The battle of Bressingham... the village torn apart by energy scheme
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
For its backers it is a vital eco scheme, but for those living nearby it’s a monstrosity blighting their beautiful village. GEORGE THOMPSON visited Bressingham to find out more about the anaerobic digester tearing apart a rural community.
As you approach Bressingham's Common Road it’s impossible not to notice the two domes that seem to almost hover on the horizon.
Amid the south Norfolk landscape, the structures look like some futuristic feature from a Star Wars film. Villagers say they can be seen from Diss, some three miles away.
These are anaerobic digesters (ADs) and have caused something of a stink in these parts, both literally and figuratively.
Their purpose is to use organic waste and crops – such as manure or maize – to create biomethane that will go into the national gas grid and ultimately be used to produce power.
Around a decade ago, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said such schemes should be an important part of the government's strategy to increase energy from waste.
There is now around 953,000 tonnes of oil-equivalent energy produced annually in the UK. ADs are a big part of this picture, and could become bigger.
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There could be one coming to your village. So the lessons from Bressingham should be learned by all.
The saga began in 2015, when the AD scheme was first approved on the site of Deal Farm by South Norfolk Council (SNC).
Work did not start for many years, though, and locals thought the project had been abandoned.
When development did finally get under way, however, they were taken aback as to what was involved.
Sue Butler, who lives nearby, said that what was being built was "completely changed" from what had originally been proposed, and from what the council had given permission for.
At the heart of the issue are local concerns that the project is simply too 'industrial' for its setting, bringing large lorries along small rural routes and overshadowing Bressingham. The location, they say, is simply not suitable for the facility.
But for their backers, AD sites are a new and innovative part of the rural economy, a vital component of the energy mix and a way to reduce waste.
Deal Farm Biogas - the firm behind the scheme - says its site has the potential to produce enough renewable gas to heat 4,000 homes a year – as well as removing 2,000 cars off the road each year in carbon savings.
Such facilities, say backers of the technology, support local farmers and must, by their very nature, be located in the heart of the country, where much farming produce has always had to be moved around by lorry.
The first round in this battle, however, went to the villagers.
Ms Butler and her neighbours complained to the local authority, which - in September 2021 - acknowledged the development had breached the conditions it had set, saying the work was not carried out “in accordance with approved plans”.
This forced the company behind the project to submit a variation on the plans.
The application drew a massive response with 217 letters submitted to SNC objecting to the plans and 117 in support.
By late October, Tim Barker, an SNC planning officer said the development work on the site needed to cease and the former planning approval should be scrapped and a new application submitted.
It was not until November the developers finally stopped work on site.
Now that a new planning application has been submitted locals are once again gearing up their campaign against the development.
And so we come to today - a bitterly cold one - as I attended a protest organised by locals.
Despite the chill, around 65 people have come out to state their case against the AD plant, the whip whipping the banner in their hands.
Among them are university lectures, farmers and neighbours.
They have all been gathered by local organisers - their sole objective: to make sure the AD project is removed.
“Five years ago, those were beautiful fields full of flowers, primrose, cowslip and snowdrops,” Ms Butler told me.
“Every year they came up but it’s all been cleared off now.”
For Ms Butler, the fight is personal - her family’s home, Villa Farm, sits in the shadow of the AD plant and until noise and heavy traffic from the development started, they had run a successful B&B for more than 12 years.
“It’s soul-destroying, my mum, dad and brother have worked hard all their lives to build up what we have got here and enjoy what should be their dotage years.
“Our quality of life will never be the same again if this goes ahead.”
“It’s a real community thing now,” said Laura Gosman from Fersfield.
“It shows the anger of local people that turned out today, that the community is really concerned about this – they want it changed.”
The AD plant has united not just Bressingham village against the plans but their neighbours in Shelfanger and Fersfield too.
“The community feels forgotten about,” Ms Gosman said, “When this came forward, we were blindsided, we are considered a little community so we don’t matter much but there are people here trying to live lives and enjoy themselves but this thing is making it difficult."
For Ms Gosman, who has cerebral palsy and requires the use of sticks or a mobility scooter, there are two major fears.
She is particularly concerned that she and other disabled people could be put in danger by a possible increase in lorry movements.
While the company has said there will not be additional lorries, the community remains sceptical and has previously criticised how the traffic counts have been taken.
“And if the lorries are even bigger there’s no way I can get out of the way of them,” she said.
“I was out on my scooter today and I could barely get out of the way already.”
These concerns were shared by Anna Goodwin, also from Fersfield, who said the roads were already in a “state” and feared for taking her grandchildren out walking or cycling in the future.
Ms Gosman’s second concern was one shared by many residents – when lorries drive past their houses, many on narrow country roads, it causes their houses to vibrate and shake.
Kevin Jones, a trustee of the Countryside Charity, formerly known as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, echoed Ms Gosman’s concerns about HGV traffic and argued the plans would “industrialise” a rural environment, with lighting at night negatively impacting the dark skies.
William Hudson, a former farmer and now a university lecturer who describes himself as an ‘agricultural environmentalist’, said it was a “completely inappropriate development”.
While Mr Hudson argued that AD plants were a good thing on a small scale, something of this size was inappropriate from the rural location and its roads.
“I don’t think it will go ahead,” Mr Hudson said, “It's such an inappropriate place and it’s a community that doesn’t want it destroying their lives.”
Not everyone was convinced, however, with some saying the plans, which are listed as part-retrospective, would go through against their wishes.
As the sun began to set, the domes behind Villa Farm lit up orange, each half-circle surrounded by a series of lightning rods to prevent accidents in extreme weather.
I sat with Ms Butler while she outlined a long list of concerns about the development and the application itself.
Ms Butler pointed to pages in the application that say the site cannot be seen from the road, a claim she contests.
She said: “The traffic movements will increase, the ‘digestate’ will be spread on the fields turning this place into a swamp.
“It should be an industrial development, not an agricultural one – with that there are rules that it should be near a trunk road. There’s not one round here.
“Why should we be subjected to this when they claim it will have no impact on the closest residents?
“That’s why we have got to fight this.”
Asked how far she was willing to go, Ms Butler said: “We will go to every court in the land.”
The resident’s fears were put to the developer. A spokeswoman for Deal Farm Biogas said they understood many of the concerns related to transport and access.
“At present most of the crops that are stored at Deal Farm, and the manure produced there has to be transported off the farm and to processing facilities like the sugar factory at Bury St Edmunds.
“The delivery of the proposed Biogas plant will enable the crops and manure to be processed on the site and recycle the digestate as fertiliser to the same fields.”
She encouraged the community to review the information on traffic movements in the planning application and to visit the project website for further information and answers.
For many in the village, this will not be the last word.
The project website can be found at www.dealfarmbiogas.co.uk, and the application can be found on the SNC planning portal, reference 2021/2788.