Balancing nature of countryside with needs of industry

Date:

07/08/2004

Source:

Sentinel

Matter:

Roper - Alton Towers

For Emma Loat the issues highlighted by the Alton Towers' noise pollution case are very close to home. Miss Loat lives in Market Drayton where the town's major employer, the yoghurt manufacturer Muller wants to extend its factory on to 77 acres of countryside.

Campaigners against the plans, which await the decision of a public inquiry, argue the move would destroy the market town's rural tranquility and that of the nearby village of Longford. There are also fears of additional traffic, and that the new factory would lead to more development on open countryside to the north of the A53 ring road.

Miss Loat said: "Market Drayton is a nice place and people like living here for its quality of life. Other people visit it for the same reason, and it is significant for the tourist trade. You have to protect the intrinsic quality of the countryside, and the lives of the people that live there. Having a whopping great factory already has a detrimental impact. Building a bigger one would make it worse.

"It would create jobs, but at the moment the company has exhausted the pool of employees locally. It is having to bring people in from place such as Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford.

"Companies shouldn't put too much pressure on one place if it can be avoided.

"You can't cut Alton Towers up and put it in a different place, but a company like Muller has no need to be in a rural situation. It could build on a brownfield site elsewhere."

No-one was available for comment from M??ller, but the company has previously stated its commitment to providing employment.

The company's plans would create 300 jobs. Most of its employees already live within a 25-mile radius of Market Drayton.

It also buys more than 500,000 litres of milk daily mostly from farms within a 35-mile radius.

A spokesman previously said: "We look forward to continuing to develop a successful business in Market Drayton and to continuing to make our contribution to the local community."

The conflict between rural areas and the need for jobs was raised by the case successfully brought against Alton Towers by Churchill China chairman Stephen Roper.

Mr Roper moved into Farley House, Farley, in 1968, 12 years before the first large ride was built at the theme park. The businessman and his wife argued in court that the sound of screaming thrill-seekers constituted a breach of the Environmental Protection Act.

On Monday, District Judge Timothy Gascoigne ruled the Towers guilty of making the Ropers put up with years of excessively high decibel levels from popular rides at the attraction.

He did not serve a noise abatement order on the park but has scheduled a two-day hearing on November 1 to hear submissions about the detail of any such order should it be served.

Mr Roper said after the case: "When we moved here in the 1960s the gardens at the historic Alton Towers were a positive reason for coming. Now they are anything but."

The case is also believed to open the floodgates for further prosecutions from families living near the park.

A spokesman for Alton Towers confirmed after the case it was considering the implications of the judgement. He said: "We are a theme park and it is inevitable that there will be some noise associated with our business. We are also the major employer in the area, and a catalyst for the development of hundreds of other support businesses. We do not believe that this decision is representative of the level of actual complaints received or the feelings of the majority of our local residents.

"We have been operating successfully on our current site for more than 20 years - and have at all times sought to behave both responsibly and as a good neighbour."

Planning expert Richard Higgs told Sentinel Sunday that the landmark case set a precedent which could apply to other businesses.

Mr Higgs, head of planning and economic regeneration at Staffordshire County Council, advised companies established near residential areas to take heed of the case.

This was particularly so if they expanded and intensified their activities, or new housing was built near to their premises.

He said: "I think the decision at Alton Towers sets an extremely interesting precedent. It's a decision that's transferable to all sorts of other situations, for example an industrial premises that expands and creates more noise and traffic."

Ironically, people living near Churchill China's factory in Tunstall High Street have complained about increasing noise as the site has expanded over the past decade.

Mr Higgs said: "Logically I guess people will look at this decision and say 'what about me?'. That's already happened with the Churchill site.

"We can control certain things through the planning system. If a company wants to expand it must get planning permission. But it's where things have become more intensive, and where this doesn't need planning permission, that there isn't such a mechanism to control it. This is where people get despairing and start resorting to legal action."

Mike Ashton, of the Country Land and Business Association, explained the situation was particularly problematical when people had been living in a countryside location before an employer moved in.

However, Mr Ashton pointed out that employers were often vital to the character of rural areas, and that "nimbys" - people who insist 'not in my back yard' to new developments - were often the problem.

He said: "There is a sense of nimbyism, although you have to look at each case on an individual basis.

"We've all heard the stories about people moving into an area and complaining about the noise made by church bells, about tractors, and about muck on the road.

"It is the same sort of argument. Obviously, there is conflict but, at the end of the day, without jobs you do not have a thriving community. Carole Goodwin, the Staffordshire county chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) stressed that both sides had valid arguments.

She said: "The NFU represents the interests of farmers, growers and rural businesses regardless of their size or importance.

"We are also committed to the development of a thriving, vibrant rural economy, and are proactive in the work and initiatives of rural forums and food groups which aim to regenerate the British countryside.

"We appreciate more than anyone that the peace and tranquility of the countryside must be protected for the enjoyment of all.

"But people must realise it's not just a picture postcard, but a living, working environment.

"This country has strict planning and environmental laws that are there to ensure that as the rural economy develops the countryside we all love isn't abused and developed inappropriately."

John de Kanter, chief executive of inward investment agency InStaffs, pointed out that North Staffordshire had inherited a legacy of housing and industry in close proximity. This could be traced back to when employees were unable to travel long distances to get to work.

This meant it was important to distinguish between people moving to places where industry already existed, and developments in places where people already lived. He said: "You have got to appreciate there can be difficulties with people living close by. But it's a trade-off between whether the community wants jobs, or not."