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Ambitious Easton food hub plan divides rural opinion

PUBLISHED: 18:13 17 February 2017 | UPDATED: 13:38 18 February 2017

Norfolk farm produce. Picture: Ian Burt

Norfolk farm produce. Picture: Ian Burt

For Norfolk’s agricultural community, it presents an opportunity for investment, jobs and the promotion of the county’s food.

Ian Alston has plans for a Food Hub at Easton. Picture by Adrian JuddIan Alston has plans for a Food Hub at Easton. Picture by Adrian Judd

But those living near the site fear it will become a blot on the surrounding countryside, leading to problems with traffic and noise.

The Food Enterprise Zone aims to enhance rural development and bring further investment into the county.

The government initiative, introduced by Defra, has been proposed for a 19-hectare site, off Blind Lane, near Easton.

Broadland District Council is now consulting the public on a Local Development Order (LDO), which could pave the way for the ambitious “food hub” plan being promoted by landowner Ian Alston. If approved, the LDO will allow food businesses to build on the land without going through the normal planning process.

Residents of surrounding villages show their opposition to the approval of an LDO to build an industrial estate on a green field site.Residents of surrounding villages show their opposition to the approval of an LDO to build an industrial estate on a green field site.

People have until Monday to give their views to the consultation and here we have outlined the arguments for and against the proposals.

FOR: THE FOOD INDUSTRY VIEW

The food hub proposed at Easton aims to take advantage of Norfolk’s major role in UK food production, and correct its shortfall in food processing.

Norfolk produces around 5pc of the UK’s farm output value, making it one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas, yet its share of UK food processing employment is estimated at under 2.4pc – indicating that much of the food grown in Norfolk is processed elsewhere.

Landowner Ian Alston, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, said he hopes to create a cluster of food-related industries which can add value to the county’s produce, encouraging investment and employment while maximising the food and farming expertise of the neighbouring Norfolk Showground, Easton and Otley College and Norwich Research Park.

“If we can encourage food processing and value-added activities incorporating the latest technologies from our agri-tech sector, the nearby Norwich Research Park and beyond, I am convinced we can improve Norfolk’s contribution to feeding the nation,” he said.

Clarke Willis, chief executive of buying group Anglia Farmers, said: “The importance of the Norfolk Food Hub cannot be underestimated and comments of local villages who do not always see the bigger picture is normal in such a visionary development.

“The hub presents a major opportunity for new inward investment into the major sector in our county – the food supply chain. In addition to creating long-term sustainable jobs, it also fulfils the ambition to link food, drink and agriculture to agri-tech and life science in which Norwich is a world leader, onto developing consumer education and a healthier population.”

Mr Alston said his goals included creating 3,000 jobs over 15 years, and providing a flagship Norfolk Food Hall.

In response to villagers’ concerns he said: “There is no reason why Norfolk should not seek to promote food at the Easton location directly beside a major trunk road that is due to be upgraded in 2020.

“Both the improvements to the A47 and the NDR will transform this area and it’s ability to cope with increased traffic. I have got a proven track record in keeping traffic out of villages, and I want to continue that with the food hub.”

AGAINST: THE VILLAGERS’ VIEW

It is described as a scheme which will bring investment, jobs and growth to the county.

But for the hundreds of people living nearby in the surrounding villages, the reality will be much different.

They fear their countryside views will be blighted by factory buildings, while the quiet country lanes will become dangerously busy with traffic.

And should the proposed LDO go ahead, there are concerns that residents will be left with almost no say as to what is built on the land.

The campaign group Residents Against Industrial Development (RAID) believes the term ‘food hub’ is also misleading.

Instead, it claims that the site will become a “massive industrial estate” with buildings standing up to 10m high.

A spokesman for RAID said: “They’ve tried to tell us it’s a ‘food hub’, which sounds OK, but when you look at the application, it’s 90pc industrial, food processing and manufacturing and so on, with up to 10pc retail.”

The group claims that the LDO has not taken into account that Easton is to get another 900 new homes, resulting in even more traffic on the roads, and that Broadland District Council has refused a full environmental assessment of the development’s impact.

But Phil Courtier, Broadland’s head of planning, said the authority “concluded that for this development, the likely effects were not significant enough to justify an environmental impact assessment.”

Objection has also been raised by Easton Parish Council, which claims that a number of factors have not been addressed.

In regard to traffic, it said: “No adequate indication of how HGV traffic would be stopped from using the local roads, it is suggested that a 106 agreement with a routing plan be implemented but no monitoring or enforcement proposals with substance have been provided.”

Deborah Roberts, who lives 60 metres from the proposed site, said: “Our bedroom window looks directly over it. We are very concerned about the smell, as food processing can give out some quite strong aromas.”

“Because we are in a rural location, it is going to have a huge impact with all the lighting. The buildings are also going to be a blot on the landscape.”

THE ‘MISSING LINK’

It has been argued that the Food Enterprise Zone has a much bigger part to play than enhancing rural development.

Ian Shepherd, on behalf of Campaign to Protect Rural England, believes it would strengthen the case for a Norwich Western Link Road.

Also known as the “missing link” of the Northern Distributor Road (NDR), it would connect the route to the A47 in the west of Norwich.

Mr Shepherd previously said: “The importance of the Food Hub is that it would be used as a justification for the link road.”

But the suggestion has been labelled as “utter nonsense” by landowner Ian Alston.

He said: “We have promoted this concept publicly for at least 12 yrs and it is a stand-alone project. Common sense dictates that the missing link will be built in the near future and I accept this will boost access to the hub just as it will boost access to the whole of Norwich and indeed Norfolk.”

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