Planning matters

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From a rock to a hard place

James Cox 26 Jan 2018
Whilst much of the UK was being battered by Storm Eleanor, Lichfields’ Leeds office braved the elements in early January to go on a study tour visit to the Johnson Wellfield Quarry at Crosland Moor in Huddersfield. Johnson Wellfield – part of the Myers Group – has been a client of Lichfields for a number of years; the company is known as Britain’s leading supplier of hard Yorkstone. Most recently, Lichfields’ Leeds office has secured planning permission for the expansion of the Johnson Wellfield quarry site by some 23 hectares. So, Arctic weather notwithstanding, we were only too pleased to take Johnson Wellfield up on their invitation to all of us to visit the quarry and see how it operates. Extending to circa 121 hectares, the Crosland Moor quarry currently produces in excess of 60,000 square metres of ‘Crosland Hill’ dimensional stone on an annual basis. The vast majority of the product is used in the construction industry, with Crosland stone notably used in London to reflag Westminster Hall, in projects at the National Maritime Museum, and in the Southbank Centre. Closer to home, it has been used to renovate the cathedrals in Leeds and Sheffield, as well as in and around Leeds’ Millennium Square and Leeds Dock. It has also been used in the regeneration of St Georges Square in Huddersfield which, located just outside the railway station, is where we started our afternoon visit. Thewlis Lane Quarry The Crosland Moor quarry is located some 3.5 kilometres to the south west of Huddersfield town centre and, having been kitted out with Personal Protection Equipment, a short minibus journey took us first to Johnson Wellfield’s most recent quarry at Thewlis Lane, where quarrying works have been underway for just 3 years. Starting life as an open, agricultural field, it was explained that the first task following the grant of planning permission was for earth-working machines to move onto the site and create earth bunds from the topsoil, helping to screen the quarry straightaway from neighbouring residential properties. Maintaining good relationships with neighbouring residents is clearly important to the Myers Group and this is reflected throughout their operation, with internal access roads having been lowered to preserve open views from nearby properties across the moorland and certain parts of the site having being made available for dog-walking. Bedding structure Following the repositioning/ removal of topsoil, it was explained that the second stage of quarrying works is to extract the first layer of stone using a digger fitted with a ripper-tooth. This layer of stone is usually very fragmented in nature and, typically, is either used as a material for stone-walling or is crushed to an aggregate. Sitting below it is a layer of block stone that forms the quarry’s primary output and which we were able to see being extracted by diggers during our tour. Incredibly, the block stone is around 320 million old, with individual blocks ranging from 1-100 tonnes. We were told that one of the main challenges of the entire quarrying operation is the logistical difficulty of ensuring that any extracted stone is moved away from the quarry basin in a timely manner so as to avoid it becoming congested with material. As such, we were able to watch a steady stream of dumper truck vehicles transporting the extracted stone from the quarry to the cutting sheds for processing. And it was here we headed next. Extracted block stone Inspecting the wire saw Once the block stone has been extracted, it is cut by a series of three computerised saws, each of which is capable of cutting the stone in a different way and producing a variety of finishes. This was likened to the slicing of a loaf of bread – first of all the uneven ‘crust’ is cut off by a wire saw to provide a flat surface and then it is ‘sliced’ into slabs by large circular saws. We then watched the stone being moved to the secondary cutting sheds where it can be cut into more intricate shapes and sizes, using digital templates to ensure that the most efficient use is made of any individual slab. Any excess is then recycled and crushed to form aggregate or walling material, with even the smallest of stones capable of being crushed on-site to form sand that can be sold to the building industry. In the cutting sheds           Cutting the stone - part one     Cutting the stone - part two   The final part of our tour took us to the robot sheds; recent, state-of-the-art additions to the quarry that, based on computer programming, are able to shape stone with incredible accuracy– much like a 3D printer. It was explained that the robots are able to produce stoneware with a greater degree of accuracy and consistency than a stone-mason ever could by hand; this is an important factor when, for example, like-for-like replacements are required for renovation works in listed buildings. It was heartening to hear, though, that Johnson Wellfield still insists on employing manually-skilled stone-masons to operate the robots, benefitting from their unrivalled knowledge of the material. Robot-controlled cutting A hand-cut tribute to Compo At the end of the tour, there was time to reflect on how the overall sustainability of the quarrying process we saw. It is clear that practically no material is wasted - and of course, the quarry sites themselves are required by the planning process to be reclaimed – potentially as future development land. Indeed, once the Thewlis Lane quarry site (where our tour started) reaches the end of its life in 2025, it is expected to be infilled with shale, compacted and developed for housing, with an allocation in the emerging Kirklees Local Plan for over 300 homes. Who knows, perhaps some of these new houses may even be built out using the same material that was once buried beneath them. Our thanks go to the Myers Group for providing a very enjoyable and informative afternoon.


