Shortly after the family moved up to the farm, the neighbouring estate commissioned a mining consultancy to investigate the reopening of their historic mineral permissions – basically what it would take to start quarrying for limestone on their land. Those original permissions were granted in the 1950s, when ironstone was in short supply and steel manufacturing was still a big thing in the UK. There was an active quarry for ironstone in the 1960s and 70s next door, and signs of its activity are still visible across the landscape.
There isn’t a great quantity or quality of ironstone in the UK – we are not even in the top 40 countries in the production of iron ore – however the post war steel industry was seen as vital to the nation’s health, so landowners with ironstone were encouraged to dig it up; from what I understand, there were threats of land forfeiture if it wasn’t.
Despite the neighbour’s permissions being granted some 60 years ago, they’re still valid. Other old permissions around the country have been reopened after agreeing new environmental controls with the local authority. As the permissions already exist, they can’t be turned down – there’s no planning process, no public consultation, no needs assessment, just agree to the environmental constraints and start digging.
The old permissions allowed for the quarrying of “ironstone and all overlying minerals”, and it’s the overlying minerals bit that is now of interest. In our case, it’s fairly low quality limestone, used as a base aggregate for building. Unsurprisingly, of equal interest to the quarrying company, were the uses for the hole that they would create – just perfect for landfill.
So mining consultancy produced a “scoping document” (basically a “what would the Council say if we did this”), argued with the Council over the amount of work needed, ruffled a few feathers, before escalating everything up to the Secretary of State when they didn’t get the answer they sought.
In the meantime I’d been pushing to raise awareness (particularly with the American University, whose campus was 250m from the permission boundary. Isabel’s grandmother told us that it absolutely wasn’t our place to drum up opposition and that, whilst she was against the prospective quarry, she forbid any active campaigning. So I went and told the University anyway, gave them the paperwork and explained what I thought it meant.
Three months later – two days before public submissions were due to the Secretary of State – grandmother decides that we really should let the University know, and down she went for a meeting with the Dean. “Oh, ” he said, “your grandson told us about it months ago. He was really helpful…”
Anyway… the Secretary of State concluded that it was up to the Council to decide whether the amount of work proposed was sufficient, which certainly wasn’t what the mining consultancy wanted to hear. That was then followed by over a year of silence, and we were beginning to think that the whole thing had blown over…
… until a new company appeared on the scene.
This time they weren’t a consultancy; they were a large, active waste and minerals company, based in Cambridgeshire and (to us, at least) fairly aggressive in their approach.
Our first contact with them was when they called a village meeting, part of the “consulting the community” checkbox ticking process necessary for any application. They told us that they weren’t going to reopen the whole 2,500-acre site, rather they’d be applying for a small corner, some 250 acres at Gorse Lane, for quarrying and inert landfill. They also told us that it would be good for the community and that we should support their application because if they didn’t get the small site, they would 100% reopen the entire 2,500 acres, which would be much worse and couldn’t be stopped.
As the new site was only partly covered by the big existing permission, and they were applying for landfill as an integral part of their operation, the Gorse Lane application was treated as a new proposal for planning purposes.
Hungerton’s primary concern centred on damage to the springs that rise in the woodland behind the Hall. These springs had once flowed strongly, feeding a lively stream that ran down the valley in front of the house, into three medieval fishponds, and then down into the Wyville Brook. With the post-war quarrying on the neighbour’s land, our springs dried up – not totally, but enough so that the stream and the fishponds no longer exist. Our concern was significant enough that we hired an excellent hydrogeologist, to both review the proposals and to liaise with the mining company to ensure that proper monitoring and mitigation schemes were in place.
Despite the constant threats by the mining company that they’d reopen the big permission if we objected, the local community put forward significant opposition. In October 2016 Lincolnshire County Council unanimously rejected the application on the basis that Lincolnshire has enough limestone to last 40 years, enough landfill capacity for a similar period, and, as both were recent policy backed by public consultation, they were incontrovertible reasons for denying the application.
The mining company appealed, saying that the council hadn’t done their job properly, and hadn’t taken into account the mineral and landfill situation in neighbouring counties. The appeal hearing was in Jan ’18, where the mining company put forward the sort of case you’d expect when conducted by a QC and a plethora of expensive experts.
They said that there’s going to be a shortage in Cambridgeshire (that the council there doesn’t recognise yet), that their business model is good for the planet as they bring back infill in the HGV’s that take the mineral to site… oh, and that they have the old permission on 2,500 acres that they’ll exploit if they’re turned down, and that’s going to be much worse.
