Friday, 28 June 2013

The other side of the coin

"The mineral products industry key facts at a glance" is the MPA's take on why minerals are important to us. It shows some key industry trends too - decline of primary aggregates, rise of secondary and recycled, etc. The MPA says:
The mineral products sector is a key enabling sector of the UK economy which has a broad impact on overall economic activity. As the largest element of the construction supply chain, a supplier of key materials to many other industries, and the largest material flow in the UK economy, a healthy indigenous mineral products industry is essential for the UK.
No-one would dispute any of that. We all accept that minerals are important. According to the MPA, the mineral industry produces 250Mt pa, has an annual turnover of £9bn and employs 70,000 people. We should also all accept, however, that not every site is suitable for mineral extraction, despite what might lie under the ground. With communities, wildlife habitats, businesses, infrastructure and so on already in place, the industry cannot just expect to bulldozer in wherever it chooses.

Whilst we're looking at the other side of the coin, and although there are some communities who are hit by a series of proposals for ex-quarry sites, some old quarries obviously do get restored - eventually. At Meeth, near Hatherleigh, an old china clay quarry, that began its life at the end of World War II, has now opened as a nature reserve. And at Blackhill - quarried since before the 1930s - restoration by Aggregate Industries is now being recognised:
AI is trialling a number of methods to improve drainage at the site and adopt the best restoration options for habitat creation and management, including the use of conservation grazing in the form of several friendly Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies!
Credit where credit is due; some of the Blackhill staff certainly seem to take restoration seriously. Of course, with SPA/SAC/SSSI designations and orders served in 1999 that quarrying would have to cease, a bagging plant - or any industrial proposal - was going to be out of the question. Restoration would have also been a precondition to quarrying, agreed with landowners Clinton Devon Estates.

AI is obviously keen to stress its interest in nature. It has been working with The Wildlife Trusts since 2006, as one of the charity's three national partners. The Wildlife Trusts - the same one that paid Imerys (English China Clays as was) £600k for Meeth Quarry - even have a web page devoted to AI's accomplishments and its "commitment to enhancing biodiversity". For local people that might seem an odd alliance - a nature-loving charity and a heavy building materials business - but charities must raise funds from whoever they can, and, of course, the alliance doesn't harm AI's image either.

But there may be another reason for that web page, and anybody looking to The Wildlife Trusts, or Devon Wildlife Trust, to lend support to a quarry campaign might be disappointed. That's because The Wildlife Trusts' Vice President since 2011 has been AI's very own Chairman, Bill Bolsover.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

"How Green is My Quarry?"

That may sound like an oxymoronic question, but it was actually a paper presented in 2005 by Richard Bate of Green Balance at the Institute of Quarrying’s annual conference. Judging by the various campaigns across the country, the image of quarrying has changed little since, and the paper seems as relevant today. It initially poses the question:
A quarry is not everyone’s favourite neighbour. Why not? Changing the public perception of quarrying requires an answer to this question. Is the activity inherently detrimental to neighbours, or can quarrying be managed in a way that avoids adverse effects? If impact is inevitable, how can this best be addressed? In short, is it the perception that is wrong, or the quarrying, or both?... This paper comments briefly on what more the quarrying industry can do to present itself as ‘part of’ the modern life that people want, not ‘apart from’ that modern life. An essential first requirement is that the industry should strive to operate ‘green quarries’...
The paper deals with a number of important issues; here's an excerpt:
Badly restored sites that can be seen in some places today are not a good advertisement for modern quarrying capabilities. Companies may be able to demonstrate that modern sites can control these problems, but while the historical legacy is still all too plain for people to see they will start their engagement with the public on the back foot. An important message is for the industry as a whole to get to grips with its own inherited messy land. The planning system could do more than it does to force the hand of some businesses, but the central imperative should be voluntarily to improve the industry’s image.
Taking millions of tonnes of material out of the ground cannot, of course, be done without having real effects on the environment. Nonetheless, the impact of development can be reduced by design. Steps can be take to ameliorate some of the impact. Environmental compensation can be provided by creating new environmental benefits elsewhere to make up for some of the losses.The quality of what is there at present can be enhanced. Attractive new land uses can be provided in place of the ones that were there beforehand. Alternative benefits can be offered to buy favour with those who are still inevitably affected. But both the quarrying process and the end result are still likely to involve something distinctly different from what was there in the first place. Even with all these good works, the industry will still have to persuade everyone that the changes to what was there beforehand are ‘worth it’ for extracting the mineral which society needs. To achieve that persuasion at least two things must be done. A sound technical case for the proposals will have to be demonstrated, and it must be entirely clear that the operations will definitely be handled in the way they are promised. In other words, the industry (and not just individual companies) must show itself to be trustworthy, to understand what worries people, and to be able to deliver on its promises.
The paper concludes by saying:
The minerals industry has always had to ask the public for a social ‘licence to operate’. That is very different from obtaining planning permissions on the basis of a technically sound case. If the industry does not get on the right side of the public then it will be mired in opposition and distrust. This will wash off on the industry’s social standing, then recruitment, profitability, staff morale and investor confidence. There is no need to take the dead-end route; go for the socially responsible alternative. That way just about everybody wins.
An evenhanded paper that all concerned - proponents and objectors - would do well to read.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Sound plans, and the importance of the Sustainability Appraisal

