Peat multinational allegedly breached planning permission

A multinational which extracts peat from a site in Dumfries and Galloway has been doing so “in breach of…planning permission,” local authority documents unearthed by The Ferret have alleged.

ICL, an international fertiliser company, mines peat for the manufacture of compost at several sites in Scotland. The practice has been criticised by conservation groups because it leads to increased emissions of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for global warming.

One of the sites where ICL extracts peat is Nutberry Moss, in Dumfries and Galloway. A report produced last year by council officials alleged that the firm had failed to follow planning conditions which required it to provide information on how much peat was being extracted from the site, and how it would be restored after operations are due to finish in two years’ time.

Environmentalists have questioned why ICL is apparently being allowed to continue to extract peat despite having breached planning permission, and have called for Dumfries and Galloway Council to take immediate enforcement action.

When contacted by The Ferret last week, the council said in a statement that “the planning enforcement team still have a case open on the matter”, but did not provide any further details.

Earlier this year, we submitted a freedom of information request to the council asking for any further information held regarding the alleged breach, and details of any action being taken in response. 

However, the council refused to release information on the grounds that “disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature.” 

They added that “disclosing the information would be extremely prejudicial to the council’s ability to take any enforcement proceedings if required.”

The Ferret contacted ICL for comment, but did not receive a response.

Peat extraction for horticulture carries a massive environmental cost, and contributes to climate change and biodiversity loss

Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland

The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee has called for the extraction and sale of peat to end before 2023. However, neither the Scottish nor the UK Governments have set a date at which extraction will be required to end, and companies operating at several sites in Scotland have permission to continue for years beyond 2023.

ICL, which sells peat-based compost in the UK under the name Everris, has existing planning permission to mine at Nutberry Moss until November 2024. 

It recently sought to further extend the period during which it would be allowed to continue operations, but this was refused by Dumfries and Galloway Council last year on the grounds that it “would result in the release of further carbon emissions into the atmosphere and fail to limit the impacts of climate change.” 

According to the council, ICL has not appealed the decision.

Documents prepared by council officials to inform this decision also noted that “extraction operations are currently being undertaken in breach of the extant planning permission.” 

The planning conditions reportedly breached include requirements to provide information on the rate of extraction of peat at the site; details of how the site will be restored after extraction; and details of a financial guarantee to “ensure financial viability for the post-extraction restoration and aftercare of the site.” 

Restoration of sites which have been mined for peat is seen as important by conservationists as it can help to preserve what is left of the carbon stored in the bog.

Failing to act sends out the message to environmentally damaging businesses that they can safely ignore important limits to their licences. 

Laura Moodie, South of Scotland candidate for the Scottish Greens

According to the council officials’ report, ICL had also failed to meet planning conditions which required it to submit an annual report, containing details on “the extent of restoration operations carried out,” estimates of the remaining peat reserves at the site, and “compliance with…legal agreements.”

Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland said: “If peat is being extracted in breach of planning permission, it is essential that immediate enforcement action to halt this and carry out any necessary remediation is taken. Peat extraction for horticulture carries a massive environmental cost, and contributes to climate change and biodiversity loss. 

He added: “We need a ban on extraction of peat for horticultural use to be implemented swiftly. In advance of this, it is vital to ensure that peat extraction which is being carried out is not in breach of planning permission.”

Laura Moodie, South of Scotland candidate for the Scottish Greens, said: “It is really disappointing that enforcement action doesn’t appear to have taken place. I’m aware the council’s planning department has been under pressure for an extended period, but failing to act sends out the message to environmentally damaging businesses that they can safely ignore important limits to their licences. 

“With the end of peat extraction in south Scotland now in sight – thanks to the hard work of local Greens and campaigners – it’s vital planning authorities ensure licence requirements are being adhered to if we are to have any hope of restoring damaged peat bogs for the future.”

Soil scientist Dr Janet Moxley said: “It is disturbing to know that the Nutberry Moss peat extraction site is apparently still operating in breach of its planning consent. The breaches relate to provisions for the restoration of the site … Effective site restoration is essential to prevent carbon emissions continuing after the damaging process of peat extraction itself.

“It is particularly concerning that Dumfries and Galloway Council may still not have ensured that a restoration bond for the site has been lodged. If it has not, this could leave the council responsible for picking up the pieces in the same way that councils were left to pick up the cost of restoring open cast coal mines when Scottish Coal went bankrupt.”

Effective site restoration is essential to prevent carbon emissions continuing after the damaging process of peat extraction itself

Dr Janet Moxley, soil scientist

Concerns over the release of greenhouse gases and the destruction of habitats resulting from peat extraction have led to recent promises of action by the governments at Holyrood and Westminster.

Both have pledged millions of pounds in funding for the restoration of peatlands, in order to limit the emissions they produce when in a poor condition. However, neither has yet implemented a ban on peat-based compost, nor on the extraction of peat.

The UK Government launched a consultation on proposals to ban the retail of peat-based products late last year but, as The Ferret revealed, Scottish Ministers refused to participate in the joint plans alongside Wales and England.

The UK Department for the Environment (Defra) has since announced that the sale of peat for use in the amateur gardening sector will be banned as part of “wider efforts to reach net zero,” although this will not be implemented until 2024. The ban will also not extend to the use of peat in the professional horticulture sector on the grounds that it “faces additional technical barriers that will take longer to overcome.”

While the Scottish Government refused to participate in proposals for a UK-wide policy, it has said that it remains “committed to a ban that is ambitious, realistic and tailored to the specific needs of people in Scotland,” and in July this year it told The Ferret that it would be launching a consultation “in the coming months.”

Neither Westminster nor Holyrood have said that they intend to ban the extraction of peat, despite the call for an end to the practice by the Climate Change Committee and a number of conservation groups.

Plantlife has previously warned that the Scottish Government’s proposed new National Planning Policy would leave “huge loopholes” allowing the practice to continue “for decades to come.” While the policy states that proposals for new commercial peat extraction should not be supported, it also says that exceptions are allowed if they are “supporting an industry of national importance to Scotland and there is no reasonable substitute.”

In July The Ferret revealed that the Scottish Government had missed its annual target to restore Scotland’s peatland by a wide margin in 2021-22 for the fourth consecutive year. 

Around 8,000 hectares of degraded peat were restored by government schemes last year. This is just 40 per cent of the 20,000 hectares that the government said it would restore in 2021-22 in its 2018 climate change plan. 

It was the fourth year in a row that targets on peatland restoration have been missed and the Scottish Government expects to still be considerably off track in 2022-23.

Cover image thanks to Alan Morris / iStock

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