The Stonehenge Farm Quarry Application

Friday, October 22, 2010

OCC Preferred Minerals Strategy

The OCC Cabinet Meeting of 19 October 2010 considered as agenda item 7 a preferred spatial strategy for mineral working as part of the new Minerals and Waste Development Framework.

For Sand and Gravel they decided to continue to concentrate extraction in the existing working areas - in effect the old Strategic Resource Areas that have plagued us for the last 60 years.

Here is what Julie Hankey, Chair of OUTRAGE, said in her three-minute address to the OCC Cabinet:

As Chairman of OUTRAGE I speak from the perspective of residents in the Lower Windrush Valley - one of the strategic resource areas (SRAs) that has supplied the county's gravel since the second world war, and the one that has been the most heavily dug. With approximately 1,200 acres of the valley under water, the cumulative impact of gravel extraction has reached a critical point. Despite this, it is now proposed that for the foreseeable future gravel extraction should continue to be concentrated in the existing SRAs.

We have just emerged from a lengthy Appeal which has given yet more of what little is left of the Lower Windrush Valley to a gravel operator. The Inspector accepted that these particular fields and footpaths were 'a haven for residents and visitors alike and a refuge from the mineral industry in the rest of the valley'. But he decided it had to go. The landbank and your SRA policy tilted the playing field against us.

It suits every part of the County outside the old strategic resource areas that this policy should continue. But it flies in the face of the government's policy of localism. It is a top-down approach, an imposition by you on us. The essence of localism is that people and communities should be able to shape their own neighbourhoods. The SRA policy makes that impossible for some of us, and it will restrict choice and flexibility within the industry.

In any case it won't work. It won't ensure a steady supply of sand and gravel. The flow of applications, already limited by your existing boundaries, will meet with fierce opposition. These areas have been dug for too long. Residents have had enough.

The arguments in favour of SRAs are skewed and self-serving. You speak of reedbeds and landscape-scale restoration. We see the loss of existing biodiversity and landscape-scale destruction. You speak of infrastructure and efficiency. We see increasing distances from the road network and longer and longer conveyors.

We can ensure good practice in relation to these issues without SRAs. We don't need them. Each application site is supposed to be judged on its own merits. But if in practice, the SRA policy lowers the bar, then that itself is an injustice. We remember the reason you gave in favour of the SRA policy at the Examination in Public of the Oxfordshire Structure Plan: it 'avoids the need for lengthy detailed examination of site options across the whole county in preparing the MWDF'. In other words, we suffer for your convenience.

The only policy that is both just and in accordance with the policy of localism is the one favoured by the industry itself: the policy of free dispersal, without boundaries. Decisions will go one way or the other, but at least the fight will be fair.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A bad decision

The Inspector heard the evidence, and asked for more. Since July we have written three further submissions about the effect the abolition of the South East Plan has had on the case we presented at the Public Inquiry. The first gave our view of the matter, and then there were two responses to what the appellants had said.

On Friday 8 October 2010 we heard that the Inspector had decided against us. You can find his decision at the Planning Inspectorate by searching with the reference number 2107573.

The decision is flawed. The Inspector appears to have accepted a great deal of our case, but he allows the national policy for a seven year landbank and Oxfordshire's policy for Strategic Resource Areas to take an absolute priority above all other considerations.

So the Inspector's report ignores or sets aside evidence that was clearly presented, contains contradictions and relies on speculative assumptions
  • that the flood and groundwater modeling can be relied on where the mathematics of error make this unlikely
  • that despite previous experience OCC will be able to enforce a traffic routeing agreement in a complex case where there is a great deal of HGV traffic operating under different permissions
  • that reed beds can be developed when their design and layout goes against the recommendations of the RSPB, so that a more likely outcome is that they will revert to wet woodland - a polite term for boggy scrub
  • that a management regime that has seen dramatic increase in botanical biodiversity would not produce more if continued into the future
OCC withdrew its objections, and the statutory consultees failed to ensure that their recommendations were followed. But they don't have to live with the consequences, they are not the people for whom this fragment of the countryside matters.

