On 8 August 2014, the Planning Inspectorate upheld the decision of a local planning authority and refused to grant planning permission for the agricultural development of a former sandstone quarry in East Sussex. If approved, the development would have resulted in the infilling of the quarry with inert materials, and conversion of the appeal site to agricultural use.

The application for planning permission was first made by the appellant, Mr J Hollins, in August 2013. The application was rejected by the local authority, East Sussex County Council, in December 2013 on the grounds that it would have a negative effect on the surrounding area and would pose a danger to highway safety.

Following this refusal, an appeal was lodged by the appellant under powers contained in section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The appeal was heard by Mr David Smith who held a site visit and hearing on 22 July 2014 before issuing his decision to reject the appeal and uphold the council’s original decision.

Main issues

The Inspector identified five main issues in finding against the appellant. These were as follows.

  1. The effect of the development on the character and appearance of the area.

  2. Whether the proposal would result in an appropriate measurable improvement to the use of agricultural land.

  3. The impact of the development on highway safety.

  4. The effect on any biodiversity interest of the appeal site.

  5. The effect of the development on the neighbouring Ashdown Forest.

Issue 1: character and appearance

The appeal site constitutes a former sandstone quarry and surrounding agricultural land. It is located in a rural area surrounded by numerous fields and meadows. The appeal site and the surrounding area form part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Under the appellant’s proposal, the existing quarry would be infilled using inert waste materials that have been sourced from construction businesses in the region. The area to be infilled measures about 35m by 63m by 5m. The appellant estimated that it would take approximately 12 months to complete the infilling process and proceed with the landscaping of the site.

The Inspector began the appeal by noting that, under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) are afforded the highest level of protection and significant weight is to be given to ensuring that the landscape and visual amenity of AONBs is maintained.

The Inspector stated that, in addition to the provisions of the NPPF, the appeal proposal also needed to satisfy the provisions of the East Sussex, South Downs and Brighton & Hove Waste and Minerals Local Plan (MLP), particularly policies WMP3b and WMP8b. WMP3b stipulates that new waste developments will be authorised where the waste cannot be dealt with further up the waste hierarchy. Policy WMP8b specifically provides that inert waste can be used for the infilling of former mineral quarries in appropriate circumstances.

Applying these policies to the facts of the appeal, the Inspector noted that, while the area to be infilled was relatively small, it was a noticeable part of the surrounding area which impacted on the natural contours of the land. The appellant submitted that the infilling process would help to bring the appearance of the appeal site in line with the surrounding area which would improve the overall visual amenity.

By contrast, the local authority argued that the appeal site would, in time, naturally develop in line with the surrounding landscape without the need for the appellant’s infilling. The council suggested that the site could be improved in a number of less invasive ways that would avoid the level of development proposed by the appellant.

In considering these arguments, the Inspector accepted that the appeal site might, in time, develop so that it became consistent with the surrounding area. However, the Inspector also acknowledged that the appellant’s proposed development would result in the appeal site being restored in line with the rural environment within a much shorter timeframe.

In the Inspector’s view, this restoration would enhance the visual amenity of the High Weald AONB and would therefore be in keeping with the provisions of the NPPF. These improvements would also satisfy the requirements of Policy WMP8b of the MLP regarding deposits of inert waste for beneficial uses.

The Inspector therefore concluded in favour of the appellant on this issue.

Issue 2: use of agricultural land

In considering this issue, the Inspector noted that paragraph (d) of Policy WMP8b of the MLP requires that new developments involving deposits of inert waste result in an “appropriate measurable improvement” in the use or operation of agricultural and/or forestry land.

The site visit and evidence provided to the appeal had shown that the field surrounding the appeal site is used for grazing of livestock and production of hay crop. In the council’s opinion, the appeal site was already suitable for use for grazing and, as such, there was no need for any further development.

However, the appellant argued against this view and submitted that the appeal site was in fact of little practical use for agricultural purposes at present. The appellant maintained that, by allowing the proposed development to go ahead, the appeal site could be transformed into a rich area of grassland that could be used for a number of agricultural purposes, including grazing or crop production.

In considering these arguments, the Inspector noted that, while in his view the local authority had failed to show that the appeal site was indeed fit for agricultural use in its present state, the appellant had also failed to provide any evidence to quantify the level of improvement that would be derived from the appeal proposal if it was permitted.

However, in balancing these competing arguments against each other, the Inspector concluded that the appeal proposal would in all likelihood result in the improvement of the appeal site from an agricultural perspective. This improvement would therefore have a beneficial impact on the agricultural use of the land and would be sufficient to satisfy the “appropriate measurable improvement” test laid out in paragraph (d) of Policy WMP8b.

The Inspector therefore found in favour of the appellant on this issue.

Issue 3: highway safety

Having found in favour of the appellant on the first two issues, the Inspector then turned to consider the potential impact of the new development on highway safety in the area.

