Monday, 29 October 2012

Sand and gravel sales still falling

Sand and gravel production in Devon is likely to be down again this year, if national trends are followed. In 2011 production in Devon was just 0.44 million tonnes; ten years before that it was 1.15.

The Mineral Products Association's recent release Further decline in third quarter mineral product sales confirms steep decline in construction activity in 2012 claims "demand this year will be lower than the previous depths of the recession in 2009", with sand and gravel sales down 11% on the same quarter last year.

If DCC continues to call for additional sand and gravel provision in the face of continually falling demand, it will need to explain to the people of Ottery St Mary and Devon why a 20 year long downwards trend is likely to reverse, and why a perfectly good dairy farm should be sacrificed when the County still has reserves of over 9 million tonnes.

DCC refuses permission for incinerator at New England Quarry - Lee Mill, Devon

The risk to a site and its locality does not end when the minerals have been extracted - as the planning application from Viridor highlights. This was not a proposal for a boating lake or a woodland clearing with picnic area, but a £200 million energy-from-waste plant, with twin 90 metre chimneys, an Incinerator Bottom Ash plant, and landfill anticipated to run until 2043.

Fortunately, this time, the application was refused for its visual impact, the risk to Ancient Woodland in a County Wildlife Site, and access road considerations. Reasons that could equally apply to a quarry at Straitgate Farm.

Jobs - after years of decline that argument no longer has merit

Any application to quarry Straitgate would, no doubt, use the argument of "jobs for local people" - not new jobs, as Aggregate Industries have stated there would not be any, but the safeguarding of jobs.

However, the number of jobs safeguarded would in fact be small - earlier in the year there were just nine employees at Blackhill Quarry, and at-risk Straitgate Farm itself employs four. A modern sand and gravel quarry does not support anywhere near, say, the 230 jobs offered by a tungsten mine.

The jobs argument may have had merit at the Public Inquiry in 1968 to support English China Clay's application to quarry Straitgate, Blackhill, and Colaton Raleigh, but, in those days 41 people worked at Blackhill, and a further 148 at Rockbeare.

Nationally the sand and gravel business has been in decline ever since, and "consolidation through mergers and acquisitions has seen in excess of 5,000 quarrying companies in 1960 reduced to some 200 currently" of which Tarmac, Lafarge, Aggregate Industries, RMC and Hanson now account for over 80% of output. Even over the last 10 years there has been a dramatic fall in employee numbers in sand and gravel, with the UK Minerals Yearbook reporting over 8000 employees in 2001, but under 3000 in 2010. The HSE says the "industry has difficulty attracting and recruiting staff" and "anecdotal evidence suggests an ageing workforce".

The economic ramifications of a Straitgate Quarry on the wider area would be far greater than the immediate loss of the four farm jobs, and the extract from a DCC document below highlights the "Impacts of Mineral Development on the Economy". For Ottery St Mary and surrounding communities it is clear that the "Adverse Impacts" would far outweigh any of the "Opportunities". 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

AI selling the 'family silver'

You have to feel some sympathy for Aggregate Industries' staff at the moment. Not only is their pay being delayed, but now Marston House, the company's 17th century Grade II* listed regional HQ near Frome, is being sold off - for £6mStaff will be relocated to a rather subdued leasehold property nearby.

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Is this another sign that AI is experiencing difficult times, or is Holcim, its Swiss parent, simply asset stripping? Or could it be to finance the fighting fund that AI now realises it will need to secure planning permission for Straitgate, and the cost of building itself a new processing plant away from the European nature conservation designations of Woodbury Common?

AI's trade body bemoans the planning system

Whilst to local people the odds seem heavily skewed in favour of the developer, the Mineral Products Association (MPA), on the other hand, laments the lack of progress in the planning system and the effort it takes to secure permission for sand and gravel quarries.

