Gwent Wildlife Trust comments 06-02-15

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Gwent Wildlife Trust

Ymddiriedolaeth Natur Gwent

4th February 2014

Seddon House

Dingestow

Monmouth

NP25 4DY

Tel: 01600 740600

Fax: 01600 740299

[email protected]

www.gwentwildlife.org

Reg. charity no. 242619

Lim. Liability co.no. 812535

Dear Mr Jones,

14/P/00637 Opencast mine at Varteg

Gwent Wildlife Trust strongly objects to this proposal on the grounds of significant biodiversity loss, which cannot be fully mitigated. We believe that the justification for the scheme is unfounded, and there has been no consideration of the ecological impacts of alternative proposals.

Ecological Interest

The site supports significant biodiversity interest. It is designated as a part of the Varteg

SINC complex, for the value of the mosaic of habitats as well as the presence of rare dragonflies and vascular plants. The SINC designation is barely mentioned within the ecology chapters - it is likely that the designation was applied subsequent to the original application and survey work, but it should have been recognised in the process of updating the chapter.

The importance of the site is reflected in the fact that the SINC designation can be applied to many features of the site. According to the Guidelines for the Selection of

Wildlife Sites in South Wales, the following features would qualify for SINC status in their own right:

Acid grassland: supporting at least seven indicator species

Unimproved acid grassland: all examples of this habitat

Heathland: supporting 10% or more dwarf shrub cover

Marshy grassland and acid flushes: supporting at least 12 indicator species

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Post industrial land: supporting a diverse range of native and archaeophyte nonwoody plant species, at least 20 indicator species

Habitat mosaic: a coherent site with at least three distinct habitat types where at least one is approaching Wildlife Site (SINC) status in its own right

Breeding presence of grey partridge

Breeding presence of lapwing

Presence of Keeled skimmer

Odonata: presence of more than 9 species

Presence of Fossombronia incurve

Presence of Hypnum lacunosum var. tectorum

Presence of Sphagnum flexuosum

Presence of Sphagnum teres

Additionally, the following features are listed as contributory – i.e. these should be considered as valuable features within sites that qualify under other guidelines, or sites supporting several contributory features should be considered for designation:

Breeding presence of Skylark, Reed Bunting, Linnet, Song Thrush and Stonechat

Possible breeding presence of Red Grouse

Possible Key Site for Common Lizard (the survey method used means that it is difficult to determine whether the site qualifies as a Key Reptile Site. All Key

Reptile Sites qualify as SINCs).

Presence of Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly, Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Black

Darter, and possible presence of Emerald Damselfly.

Presence of Grayling and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary

Presence of Small Elephant Hawkmoth

Presence of Moonwort

Gwent Wildlife Trust therefore believes that the site has been undervalued. A site or feature qualifying as a SINC has county level importance, and should be valued as ‘High’ in a local context. The following features should therefore be classified as being of high value locally:

Acid grassland

Acid grass/heath mosaic

Dry heath

Marshy grassland

Acid Flush

Overall habitat diversity

Important bryophyte species

Important breeding bird species

Odonata assemblage

Important odonatan species

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In addition to SINC status indicated by the Guidelines for the Selection of Wildlife Sites in South Wales, TAN 5 states that ‘Where development proposals may affect national or

local BAP habitats or species the same principles apply as to locally designated sites’.

The site supports 6 UKBAP habitats and 5 LBAP habitats, and at least 14 UKBAP species and 11 LBAP species.

In addition, there may be other invertebrate interest, which has not been surveyed or considered. Post-industrial sites are well known for supporting diverse and unusual invertebrates, such as rare ground beetles and bees. It is therefore possible that the site is supporting other rare species which have not been considered.

Impacts on wildlife

Significant areas of habitat are will be lost as a result of the proposals, as will important areas for birds, bryophytes and odonata. The Environmental Statement acknowledges that ‘it is not possible to mitigate for all aspects of this scheme’ and that it may take some species up to fifty years to recolonize the site (assuming that there are viable populations nearby).

The ecology chapter acknowledges residual (i.e. after mitigation is applied) minor negative impacts for acid grassland, acid grassland/heath mosaic, and dry heath.

Because of the difficulty in maintaining the hydrology of the site and creating wetland systems, moderate to major negative impacts are predicted for marshy grassland and acid flushes. All of these habitats qualify as SINC.

In terms of species, residual minor negative impacts are predicted for lichens, bryophyte assemblage, birds, and reptiles. Moderate to major negative residual impacts are predicted for important bryophytes and odonata, which are of high ecological importance at a county level.