Under the appellant’s proposal, up to 186 loads of waste materials would be needed in order to completely in fill the appeal site and landscape it appropriately. The waste would be transported to the site using heavy goods vehicles which would access the site via Edenbridge Road (B2026).

The appellant noted that Edenbridge Road is a major access road in the area and is already used by high volumes of vehicles, including heavy goods vehicles. Furthermore, the vehicle movements to the site would only take place while the infilling process was being carried out and would therefore be limited to the first 12-month period of the new development. On this basis, the appellant argued that either the appeal proposal would not have a negative impact on highway safety in the area or, if there was any impact, it would only be for a limited duration.

While the Inspector accepted the points made by the appellant, he emphasised that the Highway Authority had also submitted its view on the proposal and that this should be afforded significant weight. While the Highway Authority had supported the appellant’s submissions on the current use of the B2026, it had raised concerns about the safety and feasibility of vehicles entering and exiting the appeal site from the road. In particular, the Highway Authority had stated that the sight lines for drivers entering and exiting the site were “severely restrictive” and would fall below the required standards.

The Inspector emphasised that this was a particular concern given that the vehicles involved would generally be large, slow moving and more difficult to manoeuvre than other vehicles. Given that other road users would not be able to see these vehicles until they were very close to the site entrance, any issues that such vehicles encountered on entering or exiting the site would pose a significant risk of an accident occurring.

Although the appellant had proposed widening the entrance to the site, this would be insufficient to remedy the concerns raised by the Highway Authority and to mitigate the potential detrimental impact on highway safety.

For this reason, the Inspector therefore found against the appellant on this issue.

Issue 4: biodiversity

The Inspector then turned to discuss the issue of whether the appeal development would have a negative effect on the biodiversity of the appeal site and the surrounding area. The local authority had argued that the infilling and landscaping process could detrimentally impact on the wildlife in the area. In particular, the area is home to a wide range of reptiles and amphibians, including a number of protected species, which could be adversely affected if the appeal were allowed.

Although an ecological survey was not originally requested by the council, the Inspector stated that the likely presence of such wildlife meant that an ecological survey was needed under the terms of the Planning Practice Guidance on Natural Environment.

While the potential impact on biodiversity could not be assessed until such a survey had been conducted, the Inspector stated that, for the purposes of the appeal, the overriding objective was to ensure that no harm was caused to the local natural environment. As such, until such time as the survey had been conducted, the development had to be treated as posing a potential threat to the biodiversity of the appeal site and surrounding area. This would therefore conflict with Policy WMP27b of the MLP, which states that new developments must both conserve and enhance the local natural environment.

For this reason, the appeal also failed on this issue.

Issue 5: Ashdown Forest

The appeal site is also located near to Ashdown Forest, a highly protected region of East Sussex, which is designated both as a Special Protection Area and as a Special Area of Conservation. Both the local authority and Wealden District Council had raised concerns at the appeal about the impact that the new development would have on the forest, particularly in terms of increased nitrogen levels.

Both local authorities submitted that the increased traffic volumes to and from the site would result in an increase in nitrogen emissions in the area, which would, in turn, adversely affect Ashdown Forest. Although no evidence had been provided to show the likely increase in nitrogen levels, both councils argued that any increase should be resisted given the high level of protection afforded to Ashdown Forest.

In addressing these arguments, the appellant noted that all vehicles used for moving the inert waste would be fitted with nitrogen oxide reduction equipment to minimise nitrogen emissions. The appellant also submitted that he would be happy to include a planning condition that all vehicles visiting the site use an alternative access route that would avoid travel near or through Ashdown Forest. On this basis, the appellant argued that any impact on Ashdown Forest would be negligible and would not infringe on its special conservation status.

While the Inspector accepted the validity of the appellant’s arguments, he stressed that, in practice, it would be difficult to ensure that any planning condition on access routes used was in fact enforced at all times. This meant that there was a possible risk that vehicles visiting the appeal site would travel either through or close to Ashdown Forest.

In the absence of any data to support either argument on the potential impact of nitrogen emissions on Ashdown Forest, the Inspector emphasised that due weight had to be given to the special conservation status endowed on the forest. This meant that, in cases such as this, where the potential impact on the forest was unclear, a conservative approach had to be adopted to ensure that any potential harm was avoided.

As such, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the Inspector held that the development had to be treated as having a negative impact on Ashdown Forest in terms of an increase in nitrogen emissions. The Inspector therefore found against the appellant on this issue.

Conclusion

Despite finding in favour of the appellant on both the first and the second issues, the Inspector emphasised that the development raised serious concerns about the impact on highway safety in the area. The Inspector also reiterated that, due to a lack of information available, it had not been possible to conclude that the development would not have a detrimental impact on the biodiversity of the area and on Ashdown Forest. The appeal therefore failed on each of the third, fourth and fifth issues and, for these reasons, the Inspector rejected the appeal and reaffirmed the decision of the local authority.

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Last reviewed 12 September 2014