In its new Annual Mineral Planning Survey for 2010 the MPA, the trade association for aggregate companies, "is calling on the Government to overcome the inertia in the planning system". It claims:
Less than 50% of sand and gravel reserves have been replenished in the last 10 years [Maybe because the demand is only half what it was 10 years ago?]
Sand and gravel approvals took an average of 28 months in 2010 [Maybe because the environmental impact needs to be carefully assessed, before an operator tears into the countryside?] 
There has been no appreciable improvement in the time it takes to obtain planning permission since 1996 [Maybe because quarries are as damaging now as they were in 1996?] 
In 2010, only 9 planning applications for new extraction were submitted by members, compared with 40 in 1996 [Maybe something to do with demand again, as well as profit margins, and secondary and recycled aggregates?]
The MPA complains “It’s not surprising that the planning applications aren’t coming forward. Whilst the overall approval rate of applications is adequate, they take too long, they cost too much – between £100k and £800k - and lengthy pre-application discussions don’t help.” “With too few plans, low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates, increasing costs, and planning inertia fuelling uncertainty we are storing up supply problems for the recovery. Lack of demand is masking underlying supply problems for the future”.

Representing its minerally-minded members, the MPA would be inclined to say all that, but, it is assuming that demand for sand and gravel will recover, and for the last 20 years there has been no such indication.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Birdstrikes - the threat is real

If DCC thinks birdstrikes are just a theoretical possibility, and that Exeter Airport is being overly protective of its flightpath and the surrounding airspace, it should think again.

The dangers of birdstrike are all too apparent from the video produced by Grass Engineering, a company in the business of making grassland around airports less attractive to birds.

But birdstrikes have an economic impact too. Even though 65% of birdstrikes cause little damage to the aircraft, "the cost of bird strikes to commercial aircraft worldwide has been estimated to be in excess of $1bn annually" - 12% for direct damage and the rest for delays and cancellations. For example, Easyjet: "The aircraft operating the inbound flight experienced a birdstrike during landing and needed to undergo a mandatory safety inspection by our engineers"; Flybe: "The Embraer 195 aircraft is now being inspected by engineers and the passengers were re-accommodated on a replacement aircraft"; Ryanair: "The majority of birdstrikes Ryanair encounter do not cause damage to their aircraft, however the commercial cost from delays is significant."

Airport "operators are required to take the necessary steps to ensure that the birdstrike risk is reduced to the lowest practicable level". If Aggregate Industries was to quarry Straitgate, it would have to do so without creating any bodies of water. 

Could AI dig a deep hole at Straitgate Farm and not expect it to fill up with water? As young children learn in the sand on the beach, it's not easy. Maybe if the hole was just restricted to the limited resource above the water table. Maybe if the hole was pumped out in perpetuity. Maybe if it was infilled with inert waste. Maybe if it stopped raining.

In 1967, when the Devon River Authority considered English China Clay's application to quarry Straitgate, it was agreed that the lake created from extraction needed to cover an area of 49 acres in order to mitigate any flooding effects on nearby communities. Local residents, farmers and no doubt the Environment Agency will question any claim by AI that it is now able to quarry Straitgate creating only an ephemeral body of water, particularly as, according to some locals, the water table is now at its highest in living memory.

ephemeral: transitory, short-lived, temporary, fleeting. Unlike a quarry, or the threat of one.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

What they teach our children in schools today… and what they don't

The facts of life? Certainly. The facts of quarrying? Apparently, yes.

Using funding that was meant to tackle the problems created by quarrying and benefit communities affected by it, the Mineral Products Association (MPA), the trade body that "represents the whole of the British cement sector, 90 per cent of aggregates production and 95 per cent of both asphalt and ready-mixed concrete", has developed an interactive Virtual Quarry for use in schools, and teaching material for key stages 1-4 of the national curriculum for science, geography and citizenship. Understandably the material does not dwell on the disadvantages of quarrying:
You're in charge of restoring this quarry to a place for people and wildlife to enjoy. You can create a lake for people to sail on, plant some trees and reeds that will attract birds and build some hides to watch them from. Just click on the item you'd like and then on the place you want it to go. Water will only go into the bottom of the quarry and you can't grow trees in water! Keep an eye on the budget at the bottom of the screen as everything you choose costs money!
Not "Choose from landfill, industrial, or incinerator bottom ash reprocessing plant."

