:
43. Power to resume possession of part of the holding
You can see AI’s problem; part: (noun) some but not all of something. Clause 43 is long, but essentially:
It shall be lawful for the Landlord to resume possession at any time of any part or parts of the land for any purpose specified in Section 31 of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948... for mining quarrying gravel working... such resumption of possession not to terminate the tenancy hereby created except in regard to the land taken.
Possession of any part of the land for quarrying cannot terminate the tenancy for other parts of the land, farmhouse and agricultural buildings. It’s pretty straightforward.

Solicitors acting for AI will no doubt rattle their sabres, invent a hotchpotch of different arguments, threaten the tenants with all manner of things; standard fare when your case is weak.

If the law was on the side of AI it would not need to resort to such bluff and bluster. But what else can it do? The company has backed itself into a corner.

And AI won’t want to leave fate to a Tribunal. Trying to make a case that a Sixteenth Century Grade II listed Devon Longhouse is needed for quarrying would just look stupid.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

“Dark clouds hang over construction industry...”

Confidence about future construction work has dropped to its lowest level in nearly five years.

Earlier this year we posted Is DCC's LAA living in LAA LAA land? We wrote about how DCC had been playing with "housing trajectory scenarios", stress testing Devon's sand and gravel landbank, speculating that if sand and gravel sales were to miraculously jump 51% the landbank would drop below the required seven years in 2020 - thereby helping a Swiss multinational justify a planning application to quarry a small greenfield site in East Devon, when in reality there are currently 13 years of permitted reserves.

Despite DCC's fantasy projections, the MPA has reported that demand for sand and gravel has fallen again. We posted earlier in the year that Devon sand and gravel sales were down 14% in 2016.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The question Amec refuses to answer – even to the EA

The Environment Agency's letter of 9 October to DCC was very clear. Amongst other things, the Agency wanted Aggregate Industries to provide information on tolerances; specifically:
A description of the tolerance levels and interpolation method used to produce the ‘Maximum Winter Water Table’ grid.
Why? The MWWT is the surface that AI wants to quarry down to at Straitgate Farm. It would be the floor to any quarry. As AI does not intend to leave 1m unquarried above the MWWT to protect drinking water supplies - the typical requirement elsewhere - it is quite appropriate to ask what level of confidence AI or its consultants Amec have in this surface, and how this tolerance level has been derived. When essentially only 6 data points have been used to model this surface across almost 60 acres, the MWWT obviously cannot be exact. So, is it +/-1m, +/-2m or more? It's important to know because it could have a dramatic bearing on any working method employed.

As we posted last week, AI has now responded to the EA’s recent letter - at least in part. But whilst Amec is happy to talk about interpolation methods - it still won't address tolerances.

It’s almost two years ago that we first asked DCC the question:
Since AI now intends to dig right down to the maximum water table, perhaps you could ask Amec to confirm the specific level of accuracy (in +/- m) to which their maximum groundwater contours are mapped?
DCC asked AI and Amec for an answer. No answer was forthcoming. The EA’s letter effectively asked the same question again. Still no answer was forthcoming.

With the maximum groundwater contours defining the extent of any quarrying this is obviously a critical point - with so many people relying on the area’s groundwater for their drinking water supplies; relying on their wells not drying up or becoming polluted.

Interpolation, in this case at least, is just a fancy word for estimation. Amec's response says "Four alternative grid interpolation methods were selected... Each of these methods represents an exact interpolator". Perhaps Amec hoped that the word "exact" might deal with the issue. It doesn’t.

What an "exact interpolator" means here is that the estimated MWWT surface passes through each of the six recorded maximum water level points. In other words, the MWWT surface is "exact" in just 6 locations. It does not mean that the interpolation is "exact" anywhere else across the site. No surface modelled across 60 acres from 6 data points could be.

And to demonstrate just that, it turns out that two of those four mathematical interpolation methods "selected" didn’t work. And even for the method chosen, Radial Basis Function:
RBFs are conceptually similar to fitting a rubber membrane through the measured sample values while minimizing the total curvature of the surface. The basis function you select determines how the rubber membrane will fit between the values.
RBFs are used to produce smooth surfaces from a large number of data points.

Amec cannot claim the entire surface is exact, that the error is zero, that the tolerance is +/-0m, because:
In this case the data samples - all 6 of them - are not "dense", far far from it.

So Amec has chosen to stay silent again - even to the EA. What have AI and Amec got to hide? And how much confidence is that going to give local people? 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Is this a level playing field?

No of course not. It never has been. Nevertheless, until now DCC has in most cases made information regarding Straitgate Farm available on request.