Now that a number of local plans are being examined by the Planning Inspectorate, it's becoming apparent just how much importance is attached to the Sustainability Appraisal (SA).

The Planning Advisory Service (PAS) explains:
The purpose of the sustainability appraisal process is to appraise the social, environmental and economic effects of a plan from the outset. In doing so it will help ensure that decisions are made that contribute to achieving sustainable development.

The sustainability appraisal is integral to the plan making process. It should perform a key role in providing a sound evidence base for the plan and form an integrated part of the plan preparation process. It should be transparent and open to public participation. The sustainability appraisal should inform the decision making process to facilitate the evaluation of alternatives. It should also help demonstrate that the plan is the most appropriate given the reasonable alternatives.
Last year we pointed out, in an open letter to the Head of Planning and Transportation at DCC, that the Council's SA had not informed the selection of future mineral sites. DCC responded, saying:
As this [site appraisal] methodology ensures consideration of social, environmental and economic impacts, it was not considered necessary to undertake SA of the site options prior to identifying the preferred and excluded sites for consultation. However, value was seen in undertaking SA of the sand and gravel site options to provide an 'audit'...
Which is all very well, but, without the SA input, the outcome could be seen to lack objectivity. According to the PAS advice note:
SA is most useful when applied to alternatives... The [SA] should inform the decision making process to facilitate the evaluation of alternatives. It should also help demonstrate that the plan is the most appropriate given the reasonable alternatives... The assessment of ‘reasonable alternatives’ is also a legal requirement under the ‘SEA Directive'.
The SA did not inform the rejection of the 18 'alternatives'. The Environment Agency also commented:
We advise that this SA should have accompanied the formal consultation in March 2012… In this circumstance it is not clear how the SA has influenced the preferred site options which have been put forward by your Authority. It is apparent from the SA that some of the excluded sites may [be] preferable in environmental terms.
The graph below, first posted last year, showing the number of SA "significant negative events" for the southern alternative sites, alongside the site appraisal "showstoppers", demonstrated as much. The Planning Inspectorate makes clear:
If the strategy chosen is not endorsed by the SA the reasons for the choice of strategy contrary to the SA will need to be fully justified. Failure to do so is likely to result in a finding of unsoundness.
From the SA and the consultation responses received, statutory or otherwise, Straitgate or S7, although owned by a minerals company, was far from the most appropriate strategy.

Recently the Core Strategies of two councils were found to be 'unsound' by the Planning Inspectorate. Waverley Borough Council was advised to withdraw its plan since it required "a significant amount of additional work" including "the proper testing of alternatives through the SA process". Melton Borough Council's plan was also withdrawn after the Inspector said:
In my view the SA process appears to contain serious errors. Critically it is not evident that the sustainability considerations have informed the site selection process. This makes the plan very vulnerable to legal challenge.
It is clear that the SA must be at the heart of the decision-making process for councils to be able to demonstrate a sound plan. That's a legal requirement; not an afterthought, not just an "audit".

