OPPONENTS of plans to extend Woodsford Quarry have lost their battle - with a planning inspector deciding in favour of the quarry company.

Those against the application to provide additional silt lagoon capacity included the Thomas Hardy Society and Knightsford parish council.

Both argued that additional work at the Hills Quarry Products site would damage the countryside and the setting of medieval Woodsford Castle, a fortified manor house, run by the Landmark Trust.

A planning inspector has ruled against Dorset Council for failing to decide the application and has said the extra silt lagoons can now go ahead to serve the existing processing plant.

Hills had asked for costs against the parish council but the request was refused.

Inspector Graham Dudley said the key issues of the appeal were the effect of the development on the Grade 1 listed building and whether the proposal complied with development plan policies, the effect on footpath users – weighted against the need for building materials.

He said that during the October inquiry it became common ground that Thomas Hardy had some association with the castle, his father having worked there as a stone mason and Thomas Hardy visiting the castle himself.

"There are also some limited direct mentions of the castle in some of his work, which has a broad cultural association with the surrounding wider Dorset landscape,” said the Inspector.

In his summary he decided that the harm to the setting of the castle had already happened and would not be made significantly worse by the proposals, which, in time, would see the land returned to agriculture: “Clearly the fact that the quarry is temporary and will return to agricultural land in a fairly short period is a major consideration and greatly mitigates against the harm that is occurring. The small additional area of quarry, which is further away from the listed building than the originally permitted quarry, would only have very limited additional impact on the character of the land forming the setting, the workings being well screened by bunds and hedges,” he said.

“I appreciate that the appeal site is closer to the road than the existing quarry, but it would be well screened with the existing hedge and proposed bund, so the additional impact on appearance would be limited.”

He concluded that any impact would be ‘at the low end of less than substantial harm” which he said had to be weighed against the public benefits of the additional gravel being won, most of which was used in Dorset.

Opponents of the new silt lagoons argued that the minerals could be extracted elsewhere at the quarry without any harm to the historic building – but the site operators said they need to expand the business in the way that they asked to.

The company claimed there would be no harm at all to the castle and its setting although Historic England’s experts said in their opinion there would be some harm, backing a refusal of the application.

The application to form new silt lagoons to serve the existing processing plant at the quarry was submitted in November 2018 and should have been decided by Dorset Council by February 7, 2019, but was not.

Some of the new lagoons and protective earth bunds would be just over 400metres from the Castle which is rated as being in the top 2.5 per cent of Grade 1 listed buildings in the country.

The inquiry heard that the 10-year average output for the quarry has been around 175,000 tonnes which Hills wanted to double, but claimed it had been constrained by the lack of silt lagoon capacity. Work is expected to continue at the quarry until at least 2026.

Barrister Mr Charlie Hopkins, for the parish council, said national planning policies emphasised the need to protect listed buildings and their settings.

“Woodsford Castle is the pre-eminent fortified house in the south west – a remarkable example which has irrefutable associations with Thomas Hardy,” he said, asking the Inspector to protect it from the proposed quarry expansion.

But Richard Wald, for Hills, argued there would be no significant effect on the Castle from changes at the quarry and that planning laws allowed for the application to go ahead: “There is an urgent need for additional lagoon capacity at Woodsford Quarry, without which the Dorset Council will experience a significant shortfall in its 7-year aggregates landbank. Great weight should be attached to the benefits of mineral extraction and there is no shortage of such benefits in this case,” he said.

“The proposal will cause no harm to the significance of Woodsford Castle or any other heritage asset.”

Woodsford Quarry began its operational life in September 2009 and has an anticipated yield of 4.2 million tonnes of sand and gravel which is expected to last 24 years including a rolling restoration programme.

The mineral is extracted at a rate of approximately 175,000 tonnes per year with the land being progressively restored back to agricultural fields with a small area of wetland.

The appeal application, which was first submitted in April 2015 had been opposed by Knightsford Parish Council, some residents and the Landmark Trust as well as the Thomas Hardy Society.

The Society said that they had “grave concerns about the application” particularly because the site is close to the historic Woodsford Castle.

“Not only is the Grade 1 listed 14th-century manor house clearly worthy of protection from this industrial development in its own right, but this is also a site of considerable significance in the work of Thomas Hardy,” said the Society in its submission to the original planning application.