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August 11, 2009

Communities come together to protect local beauty spot

A Borders farmer with land that is rich in minerals has struck a deal with a mining company for the extraction of sand and gravel over the next 15 years.   They say that the work will be in the long term interests of the local environment which is a beautifully scenic part of the Upper Clyde River.  The adjacent communities disagree and have formed an action group to fight the development.  CRAG are calling a public meeting next Monday in Biggar

Bella Bathurst, The Observer

Mike Scott is a very angry man. He is standing on the drive at Overburns Farm in Lamington, overlooking the Clyde, glaring around at the rose garden, the Georgian farmhouse, the newly planted orchard, the restored farm buildings.

Behind is the fabulous backdrop of the river and the great landmark curves of Tinto Hill. None of this timeless tableau of birds, sheep, hills and water is soothing his soul. In fact, that very view is currently his biggest problem.

Scott is a farmer and landowner in South Lanarkshire, with 900 ewes and a stretch of land sandwiched between the A702 and the Clyde. Aside from the scenery, the land has one very powerful attraction: it is rich in minerals.

Back in 2007 he approached Patersons, a large quarry and waste management company, with a view to exploiting the site. Patersons has now applied to the local council for permission to extract nearly five million tonnes of sand and gravel over the next 11 to 15 years.

The plan has gone down badly, to say the least. Patersons, opponents claim, has a habit of turning small operations into large ones, spent excavations into landfill sites, and old quarries into licensed dumps. As a result, the row has turned very public, very quickly, and Overburns has become the focus of one of the bitterest environmental rows in Scotland in recent years.

The land follows a spectacularly beautiful route along the Clyde towards the Pentland Hills. The river is alive with birds and brown trout, clear of silt and easily accessible. I know it well; this is where I’m from. Until recently, the main sources of controversy were decorous standoffs between anglers, twitchers and canoeists over who had the right to the bank.

Now this tranquillity faces a threat that has led objectors to form a campaign group called Crag – Clyde River Action Group – to take on Patersons and the Scotts. Patersons says it plans no more than a relatively small-scale operation extracting sand and gravel above and below the water level, taking it out via the A702 and restoring the site in phases afterwards. Crag supporters don’t believe what they are being told; once the quarry is there, they say, it would be a relatively small step to have the whole valley redesignated as an industrial zone.

Mary McLatchie now lives opposite Overburns, but grew up next to Mount Vernon in Glasgow’s east end, a former Patersons quarry that was turned into one of the largest landfill sites in Europe. She does not believe Patersons’ assurances. “I would bet my life that they’ll turn that into waste management. You hit clay very quickly down there, and clay is very good for landfill sites.”

McLatchie says she has known since childhood what it is like to live beside a Patersons quarry. Mount Vernon, Coatbridge and Baillieston (all in Lanarkshire) were affected by what Patersons did, she added. “Mount Vernon went from being a small quarry to a huge landfill site; we lived with dirt and muck constantly… They’ve got massive pipes coming out of the ground because they’re trying to get rid of the smell – they had a licence to dump 27 different waste materials down there.”

These views are rejected by the plan’s supporters. “There’s absolutely no landfilling going to take place at all,” says Mike Scott. “No question whatsoever. Categorically no.” Kemp Lindsay, estates director for Patersons, says the same. “I can categorically assure you there will be absolutely no landfilling on this site. Ever. Full stop. Any allegation there will be is nonsense and scaremongering.”

But those closer to Overburns are concerned for more immediate reasons. Ian Parker runs a 160-hectare (400-acre) farm on the other side of the river. It is the second largest organic dairy farm in central Scotland, and Parker is worried. Organic land has to go through a two-year conversion process, so if one part of his farm is polluted with silt, he can’t just rent land elsewhere.

“The quarry will destroy the upper Clyde valley in less than two years,” he says. “So what happens in 15 years makes no difference.” The anglers agree. The Clyde floods regularly on to the proposed quarry site. If silt gets into the river, the fish disappear. As do the tourists. Local angler Mark McGee says: “The thought of coming to South Lanarkshire with your family to find your B&B has a superquarry next door is not that appealing.”

As Ian Parker points out, there are seven quarries within a 15-mile radius of Overburns, three producing sand and gravel. “There’s a new quarry five miles up the road and it’s not working at capacity: why do they need this?” The area certainly has a lot of very big holes. Over the centuries, its mineral resources and its proximity to the coast have ensured that Lanarkshire has been taken for everything it has: coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, copper, sand, gravel, rock, peat – even gold. There is little question that quarrying can be an ugly business. A little farther up the M74 at Strathaven, Patersons’ Dunduff quarry is working at full stretch extracting sandstone, grit and hardcore. Walk over the high moors and abruptly the ground drops away, revealing layers of earth, past red Lanarkshire grit through grey shale, right to the black stuff. Ground water clogs the deepest parts, thick with silt and lime deposits. Far below, diggers scratch at the high faces while dump trucks file in and out. It looks like Tolkie’s Mordor.

The comparison, insist Scott and Patersons, is unfair. Scott claims the quarry will enhance the area when it’s finished. “By the time the third phase is done, the first phase will have been restored into a recreational area, a nature reserve. We’re going to landscape it with pretty shrubs all round the site … There’s absolutely no fear of the river being affected at all.” But people – and birds and fish – seem to like it the way it is. “Quite honestly, when this is done, it will be a damn sight nicer than it is now. The actual site is a very plain, dull field… This is creating a certain amount of ill feeling, I know, and I’m just ignoring it, because I know that when this is done it’s going to be absolutely smashing.”

Only time will tell. The planning application is in, and both sides have three weeks to present their arguments to South Lanarkshire council. Whatever the outcome, the affair has opened a much deeper seam; how long can anyone go on taking from a landscape before the landscape itself starts to fight back?