The Government talks about 'Localism' and says that people should have more control over the developments that affect them. The Inspector considered this point. He recognized that local opposition was strong. But OCC had withdrawn their objection. and so he sets local opposition aside.

We are immensely grateful for the warmth, generosity and practical support you gave us, and it's hard to see what more any of us could have done.

Whatever we have achieved, we couldn't have done it without you, and it had to be done. But the cruel fact is that at this point there does not seem to be anything more that OUTRAGE can do in this case.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Oxfordshire does choose

Councillor Ian Hudspeth, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Growth and Infrastructure, has written to the Minister for Decentralisation, the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP. The letter is dated 9 July 2010, and it is available on the OCC website. The website explains under the heading 'Latest news' that Oxfordshire will now gather information and evidence and develop a methodology to produce a locally derived assessment of the quantity of sand and gravel that should be supplied from quarries in Oxfordshire.

In other words Oxfordshire takes the Government's 'localism' at face value, and does choose to set its own figure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mineral landbanks and Localism

It seems from various conversations that we have become so immersed in the gravel of the matter that we forget how obscure the whole question is for any normal human being. But OCC is consulting about ways of choosing quarry sites for the future, and, in the absence of any clear statement about their policy on amounts that need to be found, there is immense potential for anxiety and confusion. So here's an attempt to describe where we are:

Oxfordshire has the misfortune to possess large deposits of sand and gravel. Because the supply of sand and gravel is important to the construction industry, there are national policies to ensure that supplies are available. So decisions about gravel extraction here in Oxfordshire have always reflected national and regional guidelines and policies.

Mineral Planning Authorities are required to have a 7-year 'landbank' of sites where extraction has been permitted. The amount of gravel that these sites should produce depends on national guidelines which say how much each region should aim to produce – the regional apportionment. So the size of the landbank and the way it is divided between counties within the region is extremely important to anyone who may be affected by gravel extraction.

On 19 March 2010 GOSE (the Government Office for the South East) proposed to increase Oxfordshire's share of the burden from 1.82 mtpa (million tonnes per annum) to 2.1 mtpa. Every other county in the South East had their share reduced. A further round of consultation was started. On 18 May 2010 OCC unanimously rejected this increase and put forward their own figure: 1.58 mtpa or less. But the new government put an end to the whole review process, so that the consultation responses that had by then been received were completely ignored.

On 6 July 2010 Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, abolished the South East Plan. In advice that came with his announcement, his department explained in relation to minerals planning that planning authorities in the South East should work from the apportionment set out in the "Proposed Changes" to the revision of Policy M3, published on 19 March 2010. But in the next sentence they say that these authorities can choose to use alternative figures for their planning purposes if they have new or different information and a robust evidence base. It was policy M3 of the South East Plan that specified how much each county should aim to produce.

Eric Pickles presents these changes as part of a major shift towards “localism” - the transfer of power away from central and regional government to local planning authorities. The advice refers to new “freedoms”. So it is very strange if the effect is to impose from the centre a figure that comes from the old system and that OCC has already rejected.

But in fact his statement is very clear. Planning Authorities can choose to use alternative figures. So Oxfordshire should now declare that it does choose to set its own level. The consultation responses that were part of the aborted review process provide a mass of new evidence.

For many years, the landbank for Oxfordshire has been much higher than was actually needed. It has now been increased. OCC is just now consulting the community to help it decide where new quarries should in future be dug, But unless OCC first sets a sensible target, large areas will find themselves blighted, and planning decisions may be made that are based on invalid assumptions

So we urge OCC to declare and record on their website that they continue to reject the 2.1 mtpa landbank as excessive, that they will set a realistic landbank that is appropriate for Oxfordshire's needs and constraints, and that they will defend this decision with all the evidence that is available to them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has issued a statement to the effect that the Regional Spatial Strategies have been revoked.

