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In Full . . .

Inspector directs highly unusual planning drama

Posted on March 26 2006 at 5:46:34

The Village magazine attended all three days of the public inquiry into plans for a rendering plant at Mayfield Farm, Hopwood – and we could fill every free page for the next year with what was said.

Instead, and to use an appropriate expression in this case, we’ll boil it down to just four, while striving to be fair to all sides in what was at times an emotion-charged drama.

Simply put, we were told by those who want to process around 85 tonnes of lamb and chicken waste on the site each day that the proposed plant would be of such state-of-the-art quality it would cause no problems for anyone.

In fact, the smell-reducing thermal oxidiser, for which the chimney at the nub of this planning appeal is required, would make life better than it is at the moment.

On the other side, backed by around 1,000 letters of objection, were those people who say their lives and livelihoods have been affected by activities at Mayfield Farm in the past and who believe a new, expanded operation is undesirable.

Directing this drama was the Government-appointed planning inspector, Brian Sims, standing, as he put it, in the shoes of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

From the opening scene, however, it was not to be straightforward action and was, as Mr Sims often reminded us, set within “highly unusual” circumstances.

This was because at the 11th hour, Worcestershire County Council had decided to withdraw its objections to the 17 metre chimney.

Even the leader of the council, Dr George Lord, said he was surprised by the move, in which the county planners said they believed “the potential very special circumstances” for allowing the chimney had now been shown, adding: “On this basis, it is appropriate for the county planning authority to withdraw their objections to the appeal process.”

The result was that the proceedings were left somewhat out of balance. On the one side was the team of the appellant, Mick Robbins, featuring barrister Jeremy Cahill QC, planning expert Peter Horridge and air pollution expert Darren Hall.

On the other was a barrister, Conrad Rumney, representing the county council. However, after outlining the county’s decision to discontinue its opposition, he maintained mainly a watching brief for most of the remaining three days.

The feeling from the large number of people who had forsaken their usual Tuesday activities to attend the first day – more than 100, and so many that the rear doors of the council chamber at Bromsgrove had to be opened to create sufficient space for them – was that democracy had deserted them.

But two men came, as best they could, to the rescue. The first was the inspector himself who, recognising the people felt unrepresented, bent over backwards for the whole inquiry to allow everyone to have their say, some over and again.

The second was in the form of Hopwood salesman Jeremy Roberts, representing HARM – Hopwood Against Rendering Movement. As he admitted, nervously, to The Village just as proceedings were about to begin, he’d rather have been “selling electrical things” than representing the hopes and fears of hundreds of people in such an adversarial setting.

Mr Roberts need not have worried, as he played his part in the inquiry with the appearance of someone with years of legal experience behind him.

The hearing began, however, with pleas for it to be halted there and then. Mr Roberts told the inspector: “We would like to submit an application for adjournment.”

The sudden change of mind by the county council meant objectors “had been holding on to false hopes”.

Coun Lord, who is also the county councillor for Alvechurch, said: “I speak on behalf of the people. I support the application for adjournment.

The planning committee of the county council has not heard the so-called recent evidence and I would agree that we adjourn this until the planning committee has heard the evidence.

“I have no idea what the officers have agreed behind my back, or indeed that of any other member. It seems to me that democracy is being undermined by this procedure and I ask you to abandon this inquiry for three months.”

Coun Lord’s words brought a round of applause from the public – the first and last of the entire hearing as Mr Sims warned he would not put up with such behaviour.

Bromsgrove District Councillor Brian Fuller added his voice to the plea for adjournment: “Whether we like it or not, we live in a democracy. There is new evidence of a very significant kind. I have not had time to consider this, nor has the district council, nor have the local people.

“The fact is, sir, that the county council planning committee and the elected members of that committee have not had an opportunity to examine the new evidence and make a determination on it. And that, in a democracy, must be wrong.

“These are local folk, ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary incomes. They have already given support beyond their means, and it was with a sense of relief to hear that the county council was carrying the banner.

“Now they have been badly let down. Their natural right to be defended has been denied by the county council’s decision to pull the plug.”

But Mayfield Farm’s barrister, Mr Cahill, explained that this was an appeal against “non-determination” by the county council and that as the decision had now passed to the inspector, it was no longer up to them.

After deliberation over lunch, the inspector told the inquiry: “My duty is to ensure a fair hearing of this planning appeal. The county council evidence is still in the public domain for reference and I believe the best way forward is to make use of the time set down for the inquiry without delay.”

Mr Sims said he would leave open the decision whether to complete the inquiry until after he had heard the opening submissions.

The inquiry first heard from pollution expert Mr Hall, from Entec UK, consultants hired by Mayfield Farm. He said a thermal oxidiser – which costs around £400,000 to install – was the “best available technique” (BAT) for odour reduction and was what a lot of rendering plants aspired to.

