Planning Collision at Rye Harbour

Churchfields is a longstanding industrial site at Rye Harbour. Prior to a fire in 2008, the site buildings were occupied by a furniture manufacturer. Enter (five years ago) Long Rake Spar, a company that, according to its 2020 Mission Statement, has been supplying customers with specialist decorative aggregates – stones, sand and gravel for landscaping, flooring, highways and other surfacing – for over 150 years. Its origins are in Bakewell, Derbyshire, a seemingly natural base for trading in such materials. But in recent years much of these have been imported, in particular from Italy, and the potential for exporting finished aggregates has also been growing. The company saw a site with port facility at the mouth of the Rother river as an opportunity to expand in both directions. 

The Mission Statement declares, under a heading of “aims for the future” the company’s intent to expand overseas: “We will develop efficient import and export facilities at strategic dock sites to streamline our supply chain and gain margin, provide greater flexibility and lower our environmental road impact.”

PICTURE: Dave Young

On the other hand, although there has been long history of industrial activity at Rye Harbour, there are also both a residential village at the end of the roadway running parallel to the river estuary and three separate surrounding SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) including, in particular, the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Annual visitors to the reserve, both UK and foreign, have grown to number nearly 400,000 (in normal years), and a new Discovery Centre, part funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, is due to open in October. Thus, when Long Rake sought planning permission to extend buildings and site boundaries in 2017/18, conditions attached to a consent issued by Rother District Council (RDC) included restrictive provisions not only “to protect the residential amenities of the locality” but also to minimise the impact on protected species and habitats.

Current planning conditions

No machinery was to be operated, no process carried out and no deliveries taken at or dispatched from the site except between 8.00 am and 6.00pm on weekdays or up to 1pm on Saturdays. The use of HGV transport was limited to three eight-wheeler vehicles that were permitted 126 separate journeys on two days per month only to coincide with freight arriving at the port.

Floodlighting or other external illumination was severely restricted. Bagging of aggregates was to be undertaken within site buildings with appropriate dust controls to avoid pollution of the neighbourhood.

Icklesham Parish Council and the statutory environmental protection body Natural England both supported the 2017 planning application in principle subject to these conditions, and there seems to have been no significant local opposition. There was indeed satisfaction in some quarters that the historic river wharf was fulfilling a modern industrial function.

Application for variation

Three years on, however, Long Rake is applying to RDC to vary this planning consent so as to extend its business at the site to a round-the-clock 24-hour operation. It claims that this will enable increased production of minerals through the drying and screening processes, greater efficiency of energy use, and a higher sales volume including exports “to the near continent and the wider world”. 

It also claims that no additional HGV traffic should be needed for the delivery or collection of goods over the extended hours, nor will any additional lighting be necessary. It proposes, on the contrary, to import more material by ships, which “reduces the company’s carbon footprint… One ship cargo takes circa 100 lorry movements off the highway”. 

There is only a very narrow tidal window – approximately two weeks each month which can fall on any days of the week including weekends. The company seeks the flexibility to discharge import/export ships as soon as possible after they arrive so that they can return to sea on the same set of tides. “If we fail to achieve this, a ship could be stuck in port for up to two weeks.”

Planning objections

Both local residents and custodians of the nature reserve are, however, up in arms. They say that the operation of the company’s drying fans is already unacceptably noisy. Vents are pointed into the reserve because even the company’s own noise survey concluded that pointing them at the village would constitute environmental nuisance. To have these running for 24 hours would have an even higher adverse impact on wildlife.

Cliff Dean, Chair of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, whose 2,000 members support Sussex Wildlife Trust in running the reserve, points out that it also makes a significant contribution to the local economy. “Many visitors have moved to this area or regularly spend holidays here precisely because of what it offers”, he says, referring to “opportunities for quiet recreation in a beautiful, biodiverse and historic landscape”.

That experience is in his view already compromised by Long Rake’s intrusive activities. “Crashing sounds and vehicle noise already continue all day and late into the evening, long after the permitted hours,” he reports.
“The recently refurbished Reedbed Viewpoint in this area is prized
for its accessibility and rich natural soundscape. This will be entirely compromised by the noise from 24-hour fans.”

Visual Impact

He is also upset by the height and visual impact of buildings that have been erected by Long Rake since its arrival. “When we designed the Discovery Centre, we took particular care to blend it into the landscape. We were shocked when the company suddenly erected – without notice – an extremely tall structure which can be seen from miles away in all directions.”

PICTURE: Dave Young

Mr Dean’s formal objection to the proposal concludes: “We do not object to Long Rake Spar’s presence but to their lack of respect for the local environment and community as well as planning restrictions.”

Other objectors from the village complain of already unacceptable levels of HGV traffic down the only roadway which connects them to the outside world and which is in constant use by walkers and cyclists. Spillage of stones and rocks from lorries driving out of the Churchfield yard is said to be a regular occurrence. The company’s claims that an increase in the volume of its work operations will not be accompanied by any increase in HGV usage are likely to come under severe challenge when its planning application is heard. 

No date for this hearing has yet been set, and comments may still be entered on RDC’s planning portal, reference RR/2020/1044/P. 

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