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Miscellany

An update on a jumble of matters following discussions with various parties:

1. In all likelihood there will be two more campaigns by Aggregate Industries at Marshbroadmoor for locals to enjoy, this summer and now probably next summer as well, with material processed at Blackhill as before. Quarrying at Venn Ottery will be put on hold whilst these campaigns proceed.

2. The Environment Agency has delineated a Special Protection Zone for the Holly Ball water source, just north of Straitgate, that supplies some of Escot and a number of other houses. This follows the introduction of an SPZ to safeguard Cadhay water supplies, and again shows the importance of groundwater in the area.

3. DCC has again confirmed to us that officers would not support a proposal that involved processing Straitgate material at Blackhill, a site which the council wishes to see restored. Permission currently runs until 2016, and only for the importation of material from Venn Ottery and Marshbroadmoor. Of course, this doesn't stop AI from applying for an extension to process material from Straitgate, should they get permission here - however unsustainable and commercially nonsensical that might seem, but AI has also indicated to us that it too thinks approval for such a plan would be unlikely.

4. Having considered moving from Blackhill to Hillhead five years ago, there is currently no talk of AI siting any fixed processing plant at Hillhead, despite the bagging plant plans. Any working out of the remaining reserves at Hillhead is likely to be on a campaign basis using mobile plant. The bagged aggregate that AI had stored without permission at Hillhead has been moved in the interim to Greendale Barton, near Woodbury Salterton.

5. Devon's Minerals Plan is currently on hold, still awaiting AI to demonstrate that Straitgate can be relied upon as a sound and appropriate Preferred Site - specifically that the water issues are surmountable and a realistic scheme of working possible, notwithstanding objections from statutory consultees. Having missed several deadlines to supply this information to DCC, AI is only now discovering the complexities of the site - a site it's owned since 1965.

It is ironic that it is AI delaying DCC. It is after all the MPA, AI's trade body, that persistently and vociferously complains that "Most mineral plans are out of date - at the end of January 2013, less than 50% [of] mineral planning authorities in England had an adopted Core Strategy and six had not even started the process". If Devon's anything to go by, mineral companies dragging their feet may also be to blame. To ruin an idiom: people who live in quarries shouldn't throw stones.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Traffic, damned traffic, and statistics


That's the trouble with statistics. Take Aggregate Industries' reopening of Hazelbank Quarry in Scotland. Stow and Fountainhall Community Council has "massive concerns":
The majority of the lorries will be turning northwards so will be crossing the carriageway, which is going to be really dangerous as southbound motorists prepare to overtake on the straight. This stretch of the A7 sees a lot of accidents and more large lorries will create frustration with drivers.
AI's Transport Assessment: "an impact of 1.44%" on existing traffic and suggestions that measures to reduce vehicle speeds on the A7 in the vicinity would "more than [offset] any minor effect of the small amount of traffic associated with the proposed development".

It's the same at Uffculme for AI's application for a new aggregates bagging plant, the one that's being built but has yet to obtain permission.

DCC says there are traffic issues. Uffculme Parish Council are concerned about the "total inadequacy of surrounding road network". Mid Devon District Council has called for a consultation on a number of issues including "whether the additional traffic movements are acceptable taking into account the nature of the surrounding road network and whether Houndaller Quarry will be re-opened". The Highway Authority has called for additional information over and above AI's Transport Assessment and have "queried the adequacy of the A38 junction leading from the site".

AI's Transport Assessment: "...the proposed development is concluded to have no material bearing on the performance of the highway network". A 76% predicted increase in traffic at one narrow and complex junction is written off as "remains within the anticipated allowance of day-to-day variation in traffic demand".

Local residents should scrutinise Transport Assessments very closely, because, whether it's 1.44% or 76%, consultants will have a clever answer showing any additional HGV risk to be benign.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Aggregate Industries - a good neighbour?

You would hope so. Part of Swiss-based Holcim, "a global company employing some 80,000 people, with production sites in around 70 countries". Locally, of course, things tend to be different.

