In their bid to build over 600 homes and a children’s nursery on the site of the world’s largest asbestos textile factory, Countryside Properties and MMC Estates have just run into more problems:
If Rochdale Council’s Highways Department accepts the councillors’ vote, Woodlands Rd could be open again by next Monday. Then, if landowners keep the road blocked they could face a criminal prosecution.
The whole of the half mile road was dramatically closed last month following a request by MMC Estates for an Emergency Road Closure.
The reasons given by the developers, on May 12th, to demand the immediate closure of an entire road for up to 19 months was published on Countryside Properties website: In vague terms it suggested public health was at risk because of “unauthorised soil removal”.
The councillors were bemused to hear that since the Emergency Order was requested, the developers have not been back in contact with the Highways Department. No evidence has ever been submitted to substantiate the allegations that public health had been threatened by “unauthorised soil removal”.
In a report from the Highways Department, cash-strapped Rochdale Council has confirmed that any costs associated with the emergency or any future temporary closure of Woodlands Rd will be forwarded to the landowners.
Tonight’s Council meeting heard and discussed criticisms of Countryside Properties and MMC Estates regarding the troubled site:
-BBC TV news programme Northwest Tonight investigated the allegations made by the developers why Woodlands Road had to be closed for 19 months- no evidence was forthcoming. It then transpired that the amount of soil causing the major public health alert was “about a shovelful”.
-Countryside Properties now say that they did not see a letter dated 10th September 2004, from an MMC Estates employee to the Managing Director of MMC Estates confirming that there was exposed asbestos in woodland on the site. Over 4 months later, a Director of Countryside Properties said on local people were wrong to say that there was exposed asbestos on the site. Soon after the January broadcast on BBC Radio 4, decontamination units spent 6 weeks at Woodlands Rd removing asbestos from the adjoining embankment- throughout all of this work- the road remained open.
-Barriers blocking access to Woodlands Rd was placed about half a mile from the known asbestos tips, whereas the entrance within a few metres from where exposed asbestos has been confirmed, remained open.
-The area closed off by the Emergency order of May 16th includes part of the road where a journalist for Private Eye magazine filmed asbestos removal contractors, without their respirators on properly, dragging sacks of asbestos up a steep, stony incline. The Health and Safety Executive launched an immediate inquiry.
Rochdale Council’s Head of Planning and Regulation said on BBC GMR Radio last month that Woodlands Rd must be open “to allow full and proper scrutiny by the public”. He also suggested that public health is best safeguarded with secure fencing to keep animals and people from disturbing asbestos in the woodland prior to a full and permanent remediation of the land.
Recently, the Head of Planning also expressed his dismay at the developers for not properly informing council officers, councillors and the public about their intentions to close Woodlands Rd. At a full meeting of Rochdale Township last month Mr Smith said he felt “kicked in the teeth” by Countryside Properties and MMC Estates. These words echoed those of Rochdale’s new MP, Paul Rowen who used his maiden Speech in Parliament to criticise the developers for being “less than open” in their actions.
Countryside Properties and MMC were not in attendance at the meeting to account for their actions regarding Woodlands Rd.
Donald Forrester, Head of Highways was quizzed by Councillors from all parties-
Following the unanimous vote in favour of opening the Woodlands Road it was also suggested that the landowners should securely fence the known asbestos tip areas beside Woodlands Rd. The meeting heard that this was the only area not fenced by the developers last year prior to the destruction of acres of trees on Woodlands Rd and Spod Rd.
Chair of the meeting, Cllr. Angela Coric suggested that the 4 days notice given by the council meeting to the landowners to fence the asbestos tips was adequate- especially given the fact that they had erected about half a mile of mesh fencing in just 2 days (on the 13th and 14th of May 2004) prior to the woodland destruction last year.
It was also pointed out to the meeting that the developers may not be at a disadvantage by working at weekends- work started to destroy woodland last year from dawn on Saturday 15th May 2004 and continued all that weekend before the Forestry Commission put a halt on the work under the Forestry Act.
Councillors from all parties expressed their concern about the actions of the developers on what was the site of the world’s largest asbestos factory. They agreed that public scrutiny by allowing public access on recognised rights of way can keep Rochdale safe. Photographs and film of questionable activity on the site over the past 12 months is testament to that.
Next Monday could be deadline for the landowners to remove the obstructions blocking Woodlands Rd. After this date, the courts could deem any obstruction a public nuisance – a crime at common law. Obstruction of the highway is also a crime by statute, since section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 makes it an offence for any person, without lawful authority or excuse, to wilfully obstruct the free passage along a highway. The offence is punishable by a fine of up to 3 on the standard scale, currently £1000.
The courts’ powers to deal with obstructions have recently been strengthened by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000: It has added section 137ZA to the Highways Act 1980, which gives the courts power to order anyone convicted of an offence under section 137 to remove the obstruction. Failure to comply is a second offence punishable by a fine of up to £5000; and failure to comply with that is a third offence punishable by a fine of up to £250 per day.