Wednesday, 28 November 2012

AI's third day at Straitgate - repairing the damage

(iv) the surface of the land on which any operations have been carried out shall be levelled and any topsoil replaced as the uppermost layer, and
(v) the land shall, so far as is practicable, be restored to its condition before the development took place, including the carrying out of any necessary seeding and replanting.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

AI's second day at Straitgate Farm

There has been disturbance and disruption to local people and destruction of farmland, but Aggregate Industries has succeeded in extracting the sand and gravel it needs for grading analysis. Boreholes are being drilled and groundwater monitoring stations are being set up around the site. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

AI dig test pits at Straitgate

Today Aggregate Industries' excavators moved upon Straitgate Farm for the first time.

No introductions in AI's first formal communication with Straitgate locals

AI's "To whom it may concern" one-working-day-warning letter was sent to us and local councillors, but surprisingly not to those residents most affected. We forwarded the letter, but, as the company's first formal communication to residents around Straitgate, it lacked any message of introduction.

No "Let us introduce ourselves. We are a big friendly Swiss-based multinational building materials giant who has owned Straitgate Farm for some time. We are sorry to inform you that we now want to dig up your neighbourhood."

No "We understand this will cause inconvenience and aggravation, but the hunt for minerals is of national importance and must go on."

No "We know that DCC hasn't finished deciding where its Preferred Sites for sand and gravel quarrying should be, but as an important company we expect planning permission to be a formality."

No "We know the county has enough sand and gravel for many years, but we unfortunately built an expensive processing plant in an area of European importance for wildlife conservation, and we want to keep it running with local material. What we don't want to do is spend millions of pounds building another one in a more appropriate location."

No "We are sorry that you have been suffering from the rain and flooding. We do, nevertheless, propose to take away millions of tonnes of groundwater storage in your area that has the potential to make your situation a whole lot worse. We are sorry for any inconvenience that will be caused."

No "For those with private water supplies, we are sorry about that too, but that's not our problem."

No "You are cordially invited to a drinks evening, where we can get to know each other and you can learn what plans we have for your neighbourhood, details of the the hole that we will create and the developments that will inevitably follow. You will be able to correct things that our consultants have got wrong - we value the input of local people. We find that engaging with locals at an early stage can sometimes help people to accept the damage we cause."

No "We hope we can learn to live together in harmony. Not peace because as you know our operations are noisy, oh, and dusty too. Actually, harmony may be difficult too, with the impact we will have on your views, local roads and tourism, but we do appreciate your cooperation in these matters."

No, there was none of that. Just "Please be advised that we have liaised with Devon County Council's Development Control Department with regard to these proposals which are permitted activities under Part 22, Class A of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 - Mineral Exploration."

Is this the way to endear yourself to a blighted community, when you are the cause of that blight?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Is AI ready to start groundwater monitoring yet?

Perhaps not.

As it is, the aquifers are full and there's nowhere else for the water from Straitgate to go but down the lanes and through Cadhay Bog, as these photographs this morning show.  

English China Clays considered in 1968 that after quarrying Straitgate "There would be a loss of about 90 million gallons of water storage capacity within the aquifer. However the 131 million gallons storage capacity of the lake would more than compensate that loss."

Well, any proposal now from Aggregate Industries would not include a lake, but would still include the removal of tens of millions of gallons of groundwater storage capacity.

Surely no one could be that short-sighted?

Birdcage Lane adjacent to Straitgate Farm

Birdcage Lane adjacent to Cadhay Bog

Cadhay Bog

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Having lost once, what is AI's chance of winning next time?

click to enlarge
In 1968, the planning application to quarry Straitgate Farm by Aggregate Industries (or in those days English China Clays) was turned down. What chance will AI have if, as it says, it submits another application in early 2014?