We disagree with the conclusion that impacts on lepidoptera will be minor negative. The

ES states that ‘some of the species present will be very dependent upon specific habitat

conditions that would be lost (for example, small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly) and many species would not migrate large distances to find alternative suitable habitat.

Indeed, for some species of butterfly and moth, the habitat available at Varteg may be isolated from other similar habitats. It is inevitable that some colonies of these species

would be lost from the site for a very long time or even permanently.’ This constitutes a

moderate to major negative impact. The return of species predicted by the 2010 report relies on the success of the mitigation/restoration scheme, which is not certain, and also on there being viable populations in the nearby vicinity to recolonise the site, which may not be the case. The timescale for recolonization extends beyond the proposed management plan for the site, thereby adding to the uncertainty of successful recolonisation.

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Restoration plan

Whilst we support the overall approach for site restoration, of retaining some habitats and encouraging natural regeneration, the plan relies on manipulation of watercourses to recreate wetland areas. This adds a large element of uncertainty to the proposals, as the opencast has the potential to change the flows across the site. Many of the species and habitats affected are very sensitive to changes in flow rate, volume and water quality. There is no guarantee that the scheme will be successful, particularly for rare species that are slow to colonise new sites – such as lepidoptera and odonata.

It is also of concern that no off-site compensation is offered. The Ecology chapter notes many residual negative impacts, which appear to be accepted. This is contrary to policy

(see later section), which aims to provide net benefit for nature conservation.

In addition, the restoration management plan is only offered for a period of 10 years.

The subsequent management of the site is not discussed. This is a serious concern as it will take many species much longer than 10 years to recolonise the site. We believe that the management plan and aftercare should be of at least 25 years duration.

Justification for the scheme

From the ES and the Inspectors report, it appears that the perceived benefits of the scheme are being used justify the working of coal.

The perceived benefits are listed as:

Provide improved habitats for nature conservation

Removal of health and safety risks to the public

Improve public access

Improving the character and appearance of the landscape

Gwent Wildlife Trust disputes these benefits, and ‘the end justifies the means’ approach applied to the site.

Firstly, it is clear from the ecology chapter and our arguments outlined in this letter, that there will be significant residual negative impacts on nature conservation as a result of the scheme, particularly on rare species and habitats that are identified on SINC criteria,

BAP priority lists and the S42 list. Improved habitats for nature will not be provided by this scheme.

The health and safety risk associated with the site appears to be unassessed, other than mapping the shafts and adits on the site. The ES states that the Coal Authority will only react in response to an incident, and have no remit to carry out works in the Varteg area

– so there haven’t been any incidents. It is also stated that ‘there is no danger to the

public as a result of tip instability.’ Presumably, if there were serious health and safety

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risks associated with the site, the Coal Authority or the Local Authority (as the responsible landowner) would have acted to prevent access or address the risks.

The site already has public access via public rights of way and informal tracks. Whilst there is no doubt that this could be improved, doing so does not require ground excavations or coal working.

Finally, the issues around the character and appearance of the land are subjective. The northern part of the site lies within the Blaenavon World Heritage Site, which is recognised as being of outstanding landscape value. Equally, Landmap describes the remainder of the site as being of High cultural value:

‘The upland zone of the area is characterised by open plateau and its geology is dominated by the coal measures and limestone deposits... It provided the cultural backdrop on which industrialisation and subsequent changes to the former agricultural

regime took place’

‘Culturally important as rural landscape intersected by industrial setting...The increasing potential of recreational use of such areas, especially in light of the CROW Act, will produce a cultural shift in perception about the countryside...’

Clearly the site has existing cultural and historic value that would be lost if this scheme were to go ahead. The argument for ‘restoration’ seems to be based only on subjective aesthetics, which does not, in our view, justify the losses of important wildlife and cultural features.

Consideration of alternatives

The consideration of alternatives has been asked for by the Minister, in order to assess whether the proposed scheme represents ‘the most sustainable option’. Sustainable development requires that development respects environmental limits, and does not affect the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We therefore strongly

object to the lack of any consideration given to the potential environmental impacts of the alternative options.

Clearly, the ‘do nothing’ option would retain and protect the existing wildlife interest.

All of the other options are likely to have negative impacts on wildlife. Moving the boundary west or south is likely to have a similar level of impact. The tips themselves have significant wildlife interest, particularly for birds, reptiles and lepidoptera, so reprofiling and washing, although having less impact overall, would still be damaging.

