After a two-year battle, Arla’s bold plan to build a new state-of-the-art dairy has been given the green light. But at what cost? Richard Ford reports

Headline figures of ‘£150m’ and ‘one billion litre’ have a nasty habit of attracting naysayers and Nimbys alike. Arla’s planned new dairy in the Buckinghamshire county town of Aylesbury is no exception.

After nearly two years, countless hours of planning meetings and a host of local protests, the super-sized dairy finally looks like it will get the go-ahead. But at what cost?

The Danish-owned giant was last week given a crucial green light by Aylesbury Vale District Council for the development, although the decision is still subject to a potential call-in by secretary of state Eric Pickles. It is also subject to the finalisation of a so-called section 106 agreement, which will contain a raft of planning obligations.

Arla has already overcome a host of obstacles to help its planning application along the way and has proposed a “multimillion-pound package of mitigation measures”. It has suggested spending an approximate £2m on local road improvements and investing £350,000 in a canal towpath creating a green corridor for cyclists and walkers from the dairy to Aylesbury along with 32 acres of tree planting and other 106 obligations.

Although there has been some local resistance to the new dairy most notably through campaign group Aylesbury Chiltern Resistance to Inappropriate Development (ACRID) Arla says “many residents are delighted we are investing in Aylesbury and delivering 700 new jobs and a £20m annual wages bill.”

And in addition to the mitigation measures, Arla intends to set up a community liaison group to enable community representatives to meet Arla’s team on a regular basis to discuss the dairy’s construction and its impact on the area.

Talks with the council about the proposals are ongoing, raising the question of whether the “next generation dairy” is still on course to open in 2012, as planned.

Arla certainly still seems confident. When it announced the local council had decided in its favour last week, the company reiterated its ambition of having the dairy up and running by the end of 2012.

The company has remained tightlipped on whether the timetable has been affected in any way by new planning obligations, other than to say that extensive pre-application consultation had enabled its application to be considered “within the government’s approved timetable for considering applications of this nature”.

And although projects of Aylesbury’s size and scale are notorious for over-running, industry sources, at least, have faith in Arla’s ability to deliver on time, nodding to the company’s global experience in building new dairies. “Most businesses wouldn’t be able to build something like that in 15 months, but I think they’ve allocated a lot of resource,” says one. That “resource” includes an estimated 1,000 construction employees who will be drafted in to build the dairy over the next 18 months, according to Arla.

And if Arla already has orders to fill from the dairy as the source suspects keeping the project on track will be a priority.

Arla itself has previously said that “our style is to secure business and then put in the capacity” [Ash Amirahmadi, senior vice president for milk procurement, The Dairymen supplement to The Grocer, 10 September 2011] which lends weight to the source’s view.

But before Arla can put the first shovel in the ground, it must overcome one remaining hurdle a decision by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, as to whether or not he will call in AVDC’s decision.

Neither AVDC nor Arla will speculate on the likelihood of Pickles doing so but, if it were to happen, it would not only threaten to delay Arla’s plans it could potentially put the future of UK dairy processing on the back foot.

The figures

- £150m spend; will process and package up to
- 1.3 billion litres of fresh milk per annum
- Annual wages bill of £20m lGeneration of 700 jobs at the dairy
- Up to 1,000 construction jobs over the next 18 months
- Planning permission granted for additional commercial space will attract 1,000 additional jobs