Friday, September 08, 2006

A bit of background about Hafod Quarry

Please feel free to add more background about the quarry issue. Anyone can post under "comments" and we can then edit this text to fill in more background, add detail etc.

The campaign against landfill in the Ruabon and Johnstown areas of Wrexham has a long and complex history going back nearly 20 years. It is a story of expensive legal battles funded from the pockets of local people, of broken promises, and of the health and welfare of local people sacrificed to business interests. Local councils, the Welsh Office, the Welsh Assembly Government, Europe, and bodies like the Environment Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales have time and again failed to intervene to protect the people they are supposed to serve.

The recent history of the Hafod Quarry site is not straightforward. The site has had several waste management owners over the years, each of whom sold on the site to another waste management company. Most recently, in February 2005, SITA UK which operates nationwide sold the site to Mersey Waste Holdings (MWH), an arms-length company owned by the five Merseyside local authorities of Liverpool, Sefton, Knowsley, St Helen’s and Wirral, after no less than four years of negotiations. A sizeable section of the site had already been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), now also designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) by Europe on account of its colony of great crested newts. The presence of the newts and protected status of part of the site made it impossible to landfill at the site in accordance with the 1995 planning permission, but successive owners of the site (most recently MWH, who were well aware of the possible limitations on use of the site when they bought it) have jealously clung onto this outdated permission, knowing that under the more stringent rules now in force a new application would never be allowed. The presence of the newts is one issue; another is that the site is just 150 metres from local houses, and the National Waste Strategy for Wales guidelines clearly state that the minimum distance between landfill sites and houses should be 250 metres (although a safer distance would be several kilometres).

In the latest shameful episode in the push to start landfill operations at the site, the Environment Agency declared in mid-August that it was happy with the potential environmental impact of landfill at the site (presumably no EA workers live in Johnstown), and that tipping could go ahead. Wagons full of unsorted waste from Merseyside started arriving at the site almost immediately, in advance of a meeting by Wrexham County Borough Council Planning Committee to discuss the situation. Johnstown people, along with others concerned about the environmental impact of landfill on local residents (of both human and newt variety), have been holding protests and blockades at the site entrance daily since landfill started, and an angry crowd of over 200 with banners, placards and a megaphone met councillors when they arrived at Wrexham’s Guildhall for the Planning Committee meeting on September 4th.

Wrexham councillors were asked to revoke the outdated and unviable planning permission of 1995 at this meeting, but they chose instead to allow landfill to go ahead with just a few modifications to the permission. Chief Planning Office Lawrence Isted seemed determined that the permission should not be revoked, using the old Planning Office trick of threatening councillors with the prospect of having to pay compensation if the revocation should subsequently be overturned by the Welsh Assembly Government. The county legal officer conjured up all sorts of doubts about revocation, although when questioned by councillors he admitted that the legal position was not clear. What was clear from the debate was that most of the councillors were clueless about the ins and outs of the case, and were obviously not in a position to make an informed judgement, but nevertheless ten of those present voted for an amendment which allowed landfill to go ahead with some additional conditions, while only six voted for the defunct permission to be revoked. There were cries of "shame!" and "disgrace!" from the public gallery in the council chamber, and a strong and angry mood from local people after the meeting.

So why has Wales been chosen as the place to dump Merseyside’s waste? It’s only a year since an official apology was made to Wales for the flooding of Tryweryn near Bala in 1965 to provide water to the people of Merseyside. But Wales is just too convenient a dumping ground to pass up, especially now Westminster sets limits on waste tipping in England. A helpful loophole in this directive allows councils to export their landfill to Wales without fear of penalty. The people of Johnstown and surrounding areas have vowed to continue the fight to stop landfill at the site, from Merseyside or from anywhere else.

Watch this space.

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