Anyone wanting to know what sort of neighbour AI might be, should read Uffculme Parish Council's response to the application for a bagging plant near Hillhead - a plant yet to secure permission but that has "already progressed to an advanced stage". Uffculme will have had plenty of dealings with AI over the years. Surely there is a good working relationship by now with one of the larger companies in their parish? It doesn't sound like it, reading the first line of the Council's response:
Arrogance of Company; no local consultation; contempt for local community...
As you can imagine, there's a number of other things they're not happy about as well, "inaccuracies and incorrect information on highways and traffic movements; misleading employment information", and much more. No punches pulled there.

100m - that's a start

People want to know how close any potential quarrying at Straitgate would come to their homes, but this matter would normally be determined at the time of an application, considering factors such as topography, screening, water supplies, prevailing wind, duration and method of working, etc.

What Aggregate Industries has said is that it will be recalculating the resource at Straitgate Farm based on allowing 100 metres from the nearest properties. Whilst this is an improvement on what was initially put forward, it's an opening position. It will be DCC, in consultation with others, that decides what distance is acceptable between any quarry and homes, not AI.

Would 100m be as much as local residents could expect? Well, BGS advice says "In practice, standoff distances are often incorporated into local planning policy, with distances of 250-500m typically adopted, unless there are unusual or exceptional reasons to permit a variation." There are good reasons for this - dust being one:
Large dust particles (greater than 30 µm), which make up the greatest proportion of dust emitted from mineral workings, will largely deposit within 100m of sources. Intermediate-sized particles (10–30 µm) are likely to travel up to 200–500m. Smaller particles (less than 10 µm) which make up a small proportion of the dust emitted from most mineral workings, are only deposited slowly but may travel 1000m or more.
In practice, however, things are not clear cut.

When safeguarding minerals from inappropriate development, Nottinghamshire and Bedfordshire refer to a buffer of 250m. As does Essex County Council, which has just finished consulting on a Pre-Submission Draft of its new Minerals Local Plan, and is ahead of Devon in this respect. Essex extends a Mineral Consultation Area boundary 250 metres beyond Preferred or existing sites to "protect both mineral resources from sterilisation and future residents from unwanted impacts".

South Lanarkshire Council in its old plan was unequivocal, saying "mineral development will not be permitted within 250m of existing occupied dwellings for the extraction of minerals without blasting." Unfortunately its new plan is more typical of others, saying the distance will be "dependent upon the circumstances of the case and the actual environmental effects resulting from extraction".

Where does the NPPF stand on all this? It's no surprise that the Technical Guidance doesn't quote anything as useful as numbers:
As set out in the National Planning Policy Framework minerals planning authorities are expected to ensure that plan proposals do not have an unacceptable adverse effect on the natural or historic environment or human health. Residents living close to mineral workings may be exposed to a number of environmental effects and particular care should be taken in respect of any conditions they attach to a grant of permission for working in proximity to communities.
At the hands of mineral lobbyists, the government is plainly more worried about the economic consequences of the aggregate majors losing 100m of minerals than the health of its citizens living nearby. Even a Private Member's Bill from Andrew Bridgen MP, to introduce a 500m buffer zone between areas of settlement and opencast coal mining in line with Wales and Scotland, didn't advance beyond its 2nd reading.

What government, councils and mineral companies should realise is that if the distance between quarries and people was more clearly defined, could be relied upon, and was a more sensible compromise between minerals and people's health and amenity, there would be less opposition to proposals. This in itself would save the industry money and improve its image; but as far as the short-sighted Aggregate Giants are concerned, more buffer means less mineral means less profit. Work with the community, not against them.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

One council has the right idea

Kirklees Council recently considered an application for a sand and gravel quarry at Thornhill Lees, West Yorkshire. Only two people had made objections, and council officers had recommended approval, saying that “whilst this proposal would undoubtedly have an impact on the immediate locality, the effects would be limited and for a temporary period only".

But the members of the planning committee were having none of it, and deferred approval after criticising the applicant for not offering any immediate benefits to the local community. The Chairman said “I think it’s unfair for some of the people who live round there and I think these developers need to put something back into their communities”.

