A beneficial approach
By Jonathan Standen
Johnsons Wellfield Quarries Ltd, the Yorkshire-based producers of hard Yorkstone natural stone products, recently held a public exhibition to promote their proposals and seek feedback from local residents in advance of preparing a major planning application for a new quarry working. In the following article Jonathan Standen of planning consultants Barton Willmore describes the benefits of public consultation, particularly in view of the Government’s impending requirement for effective community involvement with all major planning proposals.
The importance of the views of local community when it comes to making a planning application for minerals extraction should never be underestimated. A strong body of local objection can effectively undermine a sound proposal from the outset. Public opinion is often not considered at all by an applicant until a planning application is made and letters of objection are received by the mineral planning authority. The response of the local community may well sway the planning decision.
With the Government's reform of the planning system now at an advanced stage, the need for the minerals industry to effectively engage with local communities will become a leading consideration. And with the enactment of the new Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act in late 2004, major planning applications (including minerals development) will, through a statement of community involvement, need to demonstrate community participation in the preparation of planning proposals.
Often, planning proposals for minerals development provide a reactive and defensive response from the public and quarry operators alike. However, the Government is looking to ‘develop a culture which grasps opportunity to improve the planning experience for those affected by its decisions,’ and believes that, as far as possible, ‘Consultation should take place and issues should be resolved before an application is submitted’. The intention is that advance consultation should not only potentially speed up the decision process, but also help to build consensus and reduce suspicion about proposed developments. The Government believes that with larger, more complex proposals, developers ought to be engaging with local communities to the greatest possible extent in advance of submitting a planning application, in line with statements of community involvement.
By implication, therefore, it will be incumbent on all mineral operators to develop good working links with the local community and to involve the local community in preparing proposals for new sites or extensions to existing quarry workings.
There is nothing new in engaging the public, however the timing and means by which community participation should best be achieved is of crucial importance. Involvement with the local community should be seen as a benefit rather than a hurdle.
Public meetings should generally be avoided as these often prove to be confrontational, and without strong and effective handling can be dictated to by local interest groups opposed to the proposed development. This may be exacerbated where there is a lack of established quarry–local community liaison. There may be a vacuum of mutual mistrust, particularly where new residential development has grown over time and now is located adjacent to old, established quarry workings.
Where participation and feedback is required in the preparation of a planning application or environmental statement, a public exhibition held locally to the proposed quarry site will prove to be a far more effective means of engaging the public. The public can still express views and ask questions, but this can be undertaken in an informative environment at a time convenient to those attending.
Public exhibitions are, however, only one of several ways to communicate with the local community. Focus groups and workshops can be organized, where members of the community will also have a chance to discuss and put forward their ideas. In addition, ‘planning for real’ exercises which involve the use of visual materials such as 3D models and computer-generated fly-throughs of development proposals can help to stimulate informed discussions of ideas and are regarded as a simple, user-friendly technique. Community involvement in planning can also be as simple as the use of surveys and questionnaires to establish local views.
Jonathan Standen explains: ‘The presence of exploratory drill rigs working near to an existing quarry will inevitably generate local interest, rumour and preconceived views. In preparing a planning application it is vital that this interest is addressed and the proposals correctly spelt out before the planning application is made, otherwise the public could be rallying against the development from the outset’.
Johnsons Wellfield Quarries recently submitted proposals for a 20ha extension to their Crosland Hill workings at Huddersfield. This necessitated the preparation of an environmental impact statement to inform and guide the formulation of a detailed planning application to work sandstone block and associated minerals. In view of the range of issues to be considered in preparing the assessment it was considered essential to involve the local public, by informing and seeking feedback in advance of preparing the planning application.
An exhibition at the quarry was held over a two-day period (including a Saturday) to provide an opportunity for all those who wished to attend. To promote the exhibition over 400 homes located close to the proposed workings were targeted by a leaflet drop a week beforehand. Notices were also pinned to telegraph posts near to the site and adjacent to the route of nearby public footpaths. The local ward councillors were also invited to visit, and given advance notice of the leaflet drop. As the locally elected representatives, ward councillors should always be fully informed given that they will inevitably be a point of contact for local people when a planning application is made.
The exhibition itself, within a large display unit at the quarry offices, comprised a series of display panels illustrating aspects of the proposals including: working method, environmental control, the reclamation options, and the uses of the dimension stone worked at the quarry. All visitors were asked to register their name, contact address and phone number. At the exhibition, a clear explanation of the proposals was required, so a guide accompanied each visitor through the display. Each visitor was invited to complete a comments sheet as he/she viewed the exhibition. As it was difficult to gauge how many people would attend and when, it proved important to have sufficient guides on hand for both quiet and busy times of the day. In total, 170 people provided comments either during or after the exhibition.
The feedback from the exhibition proved to be very constructive. Many visitors were pleased to have been invited and to have met key company personnel. Where some visitors had concerns, in part fed by local rumour, these were dispelled and most left happy with the proposals and mitigation safeguards. Many visitors were pleased to offer their preferences and to contribute to the formulation of the scheme. A number of visitors expressed support for the proposals and the long-term employment the scheme would offer, while a small number remained sceptical.
In reviewing the comments made, it is important that any outstanding issues are followed up promptly. To maintain the good links established so far, the company are to initiate visits to the quarry and saw sheds. Shaun Berry, the quarry manager, said: ‘The event certainly proved to be very popular with local people, many of whom had not seen a quarry working before.’
In the future, a key step to obtaining planning permission for major quarry development will be community involvement, so get involved!