‘Cowboy’ operator and council ‘cover-up’ accusations at planning meeting

Bath & North East Somerset Council is being accused of “covering up” its handling of a controversial planning application for a concrete firm’s operations in Keynsham

After going through the council’s complaints procedure “to no avail”, seven households living near Old Station Yard have now gone to the Local Government Ombudsman, who investigates complaints about maladministration, and who they say has agreed to take up their case.

B&NES Council approved the retrospective application by 4Concrete in January 2020 with planning officers saying that the two silos replaced previous ones on the Bath and Portland Stone site and would not create airborne pollution at the site which is off Avon Mill Lane and next to the town’s conservation area.

Keynsham Town Council backed the application and B&NES received just two objections.

Then last November (Issue 655) we reported that 4Concrete had been granted permission by B&NES to extend working hours at the start and end of the working day on a one-year trial basis once new acoustic barriers have been installed to reduce the noise and dust being suffered by people living nearby.

The town council objected to that application with Cllr Clive Fricker telling the B&NES meeting that he and his colleagues were “frankly appalled” to learn what was happening at the site. At the time he told B&NES planning committee that no application for the site to become B2 (general industrial) had ever been received and it had always been regarded as a B1 light industrial site or a warehousing site.

Local residents Roger Stone and Mike May attended this week’s virtual meeting of the town council’s planning and development committee meeting on behalf of the households immediately impacted by activities at the yard. They have told the Ombudsman that the town council had been “ill-informed” about the initial application and asked the committee to support their fight.

Mr Stone reminded the committee that last summer it had asked B&NES as a matter of some urgency to review the decision that Old Station Yard is Class B2, but no review has taken place.

“We residents have spent the last year trying to negotiate with B&NES to reconsider their initial decision regarding the silos and the subsequent horrendous fall-out from that decision, all to no avail. Following our formal complaint that proper due diligence and proper research was never carried out, we have completed stage one and stage two of the complaint procedure, again all to no avail. We are now delighted that the Ombudsman has agreed that there is a need for further independent review and has accepted our case.”

Mr Stone said the residents’ main complaint hinges on their belief that proper investigation never took place regarding the development. He called it a “severe dereliction of their (B&NES) duties to safeguard local residents and the Keynsham community as a whole” and to make matters worse, just one local resident had been informed of the original planning application.

He said the residents believed that the town council’s planning and development committee had been “to put it politely, ill-informed”: “You were given both acutely misinformed facts and patently the wrong information; for example, (B&NES) planning maintained there was no need for an environmental assessment for noise and traffic which of course has proved to be far from the truth.”

Mr Stone said HGV journeys along Avon Mill Lane (which has a 7.5-ton weight limit apart from loading) had increased by more than 100 a day.

“Subsequent noise assessments show that the site continues to operate massively in excess of all relevant guidelines.

“Planning also implied that 4Concrete were already processing cement. Again not true. There is also no mention of the application being for a large-scale industrial batch processing concrete plant in the application.”

Mr Stone told councillors: “We strongly suspect that you would never have agreed that application had you been aware of all the relevant facts.”

He said the ramifications have had a devastating impact on residents, resulting in physical and serious mental health issues. “All the resulting issues we experience on a daily basis were predictable and should have been highlighted at the time, yet B&NES decided not to do so. Instead they have concentrated on covering up an initial lack of due process, rather than to try to put things right.”

He said the residents also now have noise, dust and traffic as a result of “an ever-increasing number of inappropriate industrial concrete companies using the site”.

He urged the committee: “Our hope now is that having had the opportunity to consider the evidence we have submitted, you will see fit to write your own response which we can send to the Ombudsman as further evidence and add additional weight to our complaint.”

Committee chair Clive Fricker told the meeting that he and colleagues were well aware of the saga and distress that local residents have been put through over the past year.

He said it is very unclear why B&NES suddenly said that the site was B2 and that therefore a cement works is perfectly acceptable: “One of the main arguments is that under the old regime with the stone works, activity took place within a building.”

He said 4Concrete’s activity takes place outside with “the noise and the dust and everything else let loose. That was never the case before.