The council fairly comprehensively dismantled the shortage issues, and whilst there were questions about how the council executive presented their findings to the councillors, we felt fairly confident that this aspect of the case would fall in our favour.
We also tried to show that they don’t currently have the rights to the old permission – the ironstone is all tied up in landowner family trusts and the family are divided over the exercising of those rights. The quarrying company wanted the limestone, but the old permission is for “ironstone and all overlying materials”, so they had to take ironstone to do the big scheme. The mining company’s QC tried to suggest that fiduciary duty would mean that the family trustees had to agree to let them quarry, but couldn’t produce anything beyond that to shore up their position.
A few days prior to the appeal starting we received conformation that the woodland behind the Hall had been designated as Ancient Woodland. We had presented a range of old maps to illustrate that the woodland has been there for hundreds of years. Ancient Woodland status gives statutory protection to the woodland environment, including the springs that we are so concerned about. Our hydrogeologist had been trying to get the quarrying company to carry out monitoring of those springs for the past three years, and the backtracking, arguing and general dismissiveness that the mining company showed was astonishing. We felt that they wanted to do as little as possible, as cheaply as possible, and just didn’t feel that monitoring at the Hungerton Springs was important.
The Ancient Woodland status changed all that – instead of the Hungerton Springs being insignificant, they became something that the quarrying company, and the Inspector heading the appeal hearing, had to pay attention to.
That’s when things got… awkward.
The Inspector wanted a full list of conditions in place that would govern the eventual operation of the quarry were it to go ahead. This list of conditions had to be in place prior to the Inspector making the decision – effectively an “if I say yes, this is what it will mean”. These conditions had to be agreed by all parties in advance.
In order for the quarrying company to monitor the Hungerton Springs, and to keep monitoring them over the prospective lifetime of the quarry, they needed a legal agreement saying that they could have access to the land, preferably before the Inspector made his decision. And all this as the appeal hearing was taking place.
As we’re still in probate, Isabel and I couldn’t sign any agreement, so it all had to be passed up to the Executors. As one of the Executors is a lawyer, the lawyers got involved. And, unsurprisingly, as the lawyers got involved, it started to get more complex.
Our lawyers said that as we had been trying to get the Springs monitored for years, and as that monitoring still hadn’t taken place, the quarrying company couldn’t fully understand the water or geology there, nor present a proper scheme for ensuring that there wasn’t any loss to the Springs in future. Because they couldn’t produce a research-based mitigation proposal, the public couldn’t challenge or comment on that scheme, and therefore the appeal had to be turned down. Basically, it’s a legal right for the public to respond to planning issues like this and, according to legal precident, being unable to review what is proposed invalidates the application.
This letter from the lawyers was sent out on the Friday, with the final day of the hearing due the following Monday. All that was supposed to take place on the Monday was the summing up from both sides, but the letter changed all that.
It would be fair to say that the Inspector didn’t like the letter – not even slightly – and he did his best to shoot the messenger too (despite protesting several times that it was not my letter). The quarrying company tried to show that they had attempted to monitor the Springs, but we had been obstructive – and I tried to show the opposite – but the Inspector wasn’t interested in a “he said, she said” argument. Frankly, at this stage in the proceedings, I don’t blame him.
We got the feeling that the Inspector believed we had premeditated it all – that we planned all along to drop the letter on the last day – and that didn’t sit very well with him. However in the end it didn’t matter too much.
The Inspector ruled against the mining company, saying that the Council were right to state that there was no need for either the mineral, or the hole in the ground. He didn’t agree with the position that the lack of monitoring/mitigation invalidated the application, but we didn’t feel that he could use that anyway – had he done so it would have been challenged by the quarrying company in the High Court (although, had he granted the application, we would have done similarly).
So, the time has now passed for the mining company to appeal against the verdict, and we can safely say that the 250-acre quarry project is dead.
What still hangs over us is the threat of the 2,500-acre quarry and the resulting hole-in-the-ground. Whether that carries any weight we just don’t know – we’ve always felt that the real money is in the landfill, and that certainly won’t be granted in future.
So in the meantime we tend the woodland so that we can do a proper survey of what’s growing there, we clear out the stream beds to make sure the water flows when it can, and we carry on with our other plans in making Hungerton a happy and secure place for future generations.