Campaigners won a small victory last week when councillors decided to delay their decision on a controversial planning application for a West Suffolk Operational Hub.
As joint applicants, Suffolk County Council and the West Suffolk councils are looking to combine a waste transfer station, household waste recycling centre and fleet depot on a single site north of Hollow Road Farm, in Fornham St Martin.
But their plans have proved unpopular with many residents and the parish councils of Fornham St Martin cum St Genevieve, Fornham All Saints and Great Barton.
Departure from the council’s own planning policy, the loss of ‘very good’ quality agricultural land, increased traffic congestion and highways safety are among people’s main concerns.
On Wednesday, members of St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s development control committee met to consider the application, which was recommended for approval.
They were asked to balance the pros and cons of the scheme, being able to future-proof waste management for the area with the loss of landscape features and prime arable land, for example, and advised of a presumption in favour of sustainable development unless they considered that the harm identified ‘significantly and demonstrably’ outweighed the benefits.
Referring to the site’s classification as countryside in the borough’s development plan, Adrian Graves, spokesman for the Villages Community Forum, warned that approving the application would set a ‘dangerous precedent’ of allowing established policy frameworks to be revised ‘using wriggle interpretations’.
Ward members Beccy Hopfensperger and Sarah Broughton also spoke out against the scheme.
Cllr Hopfensperger said she believed the highways assessment was ‘fundamentally flawed’ as it did not take into account developments allocated in Vision 2031 on the basis of transport modelling carried out without knowledge of the hub application, while Cllr Broughton took issue with a footpath to the north of the site which leads to an uncontrolled crossing over the A134, saying there needed to be speed reductions on the dual carriageway.
Bernard Grimshaw, an objector from Fornham All Saints, told the committee one of residents’ biggest concerns was the impact the waste hub would have on traffic patterns in the surrounding area.
He said the B1106 – a ‘rat run’ between Great Barton and the A14 which operates overcapacity at peak times – was a ‘prime concern’ as it carried more traffic than many A roads and had seen several ‘serious’ accidents in recent years, issues which would be exacerbated by additional hub traffic.
Echoing his concerns, Sarah Bartrum, of Fornham St Martin, said: “People who use Fornham Road, the A134, A143, B1106 and Barton Hill on a regular basis can clearly see the potentially fatal consequences that would accompany the significant increase of HGVs and private vehicles to those roads.”
Mike Collier, chairman of the parish council, told members countless residents had expressed ‘grave concern’ about the expected 2,200 extra traffic movements on and around sensitive junctions, including the roundabout on the A134 dual bypass at the top of Barton Hill.
He said poor visibility, the speed of traffic and the presence of HGVs made it ‘a very serious accident waiting to happen’ and all three parish councils were ‘astounded’ no obvious safety improvements had been considered as part of the proposal.
Agent Richard Sykes-Popham told members the application before them was the subject of seven years’ work and it could not, therefore, be argued the partner councils had not been through due process in bringing the proposal forward.
“In addition to future-proofing key services, the proposed development would help improve the efficiency, quality and sustainability of these services and enable the provision of new services which cannot currently be offered,” he said.
He added that the highways impact of the scheme had been considered ‘in great detail from all angles’ and none of the experts had assessed the highways impacts as severe, which they would have to be to prevent or refuse the application on transport grounds.
Underlying the merits of the proposal, he said: “The need for development is clear, the planning case is sound, the principle of development is acceptable and, most importantly, its benefits outweigh the limited harm it may cause.”
Speaking in support of the application, Steve Lumley, owner operator of Steve Lumley Planing, said he would be the hub’s most immediate neighbour and he believed it was the right site.
“I know the locals have concerns and I have many of the same concerns – traffic volume, movements, odour, vermin – but all of these things, I believe, are manageable.
“I think a state-of-the-art facility could be built on Hollow Road Farm, something that we all could be very proud of, and is much needed in this town.”
While debating the issue, Cllr Terry Clements, a former HGV driver, said he had concerns about the proposed site access which would require HGVs to turn off the A134 roundabout and travel uphill, preferring instead an access off Bury St Edmunds’ Compiegne Way roundabout.
Cllr Ian Houlder expressed concerns over the futility of the footpath at the north of the site and said the uncontrolled crossing was ‘an accident waiting to happen which could easily be mitigated’.
Leading calls to reject the application, Cllr David Nettleton said it was an ‘over-development of the site on a severely limited highway network’ and he did not consider it had any planning merit.
His motion to reject the application was defeated by eight votes to six, while a second motion to approve it, proposed by Cllr Alaric Pugh, was defeated by the same.
Councillors decided to defer their decision to allow the applicant to look again at the issues which concerned members, including the footpath and highways safety.
“Today’s decision means we haven’t thrown it out and we haven’t approved it but we can bring it back polished up and hope what we’re looking at next time will satisfy the residents,” said Jim Thorndyke, committee chairman.
Cllr Collier said the parish councils would discuss what to do next but he was hopeful their message was getting through.
“I hope that during this deferral process there will be members with sufficient open minds to revisit the robust and developed alternatives we put forward over the last two plus years which we believe demonstrate a better and more sustainable solution,” added Mr Graves.
Details of the special meeting:
The waste hub application was the sole focus of Wednesday’s four-hour meeting at West Suffolk House, Bury St Edmunds.
Members of the public who wanted to attend were asked to register at reception at least 30 minutes prior to its 10am start.
Numbers in the public gallery within the council chamber were strictly limited to 50 people, but arrangements were made for a further 30 to watch proceedings on an audio visual relay set up in a nearby room.
The special development control meeting was also broadcast live on St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s YouTube channel.
The full planning application considered was referred to the committee because it is a ‘major development’ the parish council objects to, and because the applicant is the council.
Attendees were informed that, if the application was approved at the meeting, the Secretary of State would be asked to call it in for determination.
Objectors Adrian Graves, Sarah Bartrum, Mark Aston and Bernard Grimshaw were given a total of 12 minutes in which to make representations to the committee, up from the usual three minutes permitted. Supporter Steve Lumley spoke next, followed by parish council chairmen Mike Collier, Howard Quayle, Philip Reeve and Andrew Speed, ward members Beccy Hopfensperger and Sarah Broughton and, finally, the applicant’s agent, Richard Sykes-Popham.
After the meeting, Cllr Speed, chairman of Bury Town Council, said the public should be both heartened and depressed by events at the meeting – heartened because councillors ‘gave a considered and well thought through verdict’ and depressed because the issue ‘rumbles on, continues to use up huge local authority money and time, and the borough’s residents still do not have a fit for purpose waste facility’.