Last reviewed 12 May 2015

On 12 February 2015, the Planning Inspectorate rejected a planning appeal and refused to grant planning permission for the creation of a sludge transfer centre and associated pipeworks in King’s Lynn. If approved, the new development would have involved the creation of a Sludge Cake Reception Centre, a Liquid Sludge Import Centre and a Sludge Transfer Pipeline to complement activities at an existing waste water treatments works in King’s Lynn.

The appellant, Anglian Water Services Limited, first applied for planning permission for the new development in February 2013. The application was rejected by the local planning authority, Norfolk County Council, in December 2013 on the basis that it would be contrary to both national and local planning policy.

Following this refusal, an appeal was lodged by the appellant under powers contained in s.78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The appeal was heard by Mr Clive Sproule of the Planning Inspectorate who held a hearing on 8 October and 8 December 2014, including a site visit, before issuing his decision to reject the appeal.

Main issues

The Inspector identified two main issues in finding against the appellant.

  1. Whether the appeal proposal would be inappropriate development in the countryside.

  2. The effect of the new development on the use of agricultural land in the area.

Background

Before beginning his review of the grounds of appeal, the Inspector set out a brief background to the appeal proposal and its relationship with the appellant’s existing business operations in the area.

The appellant operates a large waste water treatment works (the Works) on the outskirts of King’s Lynn. It is located to the north of West Lynn and close to the River Great Ouse. The Works is used to treat sewage sludge which is sourced from a number of other treatment facilities in the area.

The sewage sludge is transported to the Works by heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), with an average of 73 vehicle movements a day. Evidence provided by the appellant showed that the Works was currently working below its maximum capacity and that, were it to work at its full permitted capacity, there could be an average of 128 vehicle movements per day.

Despite the additional capacity available at the Works, the appellant submitted that the new facility would allow the sewage waste to be treated closer to its various sources and in a more cost effective manner.

The Inspector noted that the local authority’s rejection of the appeal related solely to the construction of the Liquid Sludge Import Centre and that no objection had been made to the other two elements of the appeal facility. The Inspector therefore stated that the appeal would be considered solely in relation to the Import Centre with the other two elements being treated as acceptable.

Issue 1: development in the countryside

The Inspector began his review of the first issue by identifying the relevant planning policies that apply to developments of this nature. The main regional policies are the Norfolk Minerals and Waste Development Framework Core Strategy, Minerals and Waste Development Management Policies Development Plan Document 2010–2026 (the Development Plan), and the King’s Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council Core Strategy (the Core Strategy).

Policy CS6 of the Development Plan states that new developments in the area must be located on land that is:

  • already in waste management use

  • existing industrial/employment land (or identified within the Development Plan as such)

  • other previously developed land, or

  • contaminated or derelict land.

The council’s original rejection decision referred to the fact that the appeal site fell into none of these categories and was therefore contrary to planning policy. The council also relied on the provisions of Policy CS06 of the Core Strategy whose objective is to protect greenfield sites from development unless this is needed for agricultural or forestry uses. As the proposed facility was neither an agricultural nor a forestry use, the council held that the development would also conflict with the terms of the Core Strategy.

The Inspector agreed that both of the policies identified by the local authority were relevant. However, he also emphasised that these had to be viewed in light of the provisions of the National Planning Policy Framework 2012 (the NPPF) which was implemented after both the Development Plan and the Core Strategy. In particular, the NPPF recognises a broader range of developments that may be acceptable in the countryside provided that these are sustainable and have economic benefits.

The Inspector stated that it was therefore necessary to consider each of these policies in relation to the various elements of the first ground of appeal.

Noise

One of the main concerns raised at the hearing was that both the construction and operation of the Import Centre would result in an increase in noise levels in the area with a negative impact on residential amenity.

In addressing this point, the appellant informed the Inspector that the operations at the new facility would mean that vehicle movements to the Works could reduce from a daily average of 73 to an estimated 26 movements a day. This would have a positive effect in reducing traffic noise generated by the HGVs visiting the site and would contribute to an improvement in living conditions for those living close to the roads used by the HGVs.

The appellant also drew attention to its Noise Management Scheme, which stated that noise levels at the Import Centre would be lower than those currently experienced at the Works. The appellant did accept the claims of local residents that the proposed 24–hour operations at the new Import Centre could negatively impact on local residents if noise levels were not adequately controlled.

However, the appellant indicated that noise levels could be mitigated by the erection of acoustic barriers between the appeal site and the nearest housing. This would be complemented by the screening already provided by existing warehouses which were located between the site and the nearest residential properties. The appellant submitted that these measures would be sufficient to ensure that the new facility would not have a detrimental impact on local residents due to increased noise levels.

In considering these arguments, the Inspector noted that the council’s Environmental Health Officer had not raised any objection to the appeal proposal provided that any planning permission contained appropriate conditions to monitor noise emissions. The Inspector agreed with the appellant’s submission that the use of acoustic barriers could mitigate noise levels while the reduction in vehicle movements would undoubtedly have a positive effect.

Although the Inspector accepted that the construction of the Import Centre could generate higher than normal noise levels, he stated that this could be controlled through the use of appropriate planning conditions. These could include conditions on working hours, for example.

On this basis, the Inspector concluded that the construction and operation of the Import Centre would not have a detrimental impact on either local residents or the surrounding area as a result of increased noise levels.

Odours

A second area of concern raised related to possible odour emissions caused by operations at the new Import Centre. In particular, the council noted that any spillages or leaks at the new facility could result in sewage waste being exposed to the open air and giving off unpleasant odours.

