After a decade of delay, Sutton condemns Viridor. Sort of

Environmental disaster: Viridor has a £1bn contract to burn south London’s rubbish. They have broken pretty much all of their agreements to improve and enhance the neighbouring nature reserve

Our environment correspondent, PAUL LUSHION, on a planning authority’s enforcement action coming far too late to save what was supposed to be south London’s biggest nature reserve, where endangered species have been allowed to become extinct

For the birds: Beddington Farmlands’ tree sparrows colony has been badly affected by Viridor’s malign neglect

Sutton Council, after more than a decade of bending over backwards to accommodate the wishes and plans of profit-hungry Viridor, the operators of the polluting incinerator at Beddington, have now condemned the “systematic… widespread planning and resourcing failures” in the delivery of the neighbouring Beddington Farmlands Nature Reserve.

But local environmentalists and conservationists fear that the enforcement action from the planning authority is too little too late for many of what were once ambitious and enlightened plans for an area larger than Hyde Park, and which was meant to be a south London nature reserve to match the London Wetlands centre.

Inside Croydon has been publishing warnings and the demands that Viridor be kept in a tight enforcement check, since 2014. Back then, Beddington Farmlands was the home to one of London’s last surviving colonies of tree sparrows.

Today, after a decade of malign neglect from the multi-billion, multi-national company entrusted with the care of the site, even those once chirpy symbols of London’s cockney character are feared to have been wiped out.

And this is what you could have won…: after a decade, little progress has been made with Viridor’s promised improvement works on the Beddington Farmlands

As paragraph 1.2 of the report from Spencer Palmer, Sutton’s “strategic director, environment, housing and neighbourhoods directorate” to a meeting of this month of the housing, economy and business committee stated categorically: “The restoration of the Beddington Farmlands from its use as a landfill site to an important high-quality nature reserve was a condition attached to Viridor’s planning permission for the landfill operations and the adjacent energy recovery facility.”

By “energy recovery facility”, dear old Spence actually means incinerator. But after so many years of acting in the thrall of their contractors, in some kind of verion of Stockholm Syndrome, Sutton Council officials can’t help themselves and still use the misleading language imposed on them by their captors, Viridor.

The Beddington incinerator deal was worth £1billion to Viridor over 25 years, under a contract to burn the rubbish of four south London boroughs – Sutton, Kingston, Merton and Croydon.

The nurturing of the surrounding disused landfill site and continued works to transform it was a “nice to have” add-on to the planning permission, at relatively minimal cost to the vast profits Viridor has been raking in since they got the go-ahead to pollute the skies above south London.

The report to the HEB committee is unusual for a council paper because of its withering criticism of the council’s “partners”. A recent report, outlining an action plan for the natural reserve, prepared by new contractors, “only amounted to a rehearsal of previous discussions, with little evidence of new ideas or a real sense of urgency to make progress”.

Easy quarry: having crossed on to the ‘predator-proof’ island, a fox stalks a lapwing at Beddington Farmlands

The report continues: “It is important to note that whilst there are challenges, Ccuncil officers do not agree with [the contractor’s] conclusions on each habitat and note that the issues they refer to arise from a lack of dedicated forward planning, resources and implementation over a long period of time.”

The position with the Farmlands is complicated, slightly, by Viridor’s sale of the former landfill site in 2021 to Valencia Waste Management.

There are widespread suspicions, aired by environmentalists and by sources at Sutton Council, that Valencia is nothing more than a shell, which can be folded should the enforcement heat from Sutton and the toothless watchdog, the Environment Agency, ever get more than merely lukewarm.

You can read the council report in full here.

It outlines the alphabet soup of the CMS (Conservation Management Scheme), the RMP (Restoration Management Plan) and CSG (Conservation SCience Group), among others.

When this all began, there were seven objectives, six set around “target species”, and the necessary habitat creation and enhancement to provide for those species, “as
well as the final objective, which is to deliver appropriate public access”.

The nature reserve was agreed as the best mitigation for allowing development of an incinerator on Metropolitan Open Land.

These were all laid out as planning conditions, and were due to be completed by December 2023.

‘Systemic’: Spencer Palmer, who presented the recommendations

Council official Palmer’s report summarises multiple planning breaches and documents “systematic” (a favourite word) failures to resource the project, provide timelines, create management plans, record works, provide soils or even buy the seeds needed.

