Thursday, 28 February 2013

DCC finalises 1st Local Aggregate Assessment

DCC has published the final version of its first LAA, following consultation with various parties. As a requirement of the NPPF, "the LAA will be published annually to inform development and monitoring of Local Plans, including recent sales and revisions to levels of reserves and the length of landbanks".

The NPPF specifies a sand and gravel landbank of at least 7 years "based on a rolling average of 10 years sales data and other relevant local information". Since Devon's 10 year average is significantly above current production, DCC has adopted in its LAA a 10 year rolling average weighted more towards recent data (A.18), and is the only council to have used such an approach. Devon Stone Federation, representing Aggregate Industries and others, did not support the move.

A new paragraph (5.18) added to the final version of the LAA states that the Pebble Beds (PBs) - measuring an "effective" PSV of 60-64 - are now approved for high friction road surfacing "reducing Devon's reliance on gritstone imported from elsewhere in the UK". This is at odds with the Jacobs report, commissioned by DCC, which recognises (4.3.2) the use of the PBs for roadstone, but "with a PSV in the mid 50s, it is suitable for general use, but not for high-specification applications". Neither were the PBs identified for such use in DCC's Technical Report. In fact for Straitgate the PSV is recorded as 53 (P.7). Whatever has changed, the amounts in question should be relatively small.

DCC did acknowledge in one response that "while an economic recovery is likely to lead to increased construction activity, increasing emphasis on sustainable construction may see increased use of materials other than aggregates, together with use of alternatives to land-won aggregates", which is welcome after so many people raised the same issue during the consultation.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

What makes building fixed plant at Rockbeare economic now?

In Aggregate Industries' 2010 planning application to process sand and gravel from Venn Ottery and Marshbroadmoor at Blackhill, it claimed that to provide fixed plant at Rockbeare for the combined 1.8 million tonnes "would be uneconomical in terms of the investment required".

It now seems unlikely that AI would be able to use Blackhill to process material from any future quarry at Straitgate. And since fixed plant cannot be sited at Straitgate, this now only leaves Rockbeare. But with the recoverable resource no greater than 2.3Mt, and much less allowing for realistic constraints, how can it be economic for AI to build plant at Rockbeare now, when it wasn't in 2010 for 1.8Mt?

Is it because Ottery St Mary is to have the privilege of becoming AI's centre for sand and gravel production for decades to come? Or is it that AI was not being entirely straight with DCC in 2010, when it obviously suited them to haul material across Woodbury Common? If the former, then local people deserve to be informed by AI of its long-term ambitions for their environment. If the latter, then how can people be expected to trust what AI says next time in any application to quarry Straitgate Farm?

What if aggregate could be manufactured instead - using 98% waste?

Now it can. Novagg, "hailed as the world’s greenest lightweight aggregate", is made using unsorted mixed coloured waste glass combined with other industrial waste. Developed in collaboration with Imperial College, "work is now under way with several multi-national companies to put Novagg on the commercial stage in a bid to become the global ‘green’ construction material of choice".

This is just the sort of advance that makes forecasting aggregate shortfalls over the next 20 years so uncertain, and will in time reduce the need for the sort of quarry AI is planning at Straitgate Farm.

Of course, AI will know all about these advances. It will know that this is the way its industry has to move. It will know that consuming farmland on this ever more populated island is not sustainable. And, as if to prove as much, in 2010 AI bought a majority stake in a company using fly ash to make lightweight aggregate. Lytag "provides an excellent alternative to natural, quarried aggregate, being strong, light and consistent". AI's then CEO (now Chairman) said "as modern construction continues to evolve, fly-ash and Lytag are increasingly being used and specified for a range of products and projects". A new "state of the art facility" next to Drax Power Station will be finished this summer and will "displace the need for 400,000 tonnes a year of newly quarried aggregates".

So, DCC's Minerals Plan to 2031 should acknowledge the advances being made in construction materials and the long term decline of sand and gravel, not allocate more and more land for quarrying. Products such as Novagg and Lytag reduce the need for aggregate extraction, divert material from landfill and preserve the natural landscape - to not use them more widely would appear a no-brainer.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Starlings - 1000s of them

Jeff Bevan
Starling numbers have declined, so much so that the RSPB has put the species on their "red list". But a new habitat has come to the rescue. The RSPB claims "quarries really are providing a refuge and important over-wintering habitats for this familiar yet struggling bird, up and down the country". "Always looking to exploit new areas, starlings, along with other wildlife, are wising-up to the benefits that both active and restored quarries can provide".

It is reported that starlings frequent Gill Mill Quarry in Oxfordshire in their thousands. There are 20,000 at another quarry in Nottinghamshire, 10,000 at a quarry in Yorkshire, and 10,000 at Aggregate Industries’ Warmwell quarry in Dorset. But also "quarries continue to be a 'home of choice' for birds of prey", and nearer to home it is established that gulls love to visit Blackhill Quarry.

Which is all good news for starlings and other birds, and plays to the nature loving facade that quarry companies like to hide behind. It is not good news if you have to convince an airport that the threat of siting a quarry directly under its landing approach is benign.

The Head of Flight Safety at the British Airline Pilots Association explains that "the problem is when a plane strikes a very large bird, or if they are flocking, and there are multiple strikes". Therefore, in terms of birdstrike risk, along with gulls, starlings are one of the more hazardous species, and the worst birdstrike accident in history was caused when an aircraft flew through a flock of them.

