Villagers angry as contamination fears delay van hire firm move

Cook's Van Hire . Newtown St. Boswells
Cook's Van Hire . Newtown St. Boswells

VILLAGERS in Newtown St Boswells are angry over the way a local van hire firm’s improvement plans are being treated by Scottish Borders Council because of environmental concerns, while other similar issues allegedly get scant attention from the local authority.

Two years ago, Newtown-based Cooks Van Hire submitted a planning application to relocate its operations to the former Baxter Johnston oil storage depot.

The application gained consent a year later, but the project was delayed as the approval came with the condition that a contamination study had to be carried out on the site before work could begin.

Two studies carried out at the expense of the applicant were deemed to be inadequate and council officials insisted that a study to the rigid standards it had specified at the time the application gained approval, in June, 2010, still had to be done.

Based on the expert advice received from the local authority’s environmental health section, it was felt the presence and significance of contamination on the site could not be fully assessed without further significant investigation.

Council officials accepted there would be a cost to the applicant of further investigations and agreed that the relocation of the van hire business to the Baxter Johnston site would benefit the village.

However, they stuck to their line that they needed to weigh the economic and environmental benefits against the risk to human health and the environment from the potential contamination of the land.

The result was an appeal by Cooks Van Hire’s proprietor, Bill Cook. But by the time the appeal hearing was heard, at the beginning of last week, the saga had generated 90 official documents on the council website, while those attending the hearing were given briefing documents weighing in at a hefty 627 pages each.

At the appeal hearing, the council’s local review board agreed to vary the contamination survey condition to allow the development to proceed at the same time as the investigations into possible contamination.

But Roger French, secretary of the village’s community council, says while this is some movement in SBC’s position, local residents cannot understand why the van hire firm is being made to jump through all these hoops while the local authority, he claimed, has used part of the same site for staff car parking for the last five years without any surveys.

SBC denied this, saying employees’ cars were parked on an adjacent piece of land that was part of the old railway. But Mr French says this is just splitting hairs: “It’s always been one site as far as we are concerned,” he told TheSouthern.

“The only thing Baxter Johnston did was put a fence down part of it and the council cars are on the other side of this.”

Mr French said the plans by Cooks Van Hire are supported by the village and the community council and went on: “It would remove van hire and customer vehicles from the village centre roads and car parks and generally tidy up the area around the old Baillie Hall.

“But questions are being asked by villagers as to why the environment and contamination officers are making such a meal of this when other environmental matters in the village get overlooked.”

He cited the length of time taken to deal with recent problems, including sewage running over a pavement for 10 weeks and fly-tipping in the centre of the village.

Mr French said residents were keen to support small businesses such as Cooks Van Hire, which provide jobs and generally supporte the local economy.

“We understand that the council has the same intentions and the village would like really like to see this happening in practice in Newtown and the business in question allowed to relocate without further delay.”

Councillor Nicholas Watson (Leaderdale and Melrose, Borders Party) is on the local review board and said he was keen that the applicant did not have to do more work than was necessary.

“This is a grown-up business. It is our job to protect the public and the environment, not to protect a private business from possibly making a mistake,” he said.

“Planning bodies have to do what they reasonably can to prevent problems of contamination but we mustn’t go overboard and block what could be a sensible development.”