“I think there is doubt about the classification and there is certainly doubt about the way things have been handled over the past year.”

Cllr Fricker said that when as a committee they had considered the retrospective application for the silos, it was from Bath & Portland Stone. “But the very nature of what goes on here has changed. We didn’t know that at the time. A year ago we thought the silos were more of the same. They weren’t.

“Here you’ve got the transformation of a site to a new unsatisfactory manufacturing centre which has been carried out with a lot of cloak and mirrors.”

He said the report from B&NES Council’s planning officer talked about the process continuing inside and “one or two silos”: “The facts aren’t clear and accurate when these matters were considered.”

Cllr Brian Simmons said: “I’ve had a lot of experience with concrete works and I was appalled at the lack of dust control there and the fact that they can jackhammer their cement mixers on a Sunday morning shows that they are not carrying out recommendations of the cement federation…it’s just a cowboy outfit as far as I’m concerned because they could take steps to keep their equipment clean by using muriatic acid, and they could have a continuous water spray dropping all the dust out, but they don’t do anything like that down there at all. They should be washing the lorries in and out as well but they don’t. This should have been a planning condition.”

Cllr Simmons added: “I think we should support the residents and recommend they (4Concrete) use acid cleaning in their cement mixers to remove the need to use jackhammers because every other company uses them. Why don’t they?”

He also suspected that “they are probably doing is blocking the drains with concrete”.

Mr Stone said pneumatic jackhammers operate at about 112 to 120 decibels and the noise inside a concrete mixer to remove drying concrete is “horrendous”.

“Although they are going to be putting barriers up and they have started to put up the barriers, we are absolutely convinced they won’t work and unfortunately we haven’t been able to convince the environmental protection officer that that’s the case. They have not actually measured any noise jackhammering. They’ve refused to come to my property to measure this noise.”

Cllr Fricker said: “I think it is fair also to say that the companies in this location seem to have no interest in good relations with the local residents. They are frankly harassing them and making life extremely unpleasant. We can’t accept that.”

The town council’s planning and development committee agreed to write to the Ombudsman to say they feel their decision was based on flawed information.

B&NES Council responds to allegations

This week Tim Ball, B&NES Cabinet Member for Housing, Planning and Economic Development, told us: “Complaints from residents have been fully considered and responded to in detail by the council and other agencies and residents kept fully informed.

“Residents have exercised their right to refer the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO). It will be for the LGO to determine the outcome of the complaint, so it is not appropriate for us to comment in detail at this stage.”

Concrete firm answers criticism

In response to what was said at the meeting, 4Concrete’s general manager Jamie Britt said: “The site has a lawful Class B2 use so we are not operating in breach of any planning or legal regulations.

“However, we are aware of concerns from the residents and have worked consistently with B&NES, holding regular meetings, making improvements to the yard to ensure we can continue to operate without unduly affecting their amenity. A solution is being progressed and will be in place shortly which will hopefully deliver a positive outcome for all parties.”

In response to the “cowboy outfit” claim, he said: “We pride ourselves on providing customers with a high quality product and excellent customer service.”

He said there was only one Sunday when staff had been knocking out the mixer – 1st August 2020 – because the truck had broken down, loaded with 6m3 concrete.  “We informed the council before we did this so that they were fully informed of our actions.”

“We use jackhammers once a month in our trucks to keep up with BSI 8500 standards and keep to the correct weight of our vehicles. The appearance of our vehicles is important to us as they represent the company image. Sometimes the trucks are not washed out in the evening if they arrive back late from site to keep the noise down from upsetting the neighbours.”

Mr Britt said dust suppression has been fitted around the yard and a full-time yard cleaner employed, and the company uses biodegradable chemicals “All the water in yard runs back into our recycling tank which we use back into the concrete.”

He said the company has stuck to the hours allocated by the council (7.30am to 5.30pm) and given up Yard 6 as a car park to stop complaints from neighbours.

“We have been working through COVID-19 which has put enormous pressure on the business in our first year of trading. We have always been open to meeting local residents to discuss any concerns and, to resolve any issues they have.”

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