So that's another job for AI's consultants: A Bird Hazard Management Plan, not only for a quarry's lifetime, but also for ever after - because, in digging out Straitgate, AI would leave a body of water and increase the risk of birds. If AI can't convince Exeter Airport and the CAA that this water would pose no additional threat of birdstrike to overflying aircraft then it's game over and it will have to look for a new site: "The aviation industry, be it the airport itself, the MOD or CAA, has never lost a public enquiry regarding an objection if an unacceptable birdstrike risk has been predicted from a development."

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Does AI want to play God?

The planning shake-up means different things to different people. To Aggregate Industries, or at least its Head of Planning and Estates, "Reform of the planning system is an opportunity to harness the full potential of quarrying and other development to create a more diverse landscape".

Has AI assumed the role of the Creator? Isn't quarrying about supplying the construction industry and making money? In the same vein he adds:
Policy recognition that the landscape and its habitats are not natural but have evolved from land management practices would take the emphasis away from preservation and allow the full potential of government, developers, landowners and conservation bodies to be properly harnessed for the creation of a more diverse and resilient landscape.
It is the same view he puts forward in another article:
The ‘natural’ environment we enjoy in the UK is anything but natural. It is the result of largely unregulated development and land management over thousands of years.
Landscapes not natural? They are a good deal more natural than a quarry with excavators ripping out the life and guts of the land, or the industrial development that inevitably seems to follow. Landscapes may have been influenced by land management, but has he forgotten his school lessons on weathering and tectonic plates? It is alarming that a cement giant wants to be at the right hand of landscape creation; all too predictable that it wants attitudes to shift from preservation. There's more:
Diverting resources from ever more onerous investigation, recording and mitigation into the creation of new landforms and habitats would be far more productive. 
Forget those "onerous" checks then - just start digging to create new landforms and habitats. And as if that's not enough, AI has something to say on interaction with local people too:
Those who have engaged with local communities know that genuine and open consultation can lead to positive outcomes for both community and applicant... In return for more control over the planning process, local communities will need to assume the responsibility to guide and approve rather than just oppose. Applicants need to invest more time in helping communities to do just that.
That's alright then. With AI helping us to approve its plans and with "positive outcomes" for the community, we should obviously welcome it to Ottery St Mary to remodel our landscape and our habitats. In a different article, complaining about the "mind boggling amount of bureaucracy" involved in running a quarry, the same spokesman is quoted as saying:
We need a flexible, light touch system as these separate regulations lead to uncertainty for owners and investors who back the sector.
This may be, but in digging test pits at Straitgate Farm for example, AI had to be reminded to follow the regulations. And how thorough are the stretched authorities in enforcing the rules anyway? If there's to be any "light touch" then let it be upon the planet.

It is disturbing for mere mortals to hear such views on landscape reorganisation and light touch regulation being touted by Aggregate Industries. Disturbing, but hardly surprising.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Straitgate Farm, Straight-gate Farm, Great Street Gate Farm... Straitgate Quarry?

There's an 1801 map of the area that we were kindly pointed towards at the British Library's Online Gallery. It's a surveyor's draft for the Ordnance Survey map of 1807. Although the field boundaries are not accurate (there was no intention to publish them on the final map), it is still interesting to see it overlaid on today's Google Earth. The field boundaries are recorded on the tithe map of 1843.

It is also interesting to see field names, listed here on a Schedule for Great Street Gate Farm in 1870.

These emotive maps of the past, giving a flavour of what the area looked like up to 200 years ago, won't mean anything to a hungry Swiss Aggregates Giant - it doesn't care about our local history. But Holcim and Aggregate Industries ought to move with the times and progress to a more sustainable and environmentally acceptable business model, using increased proportions of recycled and secondary aggregates for example, before gouging out and scarring our beautiful and historic land.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Anyone who bought a house near Straitgate Farm "have only themselves to blame"

An Ottery St Mary Town Councillor has repeatedly claimed that residents around Straitgate "must have known all about [the threat of quarrying] when they purchased their properties". Would they really "have known full well that [AI] owned the land and one day would extract minerals from it"?

It may have been common knowledge to some local people, particularly farmers, that Straitgate Farm was owned by AI, but to others and those moving into the area from further afield it was not.

A prospective house purchaser would normally instruct a solicitor to ensure good title and to uncover any issues that might affect the enjoyment of their property. A conveyancing solicitor is expected to advise their client that the Local Authority Search is performed only against the property they are purchasing, not against adjoining land or the wider area, and that they should therefore contact or visit the local authority to ascertain what plans there might be for the locality. Indeed, a solicitor who does not advise a client of the limitations of the local search can be held liable for negligence.

A solicitor would not necessarily be expected to make enquiries, or advise the purchaser to make enquiries, of the Mineral Planning Authority, unless forewarned in pre-contract documentation, even for a property next to open farmland.

If a buyer had received such advice from their solicitor and visited EDDC, would they then have found out about Straitgate Farm from the Local Plan? Not necessarily. Since 2004 Straitgate has not been in DCC's Minerals Local Plan. Before that it was highlighted as a Mineral Consultation Area. Prior to 1979 the area again had no designation.

Could a buyer have made their own enquiries? Of course, but with all manner of things on their mind when moving house and with a solicitor to ensure the property is unencumbered, they might be forgiven for not suspecting that a nearby dairy farm could be harbouring a future sand and gravel quarry, or that English China Clays had bought the below surface rights of the surrounding land.

Generally, a prospective buyer cannot hope to know the owner, the intentions of that owner, or the permissibility of those intentions, for every piece of nearby land before they buy a house. The number of house purchasers in the area in recent years unaware of the quarry threat have demonstrated as much. Just as people living along the HS2 route have found out, home ownership can be a 'can of worms'. In their case they can at least attempt to claim compensation if their property is blighted; people living next to a sand and gravel quarry foisted upon them by Aggregate Industries cannot.