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Anaerobic digester on seven hectares site on the outskirts of March given go-ahead despite one councillor's fears for cyclists' safety

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Councillors have yesterday (Thursday) given the go ahead for a major new anaerobic digester plant on the outskirts of March despite one member's concern about the safety of cyclists.

west fen farm (3186808)
west fen farm (3186808)

Helen Wass, the council's development management officer (strategic & specialist applications), presented a lengthy presentation to members of the planning committee this morning outlining the construction of a new biomethane gas and electric, aerobic digestion plant at West Fen, Whittlesey Road, March.

Councillor David Connor, chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council planning committee. (3186859)
Councillor David Connor, chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council planning committee. (3186859)

Oliver Hull, applied to Cambridgeshire County Council, for permission to build the plant which will include two 9.3m high digester tanks, a combined heat and power biogas generator with 10m exhaust pipe, a 6m high flare stack, three separated digestate liquid storage lagoons, a harvested water storage lagoon, a workshop, all the associated infrastructure and landscaping and access from Whittlesey Road.

In her presentation, Ms Wass explained: “The site of the proposed anaerobic digester plant is in a remote, rural area. The project is to generate energy by the biological treatment (anaerobic digestion) of organic waste and crops, the thermal output of which would be in the region of 5 MW. The proposed development site is 7 hectares (17.3 acres), and vehicular access would be from an existing spur road leading to West Fen Farm from Whittlesey Road. This private spur road is some 1.9 km long and will require widening at specific passing places 30 m in length to allow multiple vehicles to pass one another”.

Ms Wass went on to explain: “The annual capacity of the plant would be 58,500 tonnes, of which some 45,500 tonnes would be food and farm waste, while the remaining 13,000 tonnes would comprise crops grown on West Farm Fen or neighbouring farms. It is expected that at least 40 per cent of the feedstock would be sourced from West Fen Farm or neighbouring farms, while the remaining 60 per cent of feedstock would be food waste brought to the site in tankers at a rate of four loads (HGV movements) per day, Monday to Friday, 7am to 6pm and Saturday 8amto 1pm. This food waste would be sourced primarily from an existing food processing plant based at Spalding in Lincolnshire, approximately 45 km away, by road."

Councillor Joan Whitehead raised concerns over cyclists' safety. (3186869)
Councillor Joan Whitehead raised concerns over cyclists' safety. (3186869)

Chairman, Councillor David Connor, in thanking Ms Wass for her presentation, opened the floor to questions. Cllr Joan Whitehead had concerns about the movement of HGV vehicles on roads used by cyclists: “It seems to me that the possibility of as many as 27 vehicle movements a day is excessive and will impact upon cyclists that I know use this road. I have studied the proposal and the Ordnance Survey map clearly shows two alternative routes to West Fen Farm that are shorter in distance. Why were these not considered for vehicle access?”

Ms Wass said: “Both routes that you mention are significantly narrower than the existing spur road proposed. And while you are correct in the figures, 27 movements a day is the maximum expected, which combines the HGV tanker transports as well as existing traffic to and from West Fen Farm already, the straw and poultry waste already being part of the highway movements in that area."

Coun Whitehead also questioned the need for the facility to be used on a Saturday when the most cyclists will be on the roads.

Applicant Mr Hull addressed the meeting and said: “I am a great fan of anaerobic digesters, having first come across them more than twenty years ago. Today, we use the very best expertise and technology to make sure these plants work in the best, cleanest and safest possible way, and while they can run, completely automated without any human intervention for up to 48-hours, they do require constant attention if we are to ensure that the digestion capacity of the facility does not run out. It is for that reason alone, that we have asked in our application for the facility to operate on Saturday morning only.”

Mr Hull also addressed the issue of odour and said: “I am not an expert in odour management. It was for that reason that we commissioned Ricardo Plc who are experts in odour management and the global environmental scarce resources sector to produce a report for us. We will abide by the findings of the Ricardo report which states that there will be no odour escapes outside the boundaries of the 500 acre farm area, and one of the ways that we do this is by sourcing in our food waste from and existing food processing plant in Spalding. All the food waste is sorted there, and what remains is liquid-based, can be then pumped into the tankers that will arrive at our digestor, this is then piped, securely into the digestion tanks – so all the smelly bits, well nearly all the smell – remains in Spalding.”

Councillor Anna Bradnam had concerns over large vehicle movements at unsocial hours of the day.

Mr Hull explained: “I am more than happy to give the committee our assurance that this will never happen. This plant is designed to be operated with the minimum of attention during the day, which is why we are proposing Monday to Friday operating hours of 7am to 6pm. In other words a normal working day. I realise that the committee has concerns, and I am aware of other persons who run biodiverse plants here in Cambridgeshire who perhaps do not run their facilities as well as we will. We do not want to be painted with the same brush as them. We will not destroy roads, or devalue properties – we have a reputation to maintain and we are not ‘fly-by-night’ boys. We have an open-door policy and we will not be running the plant at night – I want to assure you of that."

Before putting the matter to a vote Coun Connor asked if anybody had anything else to say on the matter – and Coun Whitehead responded: “Mr Chairman I strongly object to the cavalier approach that this committee has taken this morning in respect of cyclists.

"I think our attitude towards cyclists and their needs is deplorable. To choose the longest route possible to gain access to this facility, when there are two perfectly better options, shorter in length that would have less impact on cyclists and the so-called ‘need’ for this place to open on a Saturday when leisure cyclists use these roads is completely cavalier. While this is a good project and I support anaerobic digestion plants in principle, I do not support this committee's approach to the cyclists in the March, and I certain we could do more to restrict the number of movements of HGVs on these roads”.

The vote followed with six votes to one in favour - meaning the application was approved.

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