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Council ‘error’ leaves waste processing plant’s future down to Planning Inquiry.

There’s a new sprawling grey industrial development in Avonmouth port. It sits alongside vast mounds of scrap metal, the world’s longest coal conveyor belt, and Avonmouth Village.

However the new plant, built by a company called Day Group to process ‘incinerator bottom ash’ – the waste from municipal incinerators – stands empty and unused: not only does it not currently have an environmental permit, it doesn’t have planning permission from the council either.

But it doesn’t look like it can be torn down. A planning department ‘error’ has left Bristol City Council with ‘no regulatory control’ over the potentially polluting plant, which sits just 50m from the nearest homes. Council planners granted the site a ‘lawful development certificate’ erroneously in 2014, despite the certificates not being valid for industrial operations – meaning the plant bypassed normal planning scrutiny.

The debacle surrounding the Day Group plant has reignited debate over whether there is sufficient scrutiny of polluting developments in Avonmouth, where industry has often butted heads with the local residents. If allowed, the plant will be by far the closest to residences of the 14 IBA plants currently in operation in the UK. Built between 2016-17, it can process more than 75 tonnes of ‘incinerator bottom ash’ every day; importing, transporting, sorting, and ‘maturing’ it, and processing some into aggregates – material used for building roads.

The Environment Agency refused the plant a permit in April this year, stating that the plans posed an ‘unacceptable risk of significant pollution’ in the local area. Similar operations permitted by the Environment Agency have been subject to a catalogue of complaints regarding dust and noise since the technology proliferated in the last decade. Day Group are appealing the refusal, so the future of the plant is now dependent on a planning inquiry between the company and the Environment Agency which kicks off on the 28 November.

The Day Group IBA plant

Pollution concerns

Developments such as the new plant in Avonmouth process dusty ash residue from incinerators, sorting and storing the material before processing some of it into aggregates for the construction industry. Avonmouth residents have opposed the operation on air quality and public health grounds, as have local Labour councillors Jo Sergeant and Don Alexander.

“If I were James Day [director of Day Group] I would ask myself if I would like to have an incinerator bottom ash processing plant in my back garden,” commented Sergeant.

Ian Robinson, whose family’s home is the nearest to the site at 50m away, will also attend the inquiry. A long-term campaigner on port pollution issues (and thorn in the side of the council), Robinson says he has “absolutely no confidence” in the council’s handling of port development, noting that “These permitted developments have been granted despite me highlighting to the Neighbourhood Partnership agencies […] the misapplication of the law multiple times in meetings since 2012.”

Shlomo Dowen, national coordinator of the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), said it was “unusual” for the Environment Agency not to grant a permit, noting that the Agency tends to seek ways to allow developments. “In my view, it was irresponsible of the developer to propose an IBA processing plant so near to residential homes, and it is outrageous and a waste of public resources for them to have appealed the refusal,” says Dowen.

“The fact that the Day Group hasn’t cooperated with the Environment Agency [in incorporating the Agency’s specifications into their application] suggests not only that the appeal should fail, but also it doesn’t bode well for the possibilities that in the future if they are granted a permit and they do start operating that they will cooperate with the Environment Agency should anything go wrong,” he added.

Day Group did not respond to questions about their construction of the site despite not having planning permission or an environmental permit.

What the council has to say

The council declined to answer questions regarding how the certificate came to be issued, nor when or how the error was realised. However, it did offer an explanation as to why no planning enforcement action had been taken – it’s afraid of a court case from Day Group. A council spokesperson commented:

“As we have explained to the local community and councillors, we have sought legal advice on how we can remedy the situation and unfortunately our lawyers do not think we have a realistic chance of success if we tried to revoke the certificate, and the process would cost the council a significant amount of public money.

“…We will have legal representation at the inquiry and we will be providing robust evidence to ensure the inspector is fully aware of the potential negative impacts of the proposed development.”

Ongoing problems

The Day Group application arrived on the desks of council planners in February 2014, and was granted in May 2014. It was during this time that Avonmouth was suffering the severe fly infestation caused by packers of refuse derived fuel, Boomeco, and issues surrounding the pollution and regulation of industry in the port were under intense scrutiny.

Then-MP Charlotte Leslie spoke in parliament in June 2014 about the weeks of inaction regarding the flies, and ongoing issues around the dust and noise pollution for residents local to the port. She didn’t pull her punches about the inadequate oversight from agencies involved, sharing “deep concern about procedural failures by the agencies involved to safeguard residents”.

Leslie mentioned that Avonmouth Village residents had “severe complaints about a number of pollution issues, including dust and noise”. In response, the then under-secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Dan Rogerson, emphasised that “Many of the issues about material in transit through the port will be the responsibility of the local authority.”

Ian Robinson at his home.

Despite the subsequent inquiry into Avonmouth pollution and regulation by Public Health England and the Environment Agency, concerns about the issues persist. Outside his home, Robinson drew his finger along his front door and showed the black dust left coating it to demonstrate his point. “That’s not normal is it?” he asks.

He claims it makes business sense for the council to allow it: “BCC [Bristol City Council] have a vested interest in the IBA plant becoming operational as the waste strategy for the region is dependent on the energy from waste facilities being able to dispose of their end product without being subject to landfill tax.”

The Avonmouth docks area is earmarked in economic strategy plans for the area as a prime location for the expanding waste processing and waste-to-power technologies industries. There has been an explosion in the number of waste operations in Bristol Port land in recent years, after national waste policy turned away from landfill use.

But alongside the rapid industrial development there has been a catalogue of environmental incidents and complaints from residents regarding air, odour, noise and dust pollution and more serious incidents such as the fly infestation that struck the area in summer 2014.

For now, residents and the council are hoping that the Planning Inquiry upholds the Environment Agency’s refusal. In the new year, it will be decided whether the now-empty site will start working, and whether Avonmouth will become the final destination for IBA produced in south Wales, as well as the other huge amounts of waste processed in the ‘waste capital of the South West’, right behind Avonmouth Village.

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