Nationally, due to reduced demand, councils have received fewer applications for new sand and gravel quarries in recent years, but, based on data from the MPA, the chance of an application being refused is low. In 2010, 8 applications were submitted, 11 were approved (some from earlier years) and 2 appeals were allowed. No applications were refused. In 2009, 21 applications were approved, 4 were refused. In 2008, 26 were approved, 0 refused. In 2007, 28 were approved, 1 refused. Even if an application was refused, "the success rate of sand and gravel appeals is 80%" - multinationals can afford to instruct the best planning barristers and consultants. Is this why AI has the confidence to plough on regardless of all the objections, challenges and issues raised?

But AI and its consultants should pause for a moment. Most other sites are not as constrained as this one. They are often extensions to existing quarries, not isolated greenfield sites with no previous history of mineral extraction. They don't have passenger planes flying 200 metres overhead. They don't supply water to 100 people, 3 farms, wetland habitats in Ancient Woodlands, and listed mediaeval fishponds. They would not have their spoils transported 7 miles to be processed in a European designated area for wildlife conservation. They don't propose, in a period of climate change, to remove millions of tonnes of groundwater storage 100 metres in height above a town world famous for flaming tar barrels, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and flooding.

Maybe AI and its consultants think they can overcome all that. Anyway, what do local people know that a global building materials giant doesn't? Well, take water for a start. AI may get a surprise when it starts measuring groundwater levels later this month. This year's rainfall has left a water table higher than locals can remember, limiting the recoverable resource above the water table. What's more, in a field that AI has earmarked for quarrying, groundwater has actually permeated to the surface. What sort of body of water would have formed if AI had already removed the 2 metres of soils and 10 metres of pebble beds in that area? Not one that AI have planned for. Not one that would be acceptable to Exeter Airport.

Any application would be judged against the NPPF which, whilst less specific than previous guidance, remains clear on protecting listed buildings, "irreplaceable habitats" and areas at risk of flooding. New development should be "in locations and ways which reduce greenhouse gas emissions" - which should make AI stop and rethink its idea of processing any Straitgate material on Woodbury Common, if its pledges to "lead in environmental best practice" and "reducing our carbon footprint is an important part of our commitment towards sustainable construction" are to mean anything at all.

But putting all that to one side, how does AI expect to get planning permission for a brand new quarry when DCC states "5.1.4 For as long as adequate sand and gravel reserves (i.e. a minimum of seven years’ supply) continue to be present at the existing quarries, there are no grounds to allow their further extension or new quarries"? (Devon has over 16 years' supply.) Or before DCC has even had its new Minerals Plan, with its Preferred Site designations, examined by public inquiry or formally adopted - the latter due September 2014?

AI bought Straitgate Farm in 1965 from Escot, who at the time was in financial difficulty, on an understanding from a planning officer that permission would be "likely" (likely, not "certain"), not knowing the minerals' quality or quantity, or if extraction would be feasible or permissible. AI is not in any way 'owed' permission because of the length of time it has held the land. It was a speculative purchase.

Forty-six years after losing its first application, AI will be trying its luck again. However, as well as falling demand and increasing environ-mental concerns, there have been other changes since 1968. Not only does the new A30, and all its holiday traffic, now run through the site, but the population that would be impacted in Ottery St Mary and West Hill has grown substantially. The Environment Agency, Natural England, Exeter Airport, Councillors and local people are all acutely aware of the environmental impact a quarry at Straitgate Farm would have. There are robust planning arguments on which to defend a refusal to quarry Straitgate. But will 'the powers that be' agree?

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Hanson on the other hand is mothballing quarries

Whilst AI is busily planning to dig up East Devon farmland and open a new quarry at Straitgate, Hanson is taking a different line - mothballing quarries, closing plants and laying off workers, expecting business in 2013 to be even worse.

With construction and aggregate demand still contracting, and no sign of recovery on the horizon, DCC can robustly make the case - having 9 million tonnes of sand and gravel already with planning permission, enough for 20 years at current rates - that no further provision is needed for its new Minerals Plan. In any case, for a Plan that runs as far into the future as 2031, and in order to appease mineral operators, provision can always be made for the Council to monitor production and reserves, and make site allocations when shortfalls actually become apparent, not according to a fallible long-range forecast.

