The crowded agenda for aggregates

The prospect of an aggregates tax may be preoccupying Britain's minerals businesses, but several other policies and measures of considerable importance to the industry are in the pipeline. Indeed, a forthcoming official review of the existing guidelines for aggregates supply may prove at least as crucial to the industry's - and the countryside's - fortunes as a tax.

The issues facing the industry were outlined in speeches by Planning Minister Richard Caborn and Steve Bland, a senior official in the DETR's Minerals and Waste Planning Division, during May. Three of the more prominent are:

  • National Parks: Mr Caborn threw down the gauntlet to the industry over quarrying in the National Parks. The protection given to these areas will be reconsidered as part of the forthcoming review of MPG6, the key planning guidance document on aggregates provision, but an absolute ban on new quarries appears unlikely. Mr Caborn, though, underlined that where MPG6 requires quarrying proposals in National Parks to be shown to be in the "national interest", that should be "read as having the word 'overwhelming' in front, underlined three times and in neon lights."

    The Minister went on to challenge industrialists in the audience. "You know well.that a proposal to extend or develop a quarry in the National Parks can be damaging to a company in relation to its claims to be concerned about the environment," he told them. "In all the circumstances I invite the industry to consider whether its best interests overall might not be better served by a policy of self-restraint over further proposals to extract aggregates in the National Parks."

  • Environmental assessment and marine aggregates: Proposals for marine dredging operations are currently authorised in the informal so-called "Government View" procedure. Environmental impact assessments are part of this, but they will be made a statutory requirement in 1999 when the Government implements last year's amendment of the 1985 EC Directive on environmental assessment of major projects.

    Steve Bland told the annual seminar of the DETR's Aggregates Advisory Service on 19 May that the effect of this change will be "negligible", simply converting an informal requirement into a formal one. The experience of other sectors which have had their authorisation procedures opened up to public scrutiny under the Directive suggests this may be an unduly rosy view.

  • Demand and supply projections: The cheapness of aggregates in recent decades has been assured by an official policy to provide an "adequate and steady supply" of material to the construction industry. This has been underpinned by periodic official projections of supply and demand which drive the regional aggregates planning process and the level of forward reserves authorised for extraction.

    The last revision of the projections, incorporated in MPG6 in 1994, was preceded by a three-year dispute stirred by an initial forecast that demand for primary aggregates in England and Wales would rise from 230 million tonnes in 1992 to 420-490 million tonnes by 2011. Countryside campaigners were aghast at the prospect (ENDS Report 216, pp 22-23 ).

    The final set of projections in MPG6 still foresaw a 40-50% increase in overall aggregates demand in England by 2006, but with a larger contribution from secondary aggregates - rising from 40 million tonnes in 2001 to 55 million by 2006 (ENDS Report 231, pp 40-41 ).

    MPG6 is to be revised by December 1999. Mr Bland acknowledged that, last time round, "there was some controversy about the forecasts of demand," but suggested that the guidance is "not creating problems, by and large, for planning authorities, except that there are some areas where meeting apportionments might be difficult for some."

    Mr Caborn was rather less bland. "The forecasts and regional guidelines in MPG6," he said, "are undoubtedly leading to difficulties for local planning authorities and communities in some parts of the country. In my view this is partly because the demand forecasts used in MPG6 were derived from the boom years of the late 1980s."

    Production of primary aggregates reached a historic peak of 300 million tonnes in 1990 - but has since slipped back to just over 200 million. According to the Minister, "the high levels of projected demand built into the present planning system need to be re-examined - and we will do that - so that we are not needlessly making provision ahead of sustainable need" - whatever that is. But the Government will not tighten up the guidance so much, he added, as to generate a "significant permanent and deliberate shortage of aggregate."

    As noted in the main article, the official target for secondary aggregates provision for 2001 has already been beaten. Mr Caborn undertook to consider further measures - possibly some during the revision of MPG6 - "to strengthen the welcome recent increase in recycling activity." The DETR will also incorporate the predicted impacts of any aggregates tax on recycling in the new MPG6.

    Much of this may seem threatening to primary aggregates businesses. But environmental groups remain unconvinced that fundamental change is in the offing.

    Michelle Coombs, Minerals Campaigner for the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), argues that the strategic policy priority should be to reduce demand for aggregates by using the planning system to promote development which creates less need to travel and encourage the reuse of buildings.

    Equally important for CPRE is a shift away from the "predict and provide" approach built into the aggregates planning regime. But a recent DETR review left untouched the basic presumption that the construction industry should be guaranteed a steady supply of material, she says, leaving room for only some "tweaking at the margins."

    Ms Coombs remains "fairly pessimistic" about the likelihood of serious change to the present set-up. Pride of place is still being given to the demand projections, and to this has been added a new driver - the Government's preoccupation with regional regeneration. The idea of managing demand for minerals is, she says, still struggling to get a look-in. The Government's handling of the issue over the next 18 months looks set to be a key test of its environmental credentials.

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