At the start of this month, however, we were forced to raise a Freedom of Information request with DCC merely to see, in a timely manner, Aggregate Industries’ response to a meeting Straitgate Action Group instigated with the Environment Agency.

Is this DCC’s way of helping AI win local people’s trust - by hiding documents from scrutiny for as long as possible?
decision-making in the planning world must be seen to be fair, impartial and open when considered from the perspective of an external observer.
There are some basic principles in the planning process; DCC helpfully reminds us what they are:
The planning system relies on ensuring that officers and members act in a way which is not only fair, but also is clearly seen to be so. The planning process must therefore involve open and transparent decision making. The process should leave no grounds for suggesting with any justification that a decision has been partial, biased, or not in any way well founded.
Fair. Open. Transparent.

DCC said AI’s response would be made available in due course - when AI has finished submitting a number of other documents. That may be the end of this week; that may be in six months time. With AI, who knows?

On the other hand, documents submitted by objectors and their solicitors are made available to AI without delay; the further response from Foot Anstey and Vectos, submitted subsequent to AI’s response to the EA, being a recent example. Level playing field?

On the issue of AI’s response to the EA: after their initial objection, the EA produced another response in September. It was our view that matters were not clear, and members of the Group secured a meeting with the EA accordingly. The EA subsequently advised DCC:
we agreed with the Straitgate Action Group that further information should be requested from the applicant…
AI supplied this information three weeks ago to DCC, who then sent it directly to the EA. DCC will not yet make it available to the people that called the meeting.

Why? Is the Council just trying to impede scrutiny from local people? Or is DCC is not interested in any more scrutiny? We know the Council just wants the site delivered; that much must now be clear - even "from the perspective of an external observer". 

Under FOI rules, the Council will endeavour to provide a response "no later than 29 November 2017". In the meantime, the documents in question have now been secured through other means - and are available below for local people to scrutinise at their leisure.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Why the delay? It’s black & white

There are a number of outstanding issues that have caused Aggregate Industries’ planning application for Straitgate Farm to be delayed again, but one is plain and simple.

It’s to do with the cows, and AI’s in a real bind. So much so that as things stand the company’s proposal to quarry Straitgate is not deliverable.

We alluded to this in September in So, what’s AI planning to do? having first posted about Bovine movements back in April.

Straitgate Farm is a dairy operation, and has been so for 80 years or more. If land is taken for quarrying, the farm’s 150 dairy cows would need to cross the B3174 Exeter Road four times each day to access replacement pasture.

This was the number one thing AI had to answer in DCC’s Reg22 request, and in response AI said it would provide a cattle crossing:
To supplement the grazing needs of the tenant’s dairy herd it will be the intention of the applicant to provide a new dedicated route for cattle from the existing milking parlour at Straitgate Farm to the land south of Exeter Road. The new route would include a proposed cattle crossing on the Exeter Road.
AI’s Stage 1 Road Safety Audit warned that:
This could be an additional hazard to users of the B3174.
The provision of a Cattle crossing over the B3174 may have severe impact on the operation of the B3174, which in the absence of assessment is not known. 
In September, DCC asked AI to produce a Stage 2 Safety Audit to show that the cattle crossing would be safe; the fact that no such document has been forthcoming plainly shows it’s not.

In fact, from all the above, and Queues of over 100 vehicles from cattle crossing makes AI’s plans unworkable, it’s been evident for some time that the cattle crossing proposed by AI was not deliverable.

It’s obvious that for AI to proceed any further it must remove cows from the picture. And this is where the company has a problem, because it can’t; in law or otherwise.

The tenants can’t be evicted from the entire holding. That’s black & white. AI has previously confirmed:
The applicant is the Landlord of the Agricultural Tenant at Straitgate Farm who has the benefit of an Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 Tenancy Agreement. 1.2
Under the AHA 1986, tenants can be given notice to quit land permitted for non-agricultural development; it goes without saying that the same grounds cannot be used to evict tenants from land that has not been granted such permission. For Straitgate Farm, the tenancy agreement is unequivocal:
... such resumption of possession not to terminate the tenancy hereby created except in regard to the land taken. 43
The tenants, who also control land to the north and south of the farm, are unlikely to have any intention of giving up their successful dairy operation or surrendering their secure AHA 1986 tenancy. Why would they? Straitgate Farm has been tenanted by members of the same family since 1939.
DCC can’t advance the proposal without knowing how the issue of cows crossing the Exeter Road would be dealt with; Vectos made that clear:
the impact of the proposed Cattle crossing over the B3174 should be assessed as part of the application.
Finally, Straitgate Farm is classified as ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land. AI’s planning application is for "Phased Restoration to Agriculture". Devon's newly adopted Minerals Plan also states that Straitgate should be worked in a phased manor and restored to agricultural use as soon as possible:
The working and restoration phasing should minimise the area of land not in cultivation, as soil is best conserved by being farmed rather than stored where some deterioration may occur. C.4
And, if DCC only listens to statutory consultees, Natural England is also very clear on this issue:
Phased working and restoration of the land back to BMV can only be achieved if a viable farming operation - which in this case is dairy - is maintained at Straitgate. That’s also black & white.

