Controversial Devon landfill licence won't be revoked despite error

The Environment Agency (EA) has confirmed it will not be revoking a permit granted for a controversial huge new proposed landfill site and temporary recycling centre near Exeter - despite admitting to having consulted with the wrong local authority. An environmental permit has been awarded to operate the site on greenfields at Lower Brenton Farm in Kennford, owned by the makers of Orange Elephant Ice Cream.

The EA said it did not consider the permit application as needing to be classed as one of 'high public interest'. That is despite the plans submitted by BT Jenkins Ltd having received hundreds of public objections and more than 2,850 people signing a petition against the proposal.

Currently, the planning application remains undecided. On November 29 last year, Devon County Council (DCC) issued a Regulation 25 request to BT Jenkins and its agent, Tetra Tech Planning, regarding the application.

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The council’s planning officers said the environmental and transport statements contained numerous 'errors, inaccuracies and omissions' that required correction before the authority could decide whether to approve or reject the application. Five months on, BT Jenkins has said it will be providing further information in the 'coming weeks' but it has not confirmed why it has taken so long and what its next steps will be.

While the issues highlighted by DCC have remained in limbo, campaigners and a local councillor are calling for the EA to review its permit decision. Before issuing the permit, the EA mistakenly failed to consult DCC which is the waste planning authority and has held that responsibility for more than 50 years.

Instead, it consulted with Teignbridge District Council and says its records show no response from them. Last month, the EA accepted it should have consulted with DCC and assured it has since changed its processes to 'ensure such an omission does not happen again'.

An environmental permit sets restrictions on emissions to air, water and land from a permitted site. It also places conditions on other things such as how an operator manages waste.

It does not relate to issues such as the choice of location of the site, traffic movements to/ from site, visual impact, operating hours and light pollution. These matters are considered through the local authority’s planning application process.

County councillor Alan Connett, who represents the area in which the landfill would be based, and is a member of DCC’s planning committee, has called for an independent review into whether the EA followed the correct procedure when deciding to grant the permit.

He said: “Whether one is for the landfill application or not, one would like to think that the Environment Agency has followed proper procedure, and I’m concerned that’s not the case.”

He continued: “I’m very concerned by what residents have uncovered about the way the Environment Agency apparently have gone about issuing the permit. It certainly looks like residents have been let down by the process.

“The Environment Agency really should carry out an external independent review of the process. That will either give residents reassurance that things were done correctly, or it will help the Environment Agency improve their processes for future applications.”

The EA has explained what its duties are and has referred objectors to the planning application to DCC.

Lower Brenton Farm in Kennford
Cllr Alan Connett

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “Our permit consultation process includes publishing the full permit application on our webpage for the public to comment on. It is not a requirement for us to reach out directly to specific individuals.

"This particular permit application was open to the public for comment, which provided an opportunity for anyone to formally respond. We received no consultation responses and were unaware of any local objections to the proposals. We did not consider that this permit application should be classed as one of high public interest.

“The Environment Agency has a different regulatory remit and legal responsibility from a local authority. We regulate specific emissions from activities covered by the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016. We do not lead on determining planning applications. This is the remit of local authorities.

“Having undertaken our full assessment of the permit application, we are confident the control measures proposed by the operator will mitigate any risk to the environment from the emissions for which it is our legal duty to regulate. In the unlikely event that the regulated activity does cause pollution, the permit includes conditions which, as regulator, allow us to act to ensure these emissions are brought back into compliance and the environment is protected."

Members of campaign group Residents Against the Landfill (RATL) believe the EA failed to properly consult the public before granting the permit. Their reasons for opposing the planning application include the environmental impact, the prospect of hundreds of HGVs driving to and from the site each day, the noise and smell, and the loss of countryside and scenic views.

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A RATL spokesman said: “The EA appear to have granted the permit based exclusively on the information provided by the applicant, without any input or scrutiny from anyone else.

“If DCC had been consulted, they would have been in a position both to alert concerned consultees – including statutory as well as public – and inform the EA of the significant opposition to the first planning application, as well as the reasons for recommending its refusal before it was withdrawn."

He continued: "The EA ‘published’ the public consultation unannounced on an online platform called Citizen Space, buried among nearly a million pages on the website. Not one of the many hundreds of objectors to the planning application had even heard of this platform, let alone visited it.

“It transpires that on August 9, 2022, the EA issued a request to BT Jenkins for more information. In their response, dated January 13, 2023 - after the formal consultation period - the applicant took the opportunity to revise and resubmit a number of the documents associated with the permit application to reflect the updated planning permission application, which at that time had not been submitted."

Concerned about the documents sent to the EA by the applicant, the spokesman added: "We know that the associated documents provided as part of the planning application have been shown to be misleading and incomplete, and in some cases, factually inaccurate, therefore, the documents submitted to the EA may be similarly unreliable.”

BT Jenkins Ltd is seeking to turn 75 acres of green fields at Lower Brenton Farm into a landfill for up to 700,000 cubic metres of construction waste, as well as an industrial scale demolition waste crushing facility. HGVs will access the site via the A38/ Brenton Road overbridge.

An initial planning application was submitted by BT Jenkins in December 2021 but was then withdrawn in March 2022, just days before DCC's Development Management Committee was due to meet to decide on the scheme with a recommendation from planning officers to refuse the application.

BT Jenkins returned with a new application which was made public in July 2023. The EA gave permission for an environmental permit on June 8, 2023.

This revised planning application included significant changes to the scheme because the county council’s planning officers had recommended rejecting the first proposal for reasons including environmental issues such as surface water drainage, flooding and the potential pollution of watercourses. Parts of five of the steepest fields would be filled with inert material from nearby construction, demolition and excavation schemes, but also potentially from as far away as Plymouth and Torbay.

Once full, the landfill would be covered over and the fields would once again be usable as farmland, the application says. The facility would replace BT Jenkins' Trood Lane landfill site at Matford in Exeter which has reached capacity. The plans are temporary, with three phases each lasting three to four years.

Russell Lowton at BT Jenkins, said: “We’re working closely with Devon County Council and other stakeholders to provide the information they need to decide the plans. We have and will continue to engage local communities surrounding the site.

"While we accept that some people remain concerned, we’ve had many conversations with people about why a replacement inert soil landfill in this location is an important part of the solution to sustainably disposing soil in the region.

“Local feedback has led to the site being made smaller to help protect local wildlife, the entrance on the A379 has been removed and the small recycling centre, where brick, stone and concrete will be recycled and sent to off-site developments, has been moved to a less visible position in the southern valley.

“We’ll be providing further information in the coming weeks and will continue to work with the council and communities as we progress.”