Who can argue with that? Quarrying in the UK makes 100s of millions of pounds for the major players, and their Swiss, German and Mexican holding companies, and yet Aggregate Industries, for one, hands back the derisory figure of 2p in every £100 sales to affected communities - communities that ultimately bear the cost through blighted homes, noise, dust and disfigured local landscapes. Is it any wonder that so many people would normally object to quarries? They gain so little and lose so much.

And one 'developer' has the right idea

OK, so it was in relation to plans for an intensive pig farm not a quarry, and there was a concerted campaign by locals, but in the end the Earl of Devon saw reason and put out a statement explaining that he would not progress the venture any further, saying that the Powderham Estate:
values its relationship with the local community and the views of the Parish Councils and residents were taken into account when arriving at this decision.
Now that's a statement that's refreshing to hear.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Quarry wakeboarding

Now that's an idea we haven't heard of before! Aggregate Industries' Kessell Quarry at Mabe closed in 1999 and now, covered with undergrowth and the quarry void full of water, is up for sale. A prospective buyer had sought advice from Cornwall Council about turning it into a wakeboarding centre, however, it now looks as though the site might go for housing instead.

To enable the housing to proceed, it's reported that AI may surrender its planning permission for quarrying, although the sales particulars state that it is not selling the nearby operational ready-mix concrete plant, and intends to retain the rights to work the 7 million tonnes of mineral reserves. Cornwall Council's position is that, if any of the site is retained for quarrying or ready-mix concrete, this would preclude any residential development.

And there lies a paradox: Cornwall says it's unacceptable to site new homes next to a quarry; Devon, that it's acceptable in principle to site a new quarry (at Straitgate Farm) next to homes.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

What if the same applied to quarries?

The BBC headline this morning says "Local communities offered more say on wind farms". Let's change some of the words and see how it reads instead:
Local communities are to be given more powers to block [quarries], but also offered greater incentives to accept them, the government says. 
Planning guidance in England will be changed to ensure local opposition can override national [mineral] targets. 
But the measures will see a five-fold rise in the benefits paid by developers to communities hosting [quarries]. 
The subsidies - worth about £100,000 a year from a medium-sized [quarry] - could be used to [support a wide range of local projects]... 
The government said the measures would ensure local communities had a greater stake in the planning process. 
It said it expected the [mineral] industry to improve its community benefit packages by the end of the year... 
[A government minister] said: "It is important that [quarries are] developed in a way that is truly sustainable - economically, environmentally and socially - and today's announcement will ensure that communities see the windfall from hosting developments near to them, not just the [minerals industry]". 
The Department for Communities and Local Government will make sure local people have more say in the planning of [quarries] and that the need for [minerals] does not automatically override the planning concerns of communities.
"We want to give local communities a greater say on planning, to give greater weight to the protection of landscape, heritage and local amenity," said Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.
Planning approvals for [quarries] in England have dropped in recent years, a situation the government is keen to turn around... 
A Conservative source said the prime minister felt it was important to take local people into account so that if they did not want [quarries] they could stop them...
Could that ever happen? The Mineral Products Association, lobbying hard for the minerals industry, might have something to say first.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Birdstrike - it's a serious matter

We can all smile at this picture, but the subject of birdstrike is a serious one, and one the public is increasingly aware of following the dramatic events in 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River. However, it's not just public awareness that has increased. A report from Nicholls & Bell claims that "bird strike risk per movement to UK aviation is increasing as a proportion of total aviation risk, and possibly also in absolute terms". The Aviation Herald records airline incidents across the world as they are reported - here is their list for "bird strike".

Aggregate Industries, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be taking this matter seriously. Why, otherwise, would it contemplate quarrying below the water table at Straitgate Farm, beneath an international flight path? Such a plan may help make its sums stack up, but does nothing to avoid leaving a body of water after it's gone, and does nothing for the flight safety of planes landing nearby at Exeter Airport.

For anyone who missed the photograph of gulls at AI's Blackhill Quarry, here's another photograph of gulls, this time at Hillhead near Uffculme - again on a body of water left after quarrying. Would Exeter Airport want this under its flight path? In perpetuity?