“It is my experience that the thermal oxidiser can reduce the odour concentration by at least 98%.”

The inspector asked Mr Hall: “What is the likelihood that one day there is a dirty great pong over Hopwood, the chance of a great smell just as someone is celebrating a wedding in their garden?”

Mr Hall replied: “In my experience it is reasonably unlikely if the system is maintained properly.” He agreed it would be “probably” less than once a year.

The planning expert, Mr Horridge, then told the inquiry the Robbins family had been rendering catering and slaughterhouse by-products at Mayfield Farm since 1961 to produce swill for pigs on the farm and for sale to other farms, with the fats and oils produced by the process sold to the chemical industry.

Fumes from the cooking equipment were vented by a 15 metre chimney.

The enterprise was, however, badly hit by the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. “The Robbins lost 3,500 pigs, which were slaughtered,” said Mr Horridge.

“Moreover, in the aftermath of foot and mouth, the Government banned the feeding of swill to pigs.

“Faced with the loss of two sources of income – pig farming on the site and the sale of much of the animal feed processed on the site – the Robbins decided to diversify by . . . selling to the next available market, the pet food industry.”

This entailed a different process and coincided with tightening of environmental regulations requiring a Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) licence for such operations.

Following the issue of a “certificate of lawfulness” by Bromsgrove District Council in September 2001 for the “preparation and processing of animal feed” at the site, Mr Horridge said the Robbins ordered new rendering equipment and a thermal oxidiser – which would reduce smells so the operation could meet PPC regulations.

Before they could apply for a PPC licence, however, they were told by Bromsgrove’s environmental health department that a new certificate of lawfulness was required, covering “use for rendering animal by-products to produce animal feed”. This was granted in February 2003.

It was at this point that the chimney, required for the thermal oxidiser, became the focus, with a planning application for a 25 metre stack made to Bromsgrove in April 2003. After legal wrangling between the district and county councils over which one should make the decision, it was eventually accepted by the county and passed to their jurisdiction in December 2003.

Mr Horridge told the inquiry that after planning officers at both Bromsgrove and Worcester had indicated opposition to the chimney on planning grounds, the Robbins sought to establish if a lower chimney would be feasible.

The manufacturers advised that the 25 metre stack had used data “which gave a degree of comfort over expected emission values”. The appellant’s pollution experts then used new values to recommend a chimney height of 17 metres – the height on the application to be considered by the county council.

At this point, in April 2004, the county officer dealing with the application wrote to the agent of the appellants:

“If the confirmed height of 17 metres for the chimney in this application satisfies the requirements of the (PPC) regulations and is acceptable to the Environmental Health Officer, your clients’ planning application would receive a recommendation for approval because that would constitute the ‘very special circumstances’ necessary to justify granting planning permission for what would otherwise be ‘inappropriate development’ in the Green Belt.”

Mr Horridge told the inquiry: “We have, of course, now reached the stage that the Bromsgrove Environmental Health Officer accepts the 17m height and that it satisfies PPC regulations and consequently the pre-condition for the county council officers recommending approval has been met.”

He went on to give evidence that the visual impact of the new chimney would be “imperceptible” and that even if it was thought there would be “visual harm”, the need for the chimney to meet the PPC requirements to run a lawful, existing business would outweigh that harm.

“Allowing this chimney to be installed will enable the rendering activity at Mayfield Farm to continue. However unpalatable it may seem, it is an important and necessary part of an important industry,” said Mr Horridge.

“Additionally, the resumption of rendering on site at Mayfield Farm will reduce the volume of lorry traffic into and out of the site.”

Mr Horridge said this was because at the moment the farm was being used as an animal by-products sorting site and so the volume leaving the site was the same as that entering.

He admitted there had been a “huge” number of letters of objection, but the appellant believed much of this was based on a misunderstanding of what was involved.

“Some letters have alleged concerns over the conduct of the appellant. Mr Robbins has asked me to point out that he has always co-operated fully with the authorities,” he added.

The inquiry then heard from Barry Clarke, general manager of the Westmead Hotel – now part of the Corus group – at Hopwood.  “Over previous years the hotel has suffered from malodours which have been generated by the pig farm,” he said.

“There is a history of bad odours emanating from the farm not being managed so that they affect events at the hotel. We have had to deal with complaints and have lost business because of the odours.

“We have heard of four jobs that may be generated by Mayfield Farm; I am talking about 50 jobs that could be put in jeopardy by this application.”

Resident Gail Simpson then told the inquiry: “I live 69 metres from Mayfield Farm, in Waterside Orchard. Their business will affect us for the rest of our lives. The effects of rendering plants are noise and smell and they can cause great misery.