As a result “the landscape has been left unsculpted, barren and unmanaged allowing pernicious undesirable weed species to proliferate to the detriment of the intended and surrounding habitats”.

Things got so bad for ground-nesting birds, such as “target species” lapwing, that this spring Valencia resorted to hunting and shooting foxes – killing wildlife on a nature reserve, in the middle of the cubbing season, potentially leaving dozens of cubs as orphans, many doomed to die of starvation if their vixen was the target of one of the company’s killers.

The intervention was deemed necessary because Viridor and Valencia had failed to carry out their promised works to ensure that the lapwing nesting areas were secure from predation, simply by keeping water levels high to deter foxes from getting on to the islands.

The scepticism over whether the enforcement action will achieve any improvements has been reinforced by Valencia seeking “planning variation” to reduce the requirements of the conditions. This is likely to come forward before the end of the year.

Rare visit: the potential of the Farmlands was illustrated by the visit of this rewilding white crane

Hackbridge and Beddington Corner Neighbourhood Development Group has criticised the “apparent incompetence” of Valencia in the latest delays. There are growing doubts as to whether the variations will deliver the ecological and access benefits of the original plans.

Issues are further complicated by some of the land passing back to Thames Water ownership and questions over whether the future use of this land will ensure sufficient water to maintain the habitats and the promised benefits for wildlife.

The ecological decline at Beddington Farmlands has been so great that only one of the priority species – lapwing – is holding on. The petition to Save the Lapwing has attracted 66,000 signatures.

The Wandle Valley Forum, a collaborative group of various interests from the area, says it  is “working with other local groups to not only ensure delivery of the nature reserve to the required standard but also raise the ambition for what can be achieved with all of the open land lying between Beddington Park and Mitcham Common on both sides of the railway”.

The council report states: “In light of the continued delays… it has been considered necessary to commence formal enforcement proceedings”, under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

It’s all a bit of a finger-wagging exercise, not even a slap on the wrist. The council says that its warning letter “is giving formal notice that the repeated failure to complete and manage habitats constitutes a serious offence”.

If the council is not satisfied with the reponse. then “the next steps would be to take action in the form of a mandatory injunction in respect of the non-compliance with the terms of the planning permission(s)”.

Read more: Viridor’s charge sheet: incinerator operator’s eco-vandalism
Read more: CPRE tells Mayor Khan to make Farmlands a new public park
Read more: Eagles fan becomes first to spot real-life eagle at Beddington
Read more: White stork spreads its wings to touch down at Beddington

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4 Responses to After a decade of delay, Sutton condemns Viridor. Sort of

  1. Jim Duffy says:

    Meanwhile Sutton Council is sitting on a health assessment to determine the effects of increasing the amount of waste burnt at the incinerator. The Rapid Health Impact Study was commissioned last December and a Freedom of Information request in April found that it would be published once it was reviewed by councillors. But another FoI request has found that review hasn’t taken place, six months after the study was commissioned. Sutton seems powerless to protect the health of its citizens for fear of upsetting Viridor.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Perhaps the SLWP does not want to take the decision as the alternative to burning the waste is even less palatable and more costly to the Councils?

  2. Annabel Smith says:

    Why is there such a chronic lack of backbone in Sutton and Croydon councils, is there something in the water supply…maybe they’ve been drinking from the wandle…?

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    Sutton Council ”is giving formal notice that the repeated failure to complete and manage habitats constitutes a serious offence”.
    “the next steps would be to take action in the form of a mandatory injunction in respect of the non-compliance with the terms of the planning permission(s)”.

    I have to say that is probably more angst and passion then Croydon Council could muster even when fuelled by the Hot air pump recently installed at the last election. (And many thought Jason X was the final chapter)
    But surely Sutton are one of the paymasters of Sutton? One would have expected that some penalties in the procurement of services for when performance or contractual provision were not adhered to.?
    Seems to be a serious malaise of contracting out in both Councils – perhaps quite strong indications that contracting out to save money is not working? Definitely not in the best interests of the Public realm or the residents both of which Council have statutory duties that are not being met and have not been for some time.

    Regulator? Ombudsman? Gove? And there is the answer as to why it is like a soft cucumber and keeps repeating.

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