Change Alley

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Thanet Earth Update

with 26 comments

Thanet Earth
This month sees the start of construction at Thanet Earth, the Fresca Group’s hydroponic glasshouse enterprise. The number of hits Change Alley has been receiving recently indicates a growing level of interest, so it may be worth bringing together a few facts about the project.

The site lies between the A28 and A299 southwest of Birchington in East Kent map The land previously belonged to Monkton Road Farm, a cauliflower-growing operation trading as Robert Montgomery Limited, in whose name the orginal planning application was submitted in 2005. All documents relating to the planning application are available online by clicking here and entering F/TH/05/0237 in the application number search box. There’s a wealth of information there, including site plans and drawings. The 2005 business plan is particularly interesting, in that it contains figures for energy and water usage for the proposed site.

  • Expected water consumption is 493,968 m³ per year. Rainfall collected from the roof surfaces comes to 290,700 m³ per year. Allowing for 20% evaporation and other losses, this leaves a shortfall of 261,408 m³. 61,000 m³ will be obtained from underground sources, the remainder by abstraction from nearby marshes.
  • The Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems will require a gas supply of 9,186 m³ per hour.
  • A connection to the National Grid capable of handling 32 MW is required.
  • Project Thanet Earth involves a grid connection at 132 kV, and a private network consisting of an 11 kV substation and cable distribution to 7 individual greenhouses with firm grid capacity of 35 MVA. London Power Associates

Thanet Earth, or Project Alice as it was originally known internally within Fresca, will be run as a joint venture with the participating growers, with Fresca operating the marketing company and the site itself. The 90 hectare site will accomodate 7 glasshouses totalling 51 hectares under glass, producing a projected 15% of UK home-grown salad output. Fresca have signed partnership contracts with three independent specialist Dutch growers:

  • Rainbow Growers are the largest Dutch pepper growing group and the most advanced pepper growers in Europe.
  • Red Star Growers are a speciality tomato producer, already active in both Holland and Spain, pioneers of year-round production under artificial lights.
  • A&A are focused purely on cucumbers.

Peppers Today

A Kent TV interview with Steve McVickers, Thanet Earth managing director, can be seen here, with a full transcript here. It has some insights into the project’s history. The choice of site was obviously influenced by geographical location and proximity to transport links, but according to Mr McVickers other major factors were that “Thanet is the only area in south-east England that has a status for urgent regeneration” and “we need a national grid connection and we have the only electricity line that’s going into the Thanet area coming across the site”.

Thanet Earth is a full hydroponic operation, which explains its high water consumption. Within the greenhouses, the plants don’t grow in the soil or even on it. Their root systems sit in water, raised up off the floor to make plant care and harvesting easier. To all extents and purposes, this is not an agricultural project but an industrial one whose output happens to be food. It could just as easily have been set up on an old industrial site, rather than burying 90 hectares of productive agricultural land under glass, concrete and cosmetic landscaping.

thanet-2.jpgClick this picture to see how Thanet Earth is being built right in the middle of a rural area. The reasons for putting it here are overwhelmingly economic: heavy subsidies, job promises, access to utilities and transport links. Environmentally, it has the smell of a disaster; truckloads of refrigerated salad grunting up the M2 towards London. The ‘green’ smokescreen of CHP may work in a spreadsheet, but how will things look when the price of gas doubles? Presumably the price of electricity will have doubled too, so the juice they export to the Grid will pay for it. It’ll probably pay for a new water supply when the water table drops and Minster Marshes dry up. It may even buy a new nature reserve to replace the one at Monkton, just over the A229 from Thanet Earth, which will probably not have much of a long term future.

God save us from accountants.


Written by Pete Smith

March 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm

26 Responses

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  1. Was there an environmental impact assessment for this project? Where is it? Who carried it out and who peer-reviewed it?

    Chris Drew

    March 7, 2008 at 8:07 am

  2. Good question. There’s no EIA in the online dossier of documents associated with the planning application. The Decision Notice mentions an “Environmental Statement” submitted in May 2006, but this is not available online. I have asked Thanet District Council for whatever they have on environmental issues for the project.
    The main enviro preoccupations were with landscape and visual amenity impacts, and preserving/recording archaeological remains on the site. Oh yes, and they’ve got a Green Transport Plan.