“Mayfield Farm has a bad track record on environmental issues. This will be the company in charge of the thermal oxidiser – you can understand the anxiety this causes us,” Mrs Simpson told the inquiry.

“I’m not denying the usefulness of rendering plants, but not in a residential area. This is one man, one family and one aim – profit – against the lives of hundreds of ordinary people.”

Mr Robbins’ barrister, Mr Cahill, asked Mrs Simpson: “If planning permission were to be granted and that were successful in suppressing odours, that would be something you would welcome?”

She replied: “There is the matter of trust, and we do not trust these people.”

Mr Cahill pointed out that if Mr Robbins went against the tough new pollution controls, he would be in trouble with the authorities.

But Mrs Simpson said: “We phone up the council, we complain, they come and yet nothing seems to be done. At the end of the day, it is too near a residential area. I don’t want to move because I like where I live, apart from this. Who wants to live near this?”

To which Mr Cahill replied: “If I had a rendering plant over the road, with a lawfulness certificate, I would rather have it controlled than not.”

Retired Barn Green GP Dr Tony Armond told the inquiry that St Andrew’s School, Barnt Green, was only 1.5 miles from Mayfield Farm. “They know fumes have arrived there from the pig farm and they fear emissions form the rendering plant would also affect the school.”

He also said there was a real risk of “thermal inversion” in this area, which could lead to the emissions not escaping into the atmosphere. “We should not use the population of Barnt Green, Hopwood and Alvechurch as an experiment, an experiment for which we shall not know the results for 50 years.”

Bromsgrove Conservative Party secretary Rita Dent read out a statement from MP Julie Kirkbride, who said: “The increased scale of the rendering processes at Mayfield Farm is wholly unacceptable in an area so close to housing. The site has a long history of noxious fumes, causing blight for residents living locally.

“The issues are not – and should not be – purely technical, based on planning law. There are question marks about the safety of the chemical processes and we remain convinced that industrial scale rendering such as this should on public safety grounds be located in areas well away from major population centres.”

At this point, the inspector decided he would not adjourn the inquiry – in spite of hearing from Coun Fuller that the mis-match of legal abilities was “a bit like Hopwood Boys Football Club taking on Real Madrid”.

Mr Sims said: “I must balance the rights of you as interested persons with those of the appellant.”

The objectors were then taken aback by an announcement by Coun Frank Molloy, who said he was acting as the representative of Alvechurch Parish Council, which had previously objected to the plan.

“Alvechurch Parish Council has withdrawn their objection in line with Bromsgrove and Worcester County Council,” he told the inquiry.

This led to much to-ing and fro-ing the following day as attempts were made to establish what had happened.

Coun Molloy first said: “I would like to clear the situation of my remark yesterday. The [parish council] chairman has been in contact every evening regarding this and that was the line I was instructed with.”

He was asked by Mr Roberts for further clarification, asking if this decision had been “taken democratically or by one or two individuals”.

Then a letter dated that day was brought before the inquiry from Alvechurch Parish Council stating: “The objections of the Parish Council have not been withdrawn.”

Coun Molloy asked: “Who signed that letter?” and was told by the inspector it was properly addressed and signed by the parish clerk, Yvonne Goode.

Despite Coun Molloy saying: “I wish to differ”, Mr Sims said that as the letter appeared to be the official statement of the council’s position, it was the one he would take into account.

Meanwhile, Mr Roberts outlined HARM’s objections to the plans. Central to these were public concern over the “possible adverse impacts from emissions from the chimney on the surrounding area”.

He said: “We are worried that the site has not been properly managed in the past and environmental laws have been flouted. There has been persistent bungling by the district council over this site and they have patently shown they are incapable of controlling the site and its operations or the owner.

“There has also been no public consultation or consultation with elected representatives to allow the site to be developed to its current state.

“The plan to allow the site to use its certificates of lawful use to change the use from pig farming to an industrial incineration factory are a cynical perversion of the planning laws which continue to frighten residents in the area.

“The visibility of the stack will be a constant reminder to the residents of the pollution, which they are being asked to suffer at the hands of the few benefiting.

“The Kidderminster planning inspector on July 10 2002 concluded that public perception was a negative factor of some significance in that case. It was also concluded that concern about development proposals is a material consideration in planning decisions. The people of this area would ask you to do the same.”

The second day ended with the inspector being told that the plan was for the site to run five days a week, from Tuesday to Saturday, and it would be open from 6am to 6pm, with the machinery operating for eight hours a day.

The quantities involved in the present operation involved 600 tonnes of poultry and fat and bone coming in and out of the site to be sorted – requiring around 96 12-tonne lorry loads.

The planned rendering operation would see 725 tonnes of poultry, fat and bone and lamb coming into the plant, but, after processing around 512 tonnes leaving. It was believed the present operation would continue in some form alongside the new rendering processing.

