14 May 1999

FILLING HOLES

– PROFITABLY

A dip or valley in a field that reduces its usefulness for farming purposes

could make you money in other ways. David Cousins explains

UNLESS youre lucky enough to live in the fens, the chances are that your fields are imperfect things, given to sudden bumps and dips and not really designed for modern farm machinery. The dips generally stay damp and make life difficult for crops and stock alike.

Like to fill up the dips, generally level off the field and earn some money as well? Well you may well be able to, thanks to a looming crisis in the civil engineering industry. Its problem, which is growing one, is what to do with the innumerable tonnes of soil, sand, gravel, stone, clay and rock that are produced every time a housing estate, supermarket, by-pass or shopping centre is built.

In the past, it went into landfill sites. Now, with a tax on material going into those, theres a need for new sites where this inert landfill can be dumped. Which is where farmers come in, because the old chalk pits and quarries and the dips, valleys and depressions in many fields, are an ideal place to put it.

ERM Group, based at Heathfield in Sussex, is one of a small group of firms that carries out such work. It specialises in restoring old landfill sites and quarries, dealing with both "clean" and contaminated waste and even constructing golf courses. Its contracts manager Steve Grant is keen to stress that inert landfill is not at all to be confused with household or industrial waste which has to go into special landfill sites.

"Inert landfill is a Category A waste, which means that it does not degrade at all," he says. "Its soil, brickwork, chalk, sand, concrete, stone, clay and rock. It doesnt include Category B waste like cardboard, paper, plastic, metal and trees, which has to go into separate landfill sites."

The amount of inert waste produced ranges from one lorryload for a single new house to several thousand for a new supermarket. And as existing landfill sites fill up, theres increasing need to find new ones. In Sussex alone there is expected to be a 2m tonne shortfall between the inert waste generated and the ability of existing sites to accommodate it over the next decade.

The landfill projects that Mr Grant and his colleagues get involved with are generally industrial-scale ones. But the firm is increasingly turning its attention to on-farm sites and has just completed the first inert waste landfill site on a farm.

So whats in it for the farmer? "The main thing is obviously the royalty he gets for taking the waste," says Mr Grant. "But putting stone, sand or chalk under the topsoil can also improve drainage and raising the level of the field will often reduce the chance of flooding in low-lying fields. We can also make a level pad that he can use as a site for a new building or area of hard standing."

Which sites are suitable?

Some sites are a no-go area – a field right next to a river or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) within an Area of Natural Beauty (AONB), for instance, might not have much chance of jumping the planning hurdles. Nor would the local authority look kindly at a field that backed on to the village green and church.

A field that is away from houses obviously has an advantage, as does one that has good road access. Equally, if you have a big road or housing estate happening (or about to happen) nearby that will work in your favour. Lacking those things may count against you but it wont necessarily mean your site is thrown out on its ear.

It doesnt matter too much where in the UK you are either – lack of landfill sites for inert matter is a national problem. What will make more of a difference, according to Mr Grant, is the extent to which there are other sites in the area – ie how urgently the local authority needs the site.

Its surprising, too, how much material a modest-looking site will hold. Even a 2ha (5 acre) field covered with a layer of material 1m (3ft 3in) deep will take 1000 lorry loads to fill it.

Time-scale

The approval and planning process, from initial contact to the first lorryload arriving, generally takes about four months. ERM can give an idea of whether the site is viable or not over the telephone, but a visit will be needed to confirm their initial opinion. The company shoulders all dealings with planners over access, environmental impact, noise, nuisance to local residents etc. It also consults the Environment Agency, which inspects the site for its potential effect on watercourses.

Initial preparation of the site involves stripping off the top soil and storing that on one side of the field. A typical on-farm site capable of accommodating, say, 2000 9cu m loads would probably then take four or five months to fill. That would amount to an average of 25 loads a day.

Payment

How much the farmer gets depends on how good the site is and how big it is. Payment figures range from £10/lorry (a standard tipper holds 9cu m) to more than that for a good site, and there is obvious scope for negotiation. ERM carries out all the site work and organisation, so there are no costs for the farmer.

Regulation

Anyone who has ever put a sign at the end of the farm track offering to take hardcore will know that what you get can vary in quality enormously. Its a problem that ERM works hard to avoid.

"We have trained people on the site all the time. When a lorry comes in, they check to see where the load has come from. As soon as the load is tipped we spread it out – if we see that it contains anything it shouldnt we load it straight back onto the lorry again. Weve had to do that a few times in the past."

After the event

Most sites are likely to be on grassland, where reinstatement simply consists of putting the topsoil back and then seeding it with a suitable grass mixture. But could an arable field be suitable? Certainly, says Mr Grant. Though it would mean no crop for one season (not a great financial loss at todays prices), the site can be left so that any solid material is left well below ploughing depth. ERM even says it can put in drainage on the site or connect up to existing drains.