    Pete Smith

    March 7, 2008 at 10:24 am

  3. Doesn’t sound good does it. Good update Pete on my original post. 🙂


    March 8, 2008 at 9:50 am

  4. Has anyone considerd the impact on bird and insect life? No more skylarks over the cabbage fields.

    Chris crescini

    March 12, 2008 at 7:40 pm

  5. As a local resident of Monkton, I am horrified by the impact this development will have on the area. I don’t think there are many locals who are fooled by the promise of jobs. Those are most likely to go to low-paid foreign workers. We have been told that the lighting will be “no brighter than a sunny day”. As this is a 24h operation, does this mean we will have permanent daylight? We have also been concerned about the effect of light reflection on air traffic in and out of Manston airport. But the saddest thing is the loss of habitat. Hedgerow trees were planted along Seamark Road some years ago and it is a real pleasure to drive along and when passing through at night hares are often seen to be crossing the road – where will they live now? As to water use, the pond in Monkton Nature reserve is at the level of the water table and has been rather short of water in recent years. Sad times.

    Davina Ransom

    March 13, 2008 at 12:40 pm

  6. I too have my doubts about the project. I regularly drive along Seamark Road and the wild life there is/was a delight. Farming in this country is undoubtedly in great dificulty but I am not sure this is the answer.

    Theo Loyla

    March 13, 2008 at 2:27 pm

  7. Davina, I have every sympathy for you, it must be very distressing to see a loved landscape destroyed by forces beyong your control. Concerning the issue of lighting: the Decision document at the Thanet DC web site says: “No glasshouse hereby permitted shall be lit other than between the hours of 2200 and 1600 on any day, between and including the months of October to March”. I’ve seen a reference to internal screening of the glasshouse walls to stop 95% of light escaping. As for 24/7 operation: “No loading/unloading or use of forklift trucks shall take place in the external areas of the site outside the hours of 0600 to 2300 on any day”. What you say about the nature reserve ponds doesn’t surprise me, given the local geology and the fact they’re downhill from the development, which will now be intercepting, storing and recycling all rainwater falling on the glasshouses, preventing it from entering the aquifers.

    Pete Smith

    March 17, 2008 at 11:42 am

  8. Just so you know: it’s 10 days since I asked Thanet District Council and Fresca Group for information about an Environmental Impact Assessment and any other documents relating to environmental issues. You might think that the fact I’ve had nothing back suggests they’ve got nothing to tell me; I couldn’t possibly comment.

    Pete Smith

    March 17, 2008 at 11:47 am

  9. The Environmental Statement mentioned in the planning application details can be found here
    I obtained this document from a contact in the Fresca Group. It was written for the original landowner Robert Montgomery Ltd, who sold the site to Fresca in 2007.
    Be warned, it’s a 100 page PDF file. It bears little resemblance to what I would call an EIA, something it seems Fresca are addressing. This is a comment from my source:
    “Whilst it reflects the concepts behind our plans, we feel we have a much stronger story to tell about sustainability, water usage and wildlife and therefore we are currently creating a new document for Thanet Earth. The document is likely to take approximately two months to produce and at present we have a 3rd party carrying out a carbon footprint assessment”.

    Pete Smith

    March 28, 2008 at 12:07 pm

  10. We help run the astronomical observatory in the neighbouring nature reserve, (under the duck on the map)and are dismayed to learn of further light pollution on such a sensitive site. The local council agreed to shield or remove the street lights that encroach on the observatory and telescopes at Monkton but have yet to do so, now we hear of more “year round lights”.
    The light pollution will stop activity at the observatory run by volunteers. Even outdoor lights will increase the local sky glow to unacceptable levels rendering the observatory unusable unless very careful light engineering is implemented.

    John Carruthers

    April 17, 2008 at 10:54 am

  11. As an Amateur Astronomer who uses the observatory facilities at Monkton I too am dismayed by the thought of the light pollution that this development will cause, I also wonder at the advisability of such a bright patch of light virtually on the end of the main runway at Manston Airport, surely unless the lighting is very strictly controlled there is the chance that the floodlighting will catch the eyes of pilots landing or taking off.
    At the very least the lighting for this project will have to be very carefully calculated and supervised to ensure Zero light spill, Zero sky glow, Zero side lighting and zero total light pollution for the surrounding area.

    Peter Ashby

    April 17, 2008 at 12:05 pm

  12. I an a documentary film maker based in THanet and I am making a new film about the threat to Thanet’s environment by developments such as Thanet Earth and the China Gateway project. Would anyone from your organisation be interested in being interviewed for the film to talk about the environmental impact of projects such as this?
    Christine Tongue


    May 22, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  13. Christine, I’ve replied via email. If anyone with a personal interest in Thanet Earth or China Gateway (article coming up when I find the time) wants to air views or exchange information, I’m happy for this site to be used as a central point for that purpose, provided people can cope with the limitations of the site design, which wasn’t intended to cope with large numbers of comments. I’m sure there must be other internet sites set up specifically for Thanet issues, perhaps people can post the links here.
    However, Christine is really after an expert or two who can comment on the dangers of hydroponics and the effect on the water table of concreting over large areas of farm land.

