Government climbs down on "sustainable" aggregates policy

The Department of the Environment (DoE) has pulled back from imposing heavy restrictions on quarrying in new planning guidance on aggregates supply.1 For the first time, the guidelines impose limits on the supply of primary aggregates and are intended to push the construction industry into using more recycled aggregates. The move have been severely criticised by quarrying businesses, while conservationists believe that the DoE has not done enough to reduce demand for primary aggregates.

The review of the existing guidelines was originally prompted by a public outcry in 1991 about the environmental consequences of a set of official projections showing a sustained increase in aggregates demand. These were to have informed planning decisions on applications for new quarries.

The DoE responded by promising a review of its long-established policy of ensuring "an adequate and steady supply" of aggregates to the construction industry. But draft guidelines issued in January 1993 only stated that this basic policy should continue, albeit with "full consideration of all resources and the principles of sustainable development" (ENDS Report 216, pp 22-23 ).

To meet these criteria, the DoE put forward two options for limiting the volume of land-won and sea-dredged aggregates. Option 1 would have resulted in a 10% reduction in the projected supply of primary aggregates by 2011, while Option 2 would have resulted in a 20% reduction. The DoE provisionally ruled out Option 1 because it did "not go very far towards achieving a supply policy which fully reflects sustainable development."

Conservationists were generally pleased with the proposals, although they still lobbied for demand management policies - mainly curbs on the roads programme. More vocal were the aggregate industry's trade associations, which were aghast at the prospect of any limits on extraction (ENDS Report 219, pp 35-36 ).

Ever since, the DoE has been grappling with how to reconcile these concerns. The long overdue final figures show that it has opted for a compromise between the two options (see table). Even this, it claims, "marks a significant shift of direction in Government thinking," although aggregates supply is still expected to rise from 240 million tonnes in 1991 to 330-365 million tonnes in 2006.

Not much can be read into the actual volumes because the final figures confusingly exclude Wales. The Welsh planning guidance will now be published separately. But the balance between the various sources shows that primary aggregates from England and Wales will account for 84% of supply in England, compared with 80% in Option 2 and 88% in Option 1 for both England and Wales. Option 1 and 2 also gave figures to 2011, when secondary aggregates and imports were projected to have gained a larger market share.

The DoE has gone back on its proposal to restrict the land bank for sand and gravel from ten years to five. Conceding to industry demands for protection for smaller quarrying firms, it has decided on a land bank of seven years.

The guidance has drawn criticism from both industry and conservationists. The Sand and Gravel Association (SAGA) branded it as "ill-conceived and not thought through", while the Council for the Protection of Rural England said it will not reduce quarrying pressure on the countryside.

There has been a general welcome for the Government's plans to increase the use of secondary aggregates. A target of 55 million tonnes per year by 2006 has been set for England. This compares with a consumption figure of 32 million tonnes in 1992 for England and Wales. The target is less demanding than that proposed in Option 2, where the projected usage rate was 73 million tonnes per year for 2007-2011.

The DoE has asked the aggregates industry to come up with proposals on how the targets can be reached, and is itself working with the Department of Transport to increase the use of recycled and secondary aggregates in road construction and repair. British Aggregate Construction Materials Industries (BACMI) has promised to participate fully in initiatives to achieve the target, but believes that the DoE's assumptions "may prove to be too high".

The shortening of the period covered by the guidance has meant that less emphasis is being placed on secondary sources. However, SAGA believes that the move masks a Government plan to increase reliance on remote coastal superquarries in the next century. The DoE's justification for the shorter time-horizon is that it did not want to restrict options that develop from current research. This may include the use of coastal superquarries.

As MPG 6 was launched, the Scottish Office moved to allay public fears of a massive increase in the number of coastal superquarries. New planning guidelines "envisage" no more than three new superquarries in Scotland by 2009.2 However, there is no limitation on the size of each quarry.

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