ROBERT Ayres, 59, who chairs protest group Stop Keypoint Incinerator Project - SKIP – which opposes the building of a rubbish gasification plant in South Marston, is anxious to credit his fellow SKIP committee members and many in the community for the strength of the campaign.

A planning application was recently thrown out, although an appeal seems likely.

“One of the things that struck me from early on in the process is that talking to people – not all of them, by any means - you get struck by people saying, ‘Oh, there’s nothing you can do, it’s going to go ahead anyway'," he says.

“There’s a certain strand of opinion which is a bit fatalistic about these things. Essentially these people believe the system is set up – not to put it too bluntly – to screw local communities for the benefit of people who have a lot of money or power, and that there is nothing you can do.

“That’s the basic tenor of what a lot of people say. But what I have said about this in the past, and what I still feel, is that you have to give it a go.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you don’t stand up against these things, if you don’t organise in the community.

“The value of standing up to these things, the value of organising is that it can bring a community together, it can bring a sense that you have shared interests.”

Robert is originally from North London. He is a retired lecturer who came to Swindon when he began working for the what was then the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham. He lectured initially in computer science and later management.

Experience in processing and organising new information helped him when he had to give himself crash courses in planning and environmental regulations, not to mention aspects of waste management processes.

The gasification plant was first mooted in February of last year, and Robert was among concerned local people who began meeting to share concerns. He was later elected to chair the group.

Robert says: “As far as the gasification issue goes, we say that’s largely a red herring.

“Gasification traditionally involved heating up some feedstock like coal without any oxygen, so the gas would be driven off. Then that gas could be burned separately.

“When coal was gasified to produce town gas, the gas was then piped to houses. You’re talking about a process where you treated some fuel to produce, if you like, a secondary fuel which was perhaps more transportable or manageable.

“What’s being done here is that they’ve basically got an incinerator with a gasification step. So they do heat up the waste without any oxygen being present, but almost straight away it’s burnt.

“You’re not talking about a process where you’re gasifying a feedstock or a fuel to then use as a fuel elsewhere. You’re talking about something that can’t be uncoupled. You’re basically splitting the incineration process – you’re smearing out the burning in two phases but it’s all pretty much happening in the same box.

“It’s playing with words to say no burning takes place in the process.”

The plant, if it goes ahead, will process roughly a tonne of pre-pulverised refuse every three minutes.

SKIP puts forward many scientific arguments it says make the plan undesirable, but much local reaction is more visceral.

“Talking to people locally, there are probably three major concerns which keep coming up.

“One is the impact of the additional HGV traffic," says Robert.

"There will be an additional 90 trips a day – 45 trips bringing in waste. There’s no guarantee that those lorries will be sealed or that the waste wouldn’t stink or something.

“Those 45 lorries would have to go away again.”

Lorries will also remove ash at the end of the process, some of which the campaigners say will be harmful to health if released, perhaps in a road accident.

“Another concern is the sheer scale of the thing. It’s going to have a 170ft chimney with a plume on top which may or may not always be visible but will certainly be visible on some days.

“That’s in an area which at the moment is completely low-rise. There are no tall buildings around here at all. Even though it’s at the edge of the Honda site, the Honda site is low-rise. You don’t need tall buildings to build cars; it’s spread over a wide area and it’s pretty flat on the whole.

“They don’t give a sense of being in an industrial area, whereas for a lot of people who live close to this – and they include the Eastern Villages when they’re built - there’s going to be an industrial chimney in the middle of what is largely a residential area.

“The third major concern relates to pollution and health. One concern is that at the end of the day there’s bound to be a certain amount of particulates and toxins that escape the chimney.

“Related to that, what if the thing malfunctions? If there’s a major fire it’s right next to residential areas.

“There is a lot of memory around here, folk memory if you like, of the Averies fire. That was a particularly unpleasant experience, to have to live with that for literally weeks on end.

“I go running quite a lot and I would notice it. There are things which are unpleasant smells and there are things you feel you really shouldn’t be breathing, and this was in the latter category.”

Robert and his fellow campaigners were shocked not only that the applicants brought a QC to the planning committee meeting, but also that a threat was made to put the council through a ‘mincer’ if the applicants didn’t get their way.

They remain undaunted, however.

“Even if at the end of the day – and I hope to heaven this doesn’t happen – the thing goes ahead, I think it will still have been valuable for the community to have a go and try to stop it, rather than saying, ‘We have to accept, not because we want to accept because we don’t have the power'.”