Tipping the balance for green energy in the Green Belt
As solar farm developers continue to adjust to life after Government subsidies, there are many positive ingredients to indicate that the sector is here to stay. Investors continue to want to back the delivery of, and see the returns from, ground-mounted solar schemes; the capital costs and performance of the technology continues to improve whilst landowners - particularly of agricultural land - still see solar power generation as a way of achieving diversification in their rural businesses.What is working against the sector however, it seems, is the lack of availability of viable points of connection to the grid that have the capacity to accommodate the electricity generated. In the words of one of NLP’s solar farm clients, viable points of connection are becoming “as rare as hens’ teeth”. Identifying a viable point of connection is one challenge, another is then finding a site nearby that is capable of ‘plugging’ into it, whilst not being too sensitive to hosting such a significant feature as a solar farm in the landscape. This is where the planning challenges begin, particularly where the developer takes the big bold step of entering the Green Belt to explore site availability…The statistics stack against planning permission being granted for large scale ground-mounted solar farm developments in the Green Belt. In our involvement with solar farm proposals on Green Belt land, we often find the focus of local authorities is on why such proposals have been refused elsewhere (for example in Lancashire[1]) rather than looking at the particular circumstances of the proposal in front of them and bearing in mind the reasons why solar farm developments have already been found acceptable on Green Belt sites (such as at Arnold in Gedling[2], Watnall[3] in Broxtowe and at Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire[4]). A Green Belt designation undoubtedly adds a whole set of challenges which need to be addressed as part of the planning process for a prospective solar farm development. To this end, paragraph 91 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) recognises:“When located in the Green Belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development. In such cases developers will need to demonstrate very special circumstances if projects are to proceed.”This policy is to be read alongside the cornerstone paragraph of the NPPF which sets the key principle for determining Green Belt proposals:“When considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt. ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” (paragraph 88)Often, when determining whether ‘very special circumstances’ (VSC) exist for ground-mounted solar schemes in the Green Belt, applicants and determining authorities tend to focus on the benefits of the solar scheme, essentially the level of contribution that the scheme will make to renewable energy supply, together  with other benefits that might include ecological enhancements, rural diversification and community contributions. However, focussing too much on the benefits, in weighing up whether VSC exist, can lead to an overly simplistic approach – the larger the MW energy generation, the greater the prospects of there being VSC.What we find, however, is that before looking at the benefits, it is equally (and probably more) important to establish the extent of harm on a site-by-site basis. Green Belt is not uniform and the contribution that one part of the Green Belt makes to the stated five purposes can be quite different to another part. The ability to screen and visually contain one site, in a way that is not possible in another location, is all-important when starting to consider whether the scales can start to be rebalanced away from the default position of the scheme’s inappropriateness because of its impact upon the openness of the Green Belt. Knowing  how much weight there is on the harm side of the scales leads to a better understanding of the ‘weight’ that the counteracting benefits need to have, sufficient enough to tip the scales and create the VSC.Here at NLP, we use a range of tools and services to analyse both the value of Green Belt sites and their vulnerability to “alien intrusions” (in the words of Greg Clark[5]) in the form of ground-mounted solar farms. We build up an evidence-based picture of the relative value of sites within a given search area, so as to assist developers both at site finding stage and in preparing alternative site assessments that national policy now seeks as part of the application determination process.We have seen considerable success in the methodical approaches that we have devised in assessing site suitability and the strength of case for VSC, with one local authority recently considering that NLP’s demonstrated absence of a more suitable site in the search area was, in itself, a contributing factor to there being VSC. Once we know we have a Green Belt site that touches lightly on the harm side of the scales (or certainly lighter than its neighbours) then we have a springboard from which to elevate the scheme, through the promotion of its wide-ranging benefits, into the realms of VSC.In recent months, NLP has successfully applied this approach and secured planning permissions for over 20MW of ground-mounted solar farms on sites in the Nottingham - Derby Green Belt. [1] Appeal refs. APP/P2365/W/15/3011997 (Tawside Farm) and  APP/P2365/W/15/3002667 (Butchers Lane)[2] Application ref. 2015/0862 (land to the north of Lime Lane)[3] Application ref. 15/00525/FUL (land off Long Lane)[4] Appeal ref. APP/C3105/A/13/2207532 (land at Rowles Farm)[5] Appeal ref. APP/H1840/W/15/3136031 (Rectory Farm)