In our Proof of Evidence to the Public Inquiry, we referred extensively to the Regional Spatial Strategy for the South East - the South East Plan - as that was at the time the most important feature of the Development Plan that was then applicable to the Public Inquiry. But in doing this, we emphasised that the South East Plan was shaped by principles that are set out in Policy Planning Statements which for the most part remain in force.

Although planning authorities in the South East are told that they 'should work from the apportionment set out in the "Proposed Changes" to the revision of Policy M3, published on 19 March 2010', they are also told that they 'can choose to use alternative figures for their planning purposes if they have new or different information and a robust evidence base'.

For Oxfordshire alone among all the counties of the South East, those "Proposed Changes" increased the county apportionment for Sand and Gravel from 1.82 mtpa to 2.1 mtpa. These figures were unanimously rejected by a Cabinet session of Oxfordshire County Council on 18 May 2010.

As the Partial Review of Policy M3 consultation process was in full swing when it was abruptly cancelled, there exists a mass of consultation responses that arose out of the apportionment and its March 2010 Sustainability Appraisal, and that are new relative to the "Proposed Changes". One of these is the consultation response from OUTRAGE, in which, for example, we demonstrate that these "Proposed Changes" were based on an inadequate understanding of flood risk and other environmental constraints that relate to Oxfordshire.

The last words spoken by Robert Hanson for OCC at the Public Inquiry confirmed, in answer to a direct question from the Inspector, that OCC's preferred sub-apportionment figure remains 1.58 mtpa or less.

It appears that the Government intends to devolve planning powers to local planning authorities. "Localism" and "cooperation" are emphasised in the introduction to the official 'questions and answers' advice on 'immediate issues that arise from the ministerial statement'. In para 4 there is a reference to 'new freedoms'.

So it would surely be wrong to interpret this ministerial statement as re-imposing from the top down a sub-apportionment that has been unanimously rejected by Oxfordshire County Council.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Public Inquiry has closed

At about 6:45pm on Friday 2 July 2010 the Public Inquiry finished in a flurry of detail and drafting - planning conditions that will be needed if the Inspector decides to allow the Appeal. This was an unpleasant experience - rather like designing the car park and fire drill arrangements for use at one's own cremation.

But at last we have had our chance to set out our case, and now we await the result. It's hard at this time to say more about that, except to say that we feel confident that the facts will be weighed with scrupulous care.

We can say that whatever the outcome, we were lucky to find our lawyer, Charles Hopkins of EarthRights Solicitors. We've now been working with him intermittently and with sporadic intensity for almost a year, and his understanding, experience and patience have made the best of our local knowledge and strong feelings.

Our initial contact came through the Environmental Law Foundation. Organisations and people like these go some way towards redressing what is, in this kind of case, a frightening imbalance between the weight of money and consultants and the resources of a small community.

Our many thanks go to everyone who has supported us this far, and to those who came to the hearings - it was very encouraging.

But we still need any help you can give, and there will be more fundraising events. The Public Inquiry went on for longer than was originally planned, and so our costs have increased.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Public Inquiry resumes

On Tuesday 29 June 2010 at 10am the Public Inquiry resumes for 4 days in Northmoor Village Hall. Now OUTRAGE and the Residents of Moreton can put their case and explain why Stonehenge Farm is the wrong place for a gravel pit.

During April Hanson's people presented their case in all its excruciating detail, as time and money slipped by. What has happened since then? "Events, dear boy, events" as Macmillan is said to have said. We have a new government, the seasons roll on.

For example, in April it seemed that the Partial Review of Policy M3 of the South East Plan would require Oxfordshire to increase its landbank of permitted sand and gravel reserves. The new government quickly stopped that.

We have a strong case, and we'll put it as well as we can. Here at last is our chance to finish this business, so do come along and support us. Your moral support and your generous help has been invaluable throughout this campaign, and we need you now more than ever.