Government shifts towards more sustainable aggregates policy

The Government has admitted that the 20-year demand forecasts used for many years to underpin official planning policies for aggregates are seriously flawed. A consultation paper by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has proposed that the forecasts should be for much shorter periods and based on a more sophisticated approach. 1 Forecasts should also consider changes in the intensity of aggregates use and the impacts of price - an important factor in view of the new aggregates tax.

The paper sets out ideas for developing new planning guidance on the supply of aggregates in England to replace the existing guidance, MPG6, issued in 1994. This was produced in response to increasing concern about the environmental consequences of official projections showing a sustained increase in aggregates demand, and about the use of a "predict and provide" approach in the forecasting methodology (ENDS Report 231, pp 40-41 ).

The guidance was aimed at limiting the proportion of demand in England and Wales met by primary aggregates to 84% by 2006. It also set targets to increase the use of secondary aggregates in England to 40 million tonnes per year in 2001 and 55 million in 2006, up from 32 million in England and Wales in 1992.

Research commissioned by the DETR in response to concerns expressed during the consultation on MPG6 called for a more reliable and transparent basis of forecasting demand at national and regional level, as well as changes to the basis on which landbanks were mandated for inclusion in development plans.

The Government "agrees with the broad thrust" of the research, the new paper says. Although the present approach is "fundamentally sound", it could be improved to reflect wider policy shifts in promoting sustainable development and modernising the planning system. The DETR hopes to issue a draft revision of MPG6 in the first half of next year.

A key aim of the new strategy, it says, is "to reduce demand for aggregates by minimising the waste of construction materials and maximising the use that is made of alternatives to primary aggregates so that less need to be dug from the ground." Another aim is to speed up the minerals planning system.

The DETR also wants to strengthen regional planning in England and introduce greater transparency in its preparation. As a result, it intends to examine whether regional guidance for aggregates should continue to be developed entirely at national level, and how it is treated in the preparation of minerals sections in future regional planning guidance.

The Quarry Products Association declined to comment on the consultation paper before it had gathered views from its members - some of whom are increasingly engaged in aggregates recycling as well as quarrying. However, the paper was welcomed by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), which said it "should make new quarries a matter of last resort and sound the death knell of 'predict and provide' planning."

Particularly pleasing, said CPRE natural resources campaigner Henry Oliver, is that the new strategy's "key elements" include reducing demand for aggregates, maximising the use of recycled and reclaimed materials, and minimising the amount of aggregates that need to be extracted.

Another positive point, he said, is that the new version of regional planning guidance, PPG11, issued in October, says that regional priorities should include targets for reducing extraction of primary aggregates and increasing the use of alternative materials.

  • Estimating future demand: In 1992, the Government predicted that demand for primary aggregates in England and Wales would soar from its then level of 230 million tonnes to 370-440 million tonnes in 2011. However, in 1997 production in Britain was just 200 million tonnes - down from a peak of 300 million in 1989.

    The paper concedes that "previous 20-year estimates have proved to be far too high when compared with actual demand" - and that "inaccuracies can be magnified if projections are made over anything more than a relatively short period."

    Instead, it says, future estimates of demand for aggregates should be based on an econometric approach. They should also take account of changes in the intensity of use of aggregates over time. Forecasts should be for total demand for both primary and secondary aggregates, rather than primary aggregates alone. Expected demand for secondary aggregates, "possibly based on policy targets," could then be netted off to give the figure for primary aggregates demand.

    The methodology for making demand forecasts should also, if possible, take into account the effect of prices. These will rise when the aggregates tax of £1.60 per tonne is introduced in April 2002 (ENDS Report 302, pp 19-21 ).

    Rather than forecasting demand for 20 years ahead, one option would be to look at a shorter period, with estimates being revised frequently.

    At least one major stakeholder, says the paper, has suggested that projections should be for five years based on sales or production figures for the past few years, beyond which a level projection could be used for planning purposes. This would fit with the 4-5 year review period for national supply guidance, regional planning guidance and minerals local plans. An alternative would be to prepare 10-year estimates, reviewed every five years.

    The paper makes no reference to the major increase in road building which is expected after the Government earmarked £21 billion for investment in the strategic road network to 2010 (ENDS Report 306, pp 16-19 ).

    Although decisions have yet to be made on how this money will be spent, CPRE is worried about its potential effects on demand for primary aggregates. However, it points out that the Highways Agency is putting its specifications for building materials onto a "fit for purpose" basis, and that the aggregates tax could encourage demand for recycled materials.

  • Use of demand estimates: The demand estimates in MPG6 were broken down into regional estimates, which in turn were subdivided by regional aggregates working parties to sub-regional or mineral planning authority (MPA) level. MPAs then identified their individual shares of future demand to be met by supplies from their areas, as part of local development plans.

    The DETR has now accepted that the wide margins of uncertainty in national estimates are magnified when they are broken down to local level. It suggests that estimates should "be used in an indicative manner rather than as almost firm allocations," and "tested more rigorously in the plan-making process, at both the regional and local levels."

  • Aggregates supply: The paper estimates that current use of secondary and recycled aggregates is around 35 million tonnes per year, and that the existing target of 40 million tonnes in 2001 will be met. Therefore, the Government "may well need to set more demanding targets for the coming years."

    Setting new targets will require better baseline data, which will mean assessing the potential contribution of aggregates such as glass cullet and incinerator bottom ash, as well as construction and demolition wastes and mineral wastes. It is "also appropriate" to consider whether the proportion of aggregates from marine dredging - currently 7% - should be reduced because of its environmental effects.

  • Inter regional supplies: Major movements of aggregates occur between English regions because neither quarry landbanks nor market demand are evenly distributed. The paper asks to what extent forward planning provision for one region to supply another should continue, and whether existing patterns should be changed.

    One option could be to allow shortages to emerge in some regions by not replenishing permitted reserves in regions which have supplied them. However, there would need to be confidence that secondary and recycled materials could make up the shortfall.

  • Aggregates from Wales: In considering future supply patterns to England, assumptions will need to be made about the significant movements of aggregates from Wales to north-west England.

    However, planning policies for aggregates in Wales and Scotland now fall to the devolved administrations, and therefore the Government will not make assumptions about future levels of supply from outside England. Any emerging pattern, it says, should be reflected in the forecasting process.

  • Landbanks: The paper asks whether the present policy of advising that landbanks for sand and gravel should provide for at least seven years' extraction provides a proper compromise between the need for security of supply and sustainability. And if landbanks are to be retained, it asks whether they should be made up of reserves with planning permission only, or include land allocated for minerals extraction for which planning permission has not been granted.

  • Performance indicators and targets: The Government intends to develop indicators to show whether aggregates supply is becoming more sustainable. These might include the proportion of primary aggregates used compared with secondary and recycled materials, the amounts of aggregates used per unit of construction output, and the area of land undergoing extraction.

    The targets set in MPG6 relating to the proportion of total supply of aggregates to be met by secondary and recycled materials will be updated, and additional targets will also be set to cover a wider range of issues. The task of setting indicators and targets may be transferred to the regions, within a national framework

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