Are anaerobic digestion plants and areas of outstanding natural beauty always incompatible? Chris Tofts examines a recent case that went to appeal and hinged on the definition of ‘major’ development.
The number of anaerobic digestion (AD) plant applications continues to increase as landowners become ever more interested in their potential.
Increasingly, there are objections about the visual impact on the landscape, especially if a plant is proposed in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).
We have seen a stream of proposed plants rejected in recent months, including an ANOB in the Cotswolds and Cambridgeshire, and in the Manchester green belt.
However, recently an AD plant was allowed within an AONB with the planning inspectorate overturning a refusal from the waste planning authority. The plant was proposed at Warleigh Barton, on the edge of the Tamar Valley AONB in Devon.
It was to be located in the vicinity of two existing modern farm buildings, contained within existing earth bunds that originally formed a cattle corral. Therefore, in the words of the planning inspector, the AD site could be “considered to be previously developed”.
The AD tanks would be partly buried in the ground so maximum heights would not rise above the existing bunds, while the combined-heat-and-power exhaust stack would not poke above the ridge height of the farm buildings.
Access would be along an existing farm track. This would lead to a plant that would primarily accept waste from the farm that was to be supplemented with food waste which had previously been processed off-site.
But the application was refused by Devon County Council in June 2015 because it was a ‘major’ development in the AONB and because extra activity, noise emissions from the plant and movement linked to operation and related vehicles would “erode tranquillity”.
However, on appeal the planning inspector overturned the refusal in his decision notice published in December 2015.
The key to the case lay in the interpretation of paragraph 116 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – “planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.”
Devon County Council took the view that as the development was a waste operation it could only be classed as ‘major’, so the application had to be rejected. This was despite a positive pre-application response from the Tamar Valley AONB team.
What constitutes ‘major’ development has already been considered at the High Court in July 2013 in housing case Aston and another v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and others.
In that case it was found that whether a development is ‘major’ is a matter of planning judgment and reliance should not be placed on a definition within a development order. The lack of a standard definition of ‘major’ development for the purposes of paragraph 116 of the NPPF leads to a variation in the planning judgment and some unnecessary appeals. But it also gives applicants the opportunity to design their schemes to have minimal impact, thereby avoiding the ‘major development test’ in paragraph 116.
The planning inspector said that whether the development was ‘major’ was a “key consideration in this appeal”, noting that the council had acknowledged that “not all waste development should routinely be considered to be major development” .
He went on to note that “the proposed installation on site is deliberately small in scale” and that it would be in “an existing developed area, screened on all sides”. The inspector considered the development would have a “less than significant impact and does not amount to major development.”
He found the noise could be dealt with appropriately via the submission of a noise mitigation and management scheme.
This appeal shows that developers who can successfully scale and locate their plant so their proposal does not constitute ‘major development’ will avoid the need for a ‘major development test’.
Warleigh Barton is a useful case for other applications and appeals for land in an AONB (Ref: APP/J1155/W/15/3133019).
Original article published in Waste Planning, Haymarket Business Media.