The same applies to a reduced extraction scheme. We cannot comment on the impact of extraction elsewhere, without further details of the extent of extraction, but given the nature of habitats within the WHS, this is likely to have significant negative impacts.

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Gwent Wildlife Trust would have liked to see an evaluation of a scheme with the sole objective of making the site safe – ie capping shafts and adits, without reprofiling the tips (which are stated as being stable). Public safety is the only reasonable justification for remediation of the site, and if there is a pressing need (which has not been evidenced) for works, a scheme with a sole objective of safety should be considered, which would pose a smaller impact on wildlife.

Policy context

This development proposal is directly contrary to numerous policies.

S7 Conservation of the Natural and Historic Environment

Development proposals should seek to ensure the conservation and enhancement of the

Natural, Built & Historic Environment of Torfaen, in particular: - a) Biodiversity resources; b) Geodiversity resources; c) Water environment; d) Landscape setting; e) Character of the built environment; and f) Historic assets.

This proposal is damaging to biodiversity resources, landscape setting and historic assets.

BG1 Locally Designated Sites for Biodiversity and Geodiversity

Development proposals will not be permitted where they would cause significant adverse effects to local nature conservation designated sites (including the features of a

Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, Local Nature Reserves, or Regionally

Important Geological Sites unless it can be demonstrated that: - a) The development could not reasonably be located elsewhere and the benefits of the proposed development justifiably outweigh the nature conservation or geological value of the site; and b) Adequate mitigatory and / or compensatory provision is made proportionate to; or an enhancement to the value of the ecological resources or geological site lost.

Gwent Wildlife Trust does not believe that reclamation of the site is justified, and we do not believe that the perceived benefits outweigh the importance of the site.

Additionally, the mitigation and compensation offered is not proportionate to that which will be lost, as there will be residual significant negative impacts for multiple habitats and species.

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HE2 Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage Site (BILWHS)

Development proposals within, and adjacent to the BILWHS will only be permitted where it can be demonstrated that: - a) The proposal promotes a standard of design in terms of siting, scale, massing and materials, which is sympathetic to and preserves or enhances the character of the local area and settlement form; and b) Important views into and within the BILWHS are not adversely affected by the proposals; and c) The proposal contributes to ensuring the preservation of the ‘Outstanding Universal

Value’ of the BILWHS designation; and d) The proposal would not adversely affect the overall integrity of the BILWHS and its landscape or historic setting.

All development proposals within and adjacent to the World Heritage Site should be informed by the BILWHS Design Guidance and should identify how the proposals are consistent with the principles in this document.

Gwent Wildlife Trust believes that this proposal would have a negative impact on the

BILWHS and historical and cultural features that complement its setting.

The Coal MTAN states that ‘Other sites exist which are regionally or locally significant,

and planning decisions should prevent harm to their biodiversity and geological conservation interests. Where coal development would result in significant harm to those interests, MPAs will need to be satisfied that there are not alternative proposals that would result in less or no harm. Development should result in net benefit to biodiversity wherever possible, and local Biodiversity Action Plans identify target habitats or species which would benefit from such improvements. S40 of the

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 provides that every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity.

This development would result in significant harm to a SINC (which qualifies on 14 counts) and to BAP and S42 species and habitats. Because Gwent Wildlife Trust does not recognise an overriding need to remediate the site, doing nothing, or making the site safer without opencasting, are realistic alternatives. The proposals will result in a net loss of biodiversity.

TAN 5 states that ‘The town and country planning system in Wales should: look for

development to provide a net benefit for biodiversity conservation with no significant

loss of habitats or populations of species, locally or nationally.’

With regard to SINCs, TAN 5 states ‘The conservation and enhancement of locally

designated sites is an important contribution to the implementation of Biodiversity

Action Plans and to the management of features of the landscape of major importance for wild flora and fauna. Developers should avoid harm to those interests where possible.

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Where harm is unavoidable it should be minimised by mitigation measures and offset as far as possible by compensation measures designed to ensure there is no reduction in the overall nature conservation value of the area or feature.’

As previously stated, Gwent Wildlife Trust believes that proposals will result in a net loss of biodiversity, and as such, are unacceptable. We urge Torfaen County Borough Council to refuse planning permission on this basis.

We recommend that you discuss this case with your in house ecologist. Thank you for consulting Gwent Wildlife Trust. If you have any queries or require further information, please let us know.

Yours sincerely,

Sorrel Jones

Conservation Officer

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