The cows have put AI in a very big hole.

AI has run into even more problems

Should we begin to feel sorry for Aggregate Industries?

Readers may remember that in August, solicitors Foot Anstey and traffic consultants Vectos, representing the third party whose oak tree (Tree H) is at risk from AI’s plans, responded to the planning application to quarry Straitgate Farm; we posted Highway consultants demonstrate AI’s attempt to use Birdcage Lane has ‘failed’; Damage to 3rd party property ‘would expose Council to legal action’.

In September, AI supplied a revised junction plan which included a pedestrian footway.

This week we were copied into a letter from Foot Anstey and Vectos to DCC criticising those revised plans. They raised a number of new issues; even the gravel path for pedestrians is not deliverable:
In relation to the proposed drawing provided by the applicant, it is clear that it creates even more problems.

Foot Anstey and Vectos also commented further on Tree H - which is not owned by AI but is "likely [to] be damaged by the development and need to be felled." The owner of this oak tree has previously objected to such damage. We've posted on the subject of Tree H before: How AI’s site access plans still have a major problem and Should DCC support a scheme that requires criminal damage to implement?

DCC has already been advised by Foot Anstey that the third party:
... will not allow damage to his property. Accordingly, any development which may cause such damage will be resisted through available legal means, which may include an application for an injunction and/or an action for damages. Any such action would be brought against both the applicant and the Council (in its capacity as the local highways authority), and may also include a private prosecution for criminal damage.
Notwithstanding the numerous additional trees that would be lost on the other side of Birdcage Lane, DCC was of the view that AI's revised plan had fixed the Tree H issue, that it "would not require the sort of construction that would be likely to impact on the tree".

In their latest letter, Foot Anstey and Vectos disagreed:
It is not accepted that the provision of a gravel footway would not harm the tree. There would still need to be a deep dig in the highway area which would harm the tree. This is confirmed by the applicant's delineation of Tree H's Root Protection Area on the Tree Constraint Plan SF 6/5-9 in the Arboricultural Survey Report, within which no works should be allowed. "RPAs... provide a minimum area around the tree which should be left undisturbed during the development, in order to remove the risk of decline and ensure the survival of the trees." (paragraph 3.1)

Local people will surely concur with the closing remarks of Foot Anstey's letter:
With each new attempt to address a problem, the applicant merely creates new ones, demonstrating that the scheme is inherently poorly conceived.

It’s not only at Straitgate Farm that AI’s got problems

Cambridgeshire County Council refused an application by Aggregate Industries to extend a sand and gravel quarry because the restoration scheme failed to deliver ecological objectives:
In addition, insufficient information had been provided on the significance of archaeological interest at the site, the council decided. The site comprised 62 hectares of best and most versatile agricultural land and it lay in open countryside. Mineral extraction had taken place in the area since 2001... The site was allocated for mineral extraction and inert waste landfill in the core strategy and would contribute towards a seven-year aggregate landbank and to landfill capacity... policy stated that mineral working must take place in accordance with a masterplan to ensure the enhancement of the Ouse Washes, one of the few remaining fragments of wetland habitats within the Fens... The proposed restoration scheme would provide just 5.3ha of wet grassland within the application site and would make the objectives of the masterplan undeliverable. Therefore, the council concluded that the application should be refused as it was not in accordance with the development plan.
More information can be found here. It all rather goes against this:

LafargeHolcim ‘UK earnings driven lower by project delays and economic slowdown’

Aggregate Industries' parent company released 3Q results last week. Adjusted earnings were below expectations and LafargeHolcim's new CEO has cut future profit targets:
LafargeHolcim’s new chief executive lowered full-year profit forecasts and announced a strategy reboot for the world’s largest cement company. Jan Jenisch, who took over on September 1, used his first results presentation to launch a review of the group... Mr Olsen slashed capital expenditure, pushed through a disposal programme and appeared to win over many investors to the benefits of the merger. His successor said on Friday, however, that he wanted to focus on “simplification, cost discipline and performance management” and would present a revised strategic plan in March.
Reuters reported:
“We were not expecting Jenisch to move so quickly here which suggests to us that the gap between previous management’s guidance and reality was far greater than we expected”