Saturday 25 April 2015

Toxic legacy - Updated

Update 25 April

The archived webcast of the planning meeting is now available here. A decision on the 6 planning applications in and around the former Grillo site was deferred, with councillors agreeing that perhaps it would be a good idea actually to go and look at it, what with most of the current members of the planning committee never having been to see the place for themselves.

Several councillors were clearly annoyed that the Welsh Government had intervened, and that whoever made the request to have the applications called in had done so at the last minute. Rather creepily, several were also keen to know the identity of who had shoved a spanner in the works.

Meryl Gravell will now be asked to write one of her "Disgusted of Trimsaran" letters, although some councillors were keen for the committee also to write a letter to the minister expressing their feelings about what had happened.

Wisely the council's solicitor advised that this might give the impression that the committee had already made its mind up before the meeting. Heaven forbid that anyone should think such evil thoughts.

In reality, the council does not publish planning officers' reports and recommendations until a few days before meetings, and interested parties usually have just a few days to read through huge amounts of documentation.

The head of planning also acknowledged that the proposed housing development on the Grillo site would have had to go to Cardiff anyway because it is not part of the council's recently approved Local Development Plan. He also reminded councillors that Carmarthenshire County Council had been instructed by the Welsh Government not to allow development of the site, although changes to the flood maps had encouraged the council to have another go.

For more detailed analysis of some of the issues, see two recent posts on West Wales News Review where the author raises important questions about the economics underlying the scheme.

The cost of tackling the contamination on the Grillo site, the roads and other infrastructure needed, requirements to build affordable homes (the percentage is not specified in the application or report) and contributions to new community facilities, such as the school, will be a huge drag on profitability.

Are we about to see another raid on the council's reserves, this time to help out Lord Magan?

Update 23 April

As can be seen from Caebrwyn's comment below, the Welsh Government has put a temporary stop to the applications while it considers requests to have them called in. Meryl is apparently not best pleased.


We recently saw how in Carmarthenshire you can fell trees, strip a site of vegetation, remove the topsoil and quarry a Special Area of Conservation without this being deemed to have "a significant effect" on the site.

This blog will return to Cernydd Carmel soon to take a look at what other work has been done to improve on nature, including construction of an exciting new tarmac road.

Meanwhile, it's off to Burry Port and the site of the former Grillo zinc oxide works. We have been there before, most recently in November 2013 when the county council and a firm of developers sheltering in the tax haven of the Isle of Man took the Welsh Government to court for blocking development of the heavily contaminated site.

Castletown Estates Ltd and Carmarthenshire County Council lost that fight, and no doubt quite a bit of our money went on helping the shareholders of Castletown (Lord Magan of Castletown and another family member) with their court battles.

Lord Magan is a merchant banker and prominent Tory member of the House of Lords - all the right credentials to secure the backing of the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire, in other words.

The developer would like to build houses there, and the council appears to be very keen to help, and so a flurry of new planning applications are waiting for approval in and around the Grillo site when the Planning Committee meets this Thursday.

In what looks like an uncanny replay of the Stradey Park saga, a large part of the site was considered to be prone to tidal flooding back in 2013, but now it is not.

Quite why the flood risk maps in Carmarthenshire change so frequently when controversial planning applications are involved is a question for another day, but at Stradey Park it will be remembered that the area was in a floodplain, then it wasn't, and then it was again.

Anyone thinking of putting their name down for a new-build on the Grillo site would be advised to bear in mind that the maps could well change again, bringing all sorts of problems to residents.

But if you don't get flooded or find that re-designation of the area causes you all sorts of problems with your insurers, you might want to think about what lies under your home. If you are not planning to move there, you may still be worried about how the contamination is going to be dealt with and what the impact could be on the surrounding area, including yet another Special Area of Conservation.

The relevant planning application numbers are s/30597, s/30598,  s/30599, s/30600, s/30601 [free road access to the Grillo site], and s/30678 - the Grillo site itself.

The developer would like to build up to 230 homes and a mix of retail and leisure facilities. The nature of the leisure facilities is not known, but if the scheme goes ahead Burry Port will get its own out-of-town shopping centre and a pub/restaurant. Naturally, the council is recommending acceptance even though the site was not earmarked for housing development under the recently approved Local Development Plan.

The biggest single obstacle facing the scheme is contamination from the former works. Here is what the planning officer's report has to say:

Metals in soils at concentrations high enough to pose a risk to human health are widespread. Asbestos has been identified in a few locations.
It is concluded that the most appropriate method for soil treatment is to import the top 1m of clean cover in areas of gardens and soft landscaping on all of the sites to be developed. Due to the presence of asbestos, and its possible presence in locations that have not been subject to intrusive investigation, earth moving should be kept to a minimum during construction, and appropriate health and safety procedures used. Dust blow, in particular, should be prevented. Soils should only be removed for treatment to a waste facility if ground levels cannot be raised, and excavation is needed before placing the clean cover.

It doesn't sound very inviting, does it?

Commenting on the draft planning report in March, the council's officer responsible for planning ecology noted a discrepancy:

The report conclusion section 4.3 states that a mitigation strategy must be produced which details proposed translocation of scarce species recorded on the site to a suitable area within the MCP [Millennium Coastal Park, Ed.] and that a new brownfield area will be created at Morfa Berwick – This is no longer a requirement, is not correct and in parts is not feasible due to the contamination at the site.

The council's preferred solution to the contamination problem is to cover the site with a layer of topsoil.

It seems that this is fine for humans but not for the other flora and fauna. 


Redhead said...

Over time topsoil erodes and great attention has to be paid to the height of the water table, since this can raise heavy metals towards the surface over time too - a toxic combination of its own.

Anyone with (or about to have) children should remember this before deciding where to buy a home.

Unfortunately, you can't rely on insurers to refuse to insure such sites (for 10 year home guarantees for example) as they just put get- out clauses in their documents.

There are now many of these sites all over the UK and it is a mega-scandal in waiting when it all goes bottoms-up - as it surely will.

But there will be enough tricky estate agents to sell these homes and enough gullible people to buy them.

Solicitors are duty- bound to mention contaminated land to purchasers but, no doubt they will have fancy Latin phrases for getting round that too!

caebrwyn said...

Keen gardeners will need to exercise caution or they could end up with potatoes with a very strange flavour - arsenic, zinc, lead, cadmium...

Tomorrow's planning committee, starting at 10am will be webcast here

Anonymous said...

Agree. Its appalling that the 3 Lab county councillors and 1 Indie(Lab)councillor here in Burry Port fully support this development regardless of the facts and the scientific evidence. -But then they are all huge promoters of Tesco stores too. Such is the quality and intellect of the 4 of them. V sad to wilfully destroy a beautiful area. This is not appropriate "regeneration".

caebrwyn said...

The Welsh Government issued an Article 18 Direction just before the meeting which effectively puts the decision on hold until the call-in requests which have been made, have been considered. The authority can process, but not decide upon the application.
They decided to have a site visit and send a strongly worded letter from Meryl (as regeneration Exec Member) expressing disappointment at lateness of call-in.
The solicitor advised the committee to be careful as it sounded very much like they had already made their minds up to approve...