At the start of the final day Mr Roberts chose not to be cross-examined by Mr Cahill, saying he feared he may prejudice himself. The inspector then allowed Gordon Britton, the immediate past chairman of Barnt Green Waters, to make a statement on behalf of Barnt Green fishing and sailing clubs.

He told the inquiry: “Our members have no confidence that, if the chimney is erected and the rendering plant is in continuous operation, that malodorous emissions will be controllable.

“The crux, as stated by the Health Protection Agency is ‘if regulated and managed well’. In an academic perfect world this would be the case, but in view of past experience in the context of Mayfield Farm, we have no confidence that this is achievable.”

The next witness was Independent Bromsgrove District Councillor Jean Luck, who told the inquiry she had been an elected member for the Alvechurch ward since 1987. “I speak from the point of view of the real fear based on bitter experience over many years.

“It got to the point where the environmental health officer said the best equipment was in there and he couldn’t understand why it was breaking down.

“There were many promises made and broken about the environment and there were several prosecutions. In my opinion the prosecutions were nothing to do with the state-of-the-art equipment, but everything to do with the appellant being unable or unwilling to act responsibly either as a good farmer or as a good neighbour.

“There is a very real fear that nothing is going to change and the people will be left with a very, very bleak future.”

Mr Cahill asked Coun Luck if she wished to stand by the statement about the appellant not being prepared to be a good farmer or good neighbour. She replied: “I am saying that I don’t know whether all this misery is because he is unable to do anything about it or unwilling.”

Mr Cahill pointed out that in a letter of 2001 another Alvechurch ward councillor, Conservative June Griffiths, had paid tribute to Mr Robbins for implementing odour control methods at the plant.

In his closing submissions, Coun Fuller said: “The letter written at the county council in April 2004 was a shot in the foot and, I feel, that’s why the county had to withdraw their objections.”

He went on: “The certificate of lawfulness was granted in respect of 10 years of swill boiling. What we are now looking at is a considerable change to a very substantial industrial process with a chimney that has five times the capacity of the present one.

“If the appellant continues with the waste transfer process, there would be more than 1,000 tonnes of material a week going on to the site and more than 800 tonnes coming out of it. That’s a massive change in intensity of use.”

Then Mr Roberts, in his closing submission, said: “We are told the emissions fall within the limits set by the Air Quality Directive. When we pressed for further information about the source data we were told it was in our district, and pressed further, not our district, but in fact Birmingham Airport.

“It was in another county on a flat open piece of land and did not take into account the problem of our motorway, main road, complicated by a canal and being surrounded by hills.”

Mr Roberts continued: “The applicant is infamous in the area with regard to complying with environmental and planning law . . . and this must be a consideration when making a decision about this chimney.

“The PPC application will not permit Mr Robbins to operate the plant, but he will be signing the cheques with regards to the plant. I implore you to make sure he can’t write the cheques with regard to the health and fear of this community.

“I urge you to refuse planning permission on the grounds of public fear, which is a material consideration.”

Summing up for Mr Robbins, Mr Cahill said: “The matters that have been raised are important and I don’t want people in this room to think anything other than that air pollution is very important.”

But he added: “Any anxiety that is brought about by misinformation does not constitute risk. Perception of risk is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Mr Cahill said the “planning bible” put the issue as follows: “Public concern must be justified, for if it were not, no industrial development would be permitted.”

He added: “I would say that the public concerns are completely and entirely covered by the pollution control regime.”

Mr Cahill said the “very special circumstances” required for development in the Green Belt was a balance, with harm on one side and benefit on the other – “the concatenation of the beneficial effects”.

In this case the benefits were that the site would meet planning rules, it would bring better environmental control, allow diversification, increase employment and create a valuable product.

Turning to Mr Roberts’ use of the word “incinerator” for the thermal oxidiser, Mr Cahill said: “This is not an incineration plant, it is a rendering process where animal parts are boiled. This will have alarmed people unnecessarily.”

On claims of concerns over noise, Mr Cahill said that the county council had been “silent” and equally there had been no objection by the highways authorities over the movement of lorries to and from the site.

Mr Cahill said there had been “deliberate alarmism” over the plan. “It does no service to spread unnecessary and alarming rumour. There is no evidence at this inquiry that pregnant women or children will be harmed.”

On Coun Fuller’s complaints about the certificates of lawfulness, Mr Cahill said they were “entirely without merit” as the certificates included the “proposed use” intended by Mayfield Farm.

Finally, Mr Cahill told the inspector: “This is a development which should be granted planning permission subject to appropriate controls.”

The inspector, Mr Sims, closing the inquiry, said: “I believe I have enough information to make a fair and proper decision.”

This would be within four weeks and a day.

 


 

 

 


 

                                             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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