While the Inspector stated that this was an inherent risk with all facilities of this nature, he did note that the plans for the Import Centre suggested that it would not be as well equipped to deal with such incidents as the Works was. In particular, the proposed use of covered skips to store treated waste rather than an open tank treatment system, meant that additional measures would be needed to prevent odours from being emitted.

However, the Inspector also acknowledged that the appellant had considerable experience of working with equipment such as that to be used at the new Import Centre and was aware of the measures needed to be taken to minimise odour emissions. This was reflected in the detail provided by the appellant in its Odour Management Plan for preventing and minimising odour emissions on site.

The Inspector also emphasised that operations at the Import Centre could not start until the appellant had applied for and received an environmental permit from the Environment Agency. This permit would also be subject to conditions to control odour on site and to ensure that neither the surrounding environment nor local residents were detrimentally affected by the new facility.

The Inspector therefore held that the appeal proposal would not have a detrimental impact as a result of odour emissions.

Visual impact

A further concern raised by the local authority was that the new Import Centre would have a negative impact on the visual amenity of the surrounding area. The council highlighted that the Import Centre would require the construction of three 9-metre high storage tanks which would be highly conspicuous in the area. There would also be other buildings constructed to house the proposed operations along with numerous skips to store the treated waste.

It would also be necessary to cut down up to 30 trees along with the removal of large areas of vegetation to provide for a new access way on to the appeal site. These factors together would result in a reduction in the visual amenity of the surrounding area as well as giving the area a more developed nature.

Although the appellant submitted that new landscaping around the site would help to mitigate any visual impact, the Inspector agreed with the council that the immediate effect of the appeal proposal would be a negative one in this regard. However, the Inspector also noted that any visual impact would be reduced over time as the new landscaping develops, and offered more comprehensive screening of the facility from outside of the site.

In the Inspector’s view, the detrimental impact on visual amenity was acceptable in this case given its temporary nature and the appellant’s submitted plans to ensure that it was remedied over time.

Landscape

Although the Inspector concluded that any impact on visual amenity was acceptable in the circumstances, he also stressed that it was necessary to assess the impact of the Import Centre on the landscape as a separate issue. In this regard, the Inspector stated that the appeal site is agricultural land located within a rural area with some small areas of built up development. While it could be argued that the appeal facility would not be out of place given the existing developments in the area, the Inspector stated that it would still have the result of taking away agricultural land. This would, of its nature, have a detrimental impact on the character of the landscape and was a factor weighing against the appellant.

Alternative locations

One main area of argument at the hearing focussed on whether the proposed appeal site was the most appropriate location for the new facility. In particular, a number of local residents had argued that the facility would be more suitably located on the North Lynn Industrial Estate on the opposite side of the River Great Ouse.

In response, the appellant informed the Inspector that it had carried out a public consultation to help it determine which of three identified sites would be the most appropriate location. The proposed appeal site had been selected on the basis of the results of this consultation, taking into account a number of factors including the site’s proximity to the Works and the associated road network, its cost to purchase, and the length of pipeline that would be required to form the Sludge Transfer Pipeline.

While the Inspector accepted that the appellant had made its decision following the consultation, he stated that the reasoning put forward to support the choice of the appeal site was unclear and unconvincing in many places. In particular, the Inspector noted that the key assessment criteria identified by the appellant did not appear to have been applied consistently when assessing each of the three proposed locations in the consultation.

The Inspector also highlighted that significant weight appeared to have been placed on the lower purchase cost of the appeal site compared to the other alternative locations. While this was an understandable commercial factor, it could not be used as a justification for overriding the policy concerns surrounding the appeal site.

Having reviewed the appellant’s consultation response in full, the Inspector concluded that there was insufficient evidence provided by the appellant to justify its choice of the appeal site rather than the other locations proposed. It was therefore not possible to say that the proposed site was the most suitable available location for the new facility.

Conclusion

In concluding his review of the first issue, the Inspector reiterated that many of the environmental concerns raised, particularly in relation to noise, odour and visual amenity, were of limited weight and could be adequately controlled by through planning conditions. However, the Inspector also re-emphasised that the appeal proposal appeared to be contrary to the terms of Policy CS6 of the Development Plan and Policy CS06 of the Core Strategy.

Significant weight had to be given to the non-compliance of the proposal with these policies and, in the Inspector’s view, the appellant had been unable to provide any evidence to suggest that there were mitigating circumstances to justify such non-compliance.

The Inspector therefore found against the appellant on this issue.

Issue 2: Use of agricultural land

Turning to the second issue of appeal, the Inspector noted that Policy DM16 of the Development Plan states that Grade 1 agricultural land should only be subject to development where it can be shown that there are no other alternative locations for the development. As the appeal site lies within a designated Grade 1 area, the council argued that the burden was on the appellant to show that either (a) the appeal facility would not result in a loss of agricultural land, or (b) that there were no alternative locations for the appeal site.

In considering this argument, the Inspector accepted that the treatment of sludge at the Import Centre would generate materials that could be used to improve soil quality, which would have a benefit to the agricultural land in the area. However, the Inspector also noted that the construction of the Import Centre would result in the loss of agricultural land in the appeal site and that this could only be justified if it could be shown there were no other suitable locations.

Referring to his previous findings on the first issue, the Inspector held that the appellant had failed to demonstrate that there was a need for the Import Centre to be located on the appeal site. As such, the proposed loss of Grade 1 agricultural land at the appeal site could not be justified and the Inspector found against the appellant on this issue.

Conclusion

Having found against the appellant on both issues, the Inspector proceeded to uphold the council’s original decision, rejected the appeal and refused to grant planning permission.