    Pete Smith

    May 23, 2008 at 10:27 am

  14. Thanet Council is intent on making the whole Island a brownfield site. Who profits?


    May 26, 2008 at 11:42 am

  15. Considering the current high food prices and concerns over food security maybe Thanet arrives just in time.

    Someone’s got to feed London; it creates most of the country’s wealth after all.


    June 4, 2008 at 7:34 am

  16. Don’t forget that the Thanet Earth site was productive farmland long before somone came up with the idea of building greenhouses all over it. Only 51 of the 90 hectares will be producing anything, the rest is access roads, parking, packing buildings, etc. If you’re worried about “feeding London”, in terms of pure nutritional and energy value, you’d be better off using the land for conventional crops, like the cauliflowers that were grown there until the topsoil was stripped off. Thanet Earth has nothing to do with “food security”, everything to do with high profit margins.

    Pete Smith

    June 4, 2008 at 7:46 am

  17. Hurry up and do something on China Gateway before Thanet’s aquifers are completely bunged up with nitrates AND pollutants! I gather our tap water is already slightly suss, without all this extra development. China Gateway are going against EA advice and seem hellbent on putting in a cheap septic tank system for run-off rather than the mains drainage they’ve been advised to install.

    BTW, you might like to know that Kent International Airport is also adjacent to these sites. Being an ex-RAF base it was exempt from pollution controls re run-off. The current owners are only just getting round to addressing that. Let’s hope there’s not a major incident before they do. It’s Evian for me from now on!

    Eastcliff Richard

    June 13, 2008 at 11:57 am

  18. Christine Tongue states in her recent guest column in one of our local papers that she has lived here for 17 years. People such as Ms. Tongue probably mix in the ‘Broadstairs set’, so called middle class idealogical intellects (or so they think) with no real grasp of modern agricultural and consumer needs or history of Thanet’s decline. I have lived here 43 years (I was born in Thanet) and get hacked off with people who come to Thanet for a quiet life and expect the younger generation to tolerate their lack of vision at the expense of that generation’s future. This, the older generation who grew up in the 60s and beyond is the same one that failed to accept new ideas preferring to live in a museum culture. There is a lot of new investment coming into Thanet, a lot of new and interesting development, all these people want is to live a twee life at everyone else’s expense. Go away.


    June 14, 2008 at 12:08 am

  19. It makes a lot of sense to me that this development goes ahead if you see less reliance on salad veg coming from Spain/Israel.

    Or a law is passed stopping people from eating salad on Xmas day


    June 14, 2008 at 11:37 am

  20. Thanet Earth will only produce produce which can be grown quite easily in the UK outdoors or in a cold greenhouse in their season. This is key to the whole issue; TE is pandering to a demand for year-round availability of seasonal produce, a demand created and fed by the culinary-retail-industrial complex. If people accepted food seasonality, there’d be no need to import salads, tomatoes etc from abroad.
    As for jobs: TE is promoting the technical aspects of the work to be done in “the UK’s largest and most technologically advanced glasshouse complex”. If these were conventional horticultural jobs, rather than hard hat/white coat, would anyone sign up? After all, isn’t tomato picking and packing only fit work for immigrants?

    Pete Smith

    June 18, 2008 at 10:52 am

  21. I have to say, I can not agree with you in 100%, but it’s just my IMHO, which indeed could be very wrong.
    p.s. You have an awesome template . Where did you find it?

    floor jack

    March 14, 2009 at 1:25 pm

  22. The dutch growers in the Netherlands use a chemical to make the skins of the veg tight. It is illegal to use that chemical in the UK but under European regulations the fruit and veg from Holland that is contaminated with that chemical cannot be banned from the UK markets. Wonder how “dirty” the production methods are in that giant carbuncle in the green belt?

    Old Dutch

    September 27, 2009 at 7:40 pm

  23. Hi
    Has there been any development on the EAI/Environmental Statement front… would be really handy to use Thanet Earth for an assignment I have at Uni as I live not far!
    If so, anybody know where I can find a copy/abstract of an EIA/ES report?

    Ciaran Head

    October 21, 2010 at 3:36 pm

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