After all, how many millions of tonnes would DCC have allocated needlessly if it had made the Plan in 1990, for example, when production was almost four times higher than it is today, or in 1968 at the time Straitgate was the subject of a Public Inquiry? Building techniques, materials and demands have changed, and therefore the Council needs to remain flexible, and encourage movement away from the unsustainability of primary aggregates.

'Mountains' of sand stockpiled at Blackhill Quarry, Woodbury Common SAC, SPA, SSSI, AONB

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Where do we stand 6 months on from starting this blog?

For those who have recently found this site, as well as regular readers, here's an update of where things currently stand, a recap of what's happened over the last 6 months, and a summary of some of the main issues that have been covered in the blog so far.

View looking over Straitgate Farm towards Sidmouth Gap and AONB
- An update:

Six months on, Aggregate Industries (AI) has still not told Devon County Council (DCC) how it proposes to overcome the significant challenges raised during the consultation that ended in May. AI does still intend, however, to apply for planning permission to quarry Straitgate Farm, but not now before early 2014, due to the environmental reports and surveys that must be completed beforehand. This month AI expects to drill boreholes on the site and to start monitoring groundwater levels; at least 12 months of data is required. At the same time, AI plans to dig out a number of test pits, and deliver several hundred tonnes of sand and gravel to Blackhill Quarry for grading analysis. At the end of testing, the pits are to be refilled with material from the site and returned to their original state. An archaeologist will be on site when the pits are dug. AI plans to advise local residents of this activity next week. Elsewhere, AI did not finish extraction at Marshbroadmoor in August as planned, finding more material than anticipated. Local residents can therefore look forward to another 'campaign' next summer. For the record, AI is aware of the housing proposals to the west of Ottery St Mary towards Straitgate.

A team from the Environment Agency (EA) have in the meantime been assessing groundwater supplies and biodiversity in the area. They have visited a number of properties, including Cadhay, and also the County Wildlife Sites of Cadhay Bog and Cadhay Wood.

DCC will shortly be publishing a draft local aggregate assessment for comment, which will propose a different method of calculating the 10 year production average and consequently the size of the County's landbank in years, giving more weighting to the recent low figures. No decision is expected from DCC on Straitgate until next year.

- A brief recap of what's happened over the last 6 months:

The EA and Natural England (NE) warn of significant harm (11/5,21/5), 384 objections to Straitgate (14/5), DCC delays decision on Straitgate to 2013 and considers whether there may be 'showstoppers' (6/6), Consultation report (13/6), DCC's Sustainability Appraisal (SA) - negative impact on flight safety considered only "minor" (26/6), DCC's newsletter (4/7), Ottery floods again (11/7), Dave Black - conflict of interest? (18/7) and his reply (15/8), 2011 production and reserve figures (21/7), EA and NE respond to the SA report (26/7), and SA audit inconsistencies (6/9).

- A quarry at Straitgate Farm would cause significant impacts on the local area, and a number of these have been discussed since the blog's beginning:

The threat of birdstrikes on Exeter Airport (27/5,2/6,26/6,15/8,28/8,20/10), the impact on flooding (4/7,11/7), on ancient woodland (24/6), on farmland (14/7), on local roads (15/6,5/7), on Woodbury Common (12/9), on private water supplies (6/9), on health (9/8,18/10), on jobs (29/10), on the landscape (29/5,24/9), on sustainability (21/7), on history (1/8), the question of viability (31/8), of restoration (2/7,24/9,30/9,11/10,29/10), of forecasts and demand (7/7,21/7, 29/10), of climate change (24/6), of competition (18/7), of political donations (25/7), and that the people of Ottery St Mary and West Hill have been through all this before (27/6,4/7,7/7,14/7).

Further matters will be covered in due course.