In upholding planning permission to extract millions of tonnes of pulverised fuel ash (PFA) from a prominent slag heap, the High Court addressed important issues concerning recovery of sustainable products from the Green Belt and what constitutes the ‘very special circumstances’ required to justify such developments.
The heap was for many years used to deposit waste from two coal-fired power stations and formed a prominent feature of the landscape. PFA is used in the manufacture of cement and concrete and is classed as a sustainable, recycled aggregate in the UK. Its extraction reduces the need for the mining of virgin raw materials, including limestone, sand and clay.
By the casting vote of the chairman of its planning committee, the local authority resolved to grant planning permission for the extraction of 23 million tonnes of saleable PFA from the heap, in seven phases over a 25-year period. The project included construction of, amongst other things, processing plants and upgraded access arrangements.
The decision was based on a report prepared for the committee by the council’s corporate director of business and environmental services. It stated that, on balance, the benefits of using PFA as a secondary aggregate outweighed the negative aspects of the proposal. Impact on local residents, in terms of noise, dust emissions, visual appearance and traffic disturbance, could be effectively mitigated and controlled by planning conditions.
In rejecting a judicial review challenge to the permission brought by the local parish council, the Court noted that the report expressly acknowledged that the proposal was for inappropriate development in the Green Belt. In concluding that very special circumstances nevertheless prevailed in favour of the project, the report took into account all relevant considerations, including the effect on the amenities of local residents. So far as the impact of new-built elements was concerned, the report was entitled to have regard to existing buildings on the site.
The Court acknowledged that, in advising the committee on local planning policy considerations, the wording of the report was to some extent infelicitous. However, councillors were not specialist judges and the report was not to be read as if it were a commercial contract or statute. Any flaws in the report could have been addressed by making minor changes and had made no difference to the outcome.