Who would have thought that a trade body, that counts amongst its successes:

MPA successfully lobbied the Government to freeze the rate of the aggregates levy for two years, saving the industry some £7 million in 2010/11,
MPA protected tens of millions of tonnes of potential site allocations in local development frameworks as a result of revised national guidelines for regional apportionment potentially worth hundreds of £ millions,
is influencing young minds in our schools, as well as the older ones in government?

Meanwhile, BBC Bitesize for GCSE geography takes a more balanced view, listing the pros:
Quarrying creates jobs in areas where there are limited opportunities.
There is a huge demand for the products of quarrying, such as building stone and cement. This is linked to the demand for new homes in the UK.
Quarrying provides income to local councils through taxation.
Good communications are needed for transporting the products of quarrying. As a result many remote rural areas benefit from improved access.
It is an important part of the UK economy. Over 30,000 people are employed in quarrying itself and related industries.
and the cons:
Wildlife habitats are destroyed.
Valuable agricultural land is taken away.
Quarrying creates pollution from noise and dust.
Heavy traffic causes pollution and congestion on narrow country roads. The vibrations from heavy traffic can cause damage to buildings.
Quarries create visual pollution and tourists may be deterred by the scars on the landscape.
Landfill sites and waste tips need to be monitored to check for a build up of gases, such as methane.
Limestone is a non-renewable resource -
 so it can be argued that quarrying is unsustainable.
If Straitgate was quarried, no new jobs would be created and the children of Ottery St Mary and West Hill would not enjoy any advantages. They would be the ones to suffer the disadvantages, and potentially the dangers too. Quarries are not only dangerous places for workers, the HSE identifying a "fatality rate over 20 times the all-industry average" and "potential for long-latency disease from exposure to respirable crystalline silica", but also for local youngsters, for whom a quarry presents a different set of dangers. The MPA has a "Stay Safe...Stay Out" campaign, and on Facebook it hopes that "by illustrating the tragic consequences of young people entering a quarry uninvited, this page hopes to raise public awareness of the potential hazards they expose themselves to. Every year young people are killed or seriously injured in quarries". It warns of a "sharp escalation" of break-ins and metal thefts, and that "trespassers often leave broken fences – and an open invitation for children in search of adventure". Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service recently issued their own warning.

Quarrying - an important part of the UK economy maybe, but - at a price.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Is AI attempting to disguise itself as a wildlife business?

Is Aggregate Industries now more concerned with wildlife than it is with quarrying or the local people whose lives it disrupts?

Those not so cynically minded might, on reading the press release Aggregate Industries form powerful new partnership to protect London's wildlife, be inclined to think that its main line of business was actually in wildlife, with a bit of readymix on the side. 

Does AI hope that by showing people pictures of butterflies and damselflies they might overlook just how environmentally unsustainable and destructive to natural habitats quarrying is?

No damselfly survives the onslaught of AI's earth-movers, and it's disingenuous of an aggregates company to feign a love of nature. AI showed no such concern in 2002 when it protested that "the decision to protect the birds, as well as what English Nature called 'a rich assemblage of dragonfly and damselfly' restricted its use of [Bramshill]."

The recent corporate video - "Biodiversity - a priority at Aggregate Industries" (with some clips of Blackhill Quarry) - seeks to show how seriously AI now takes biodiversity. In which case we can be assured that it will not quarry Straitgate Farm and put the bio-diverse wetland habitats in the Ancient Woodlands of Cadhay Bog and Cadhay Wood at risk. Or are AI's proclamations empty words, and "biodiversity protection and enhancement" not quite the "priority" it claims?

Friday, 5 October 2012

An opinion

A number of people may believe that because DCC has become quiet, gone back to have a rethink and delay its new Minerals Plan, that the threat at Straitgate Farm has receded, and the idea has been 'kicked into the long grass'. This is a dangerous view. We must not think for a moment that Aggregate Industries has given up on Straitgate - despite all the obstacles thrown up in the Consultation.

As far as AI is concerned, Straitgate is where they want to come next. Whether DCC has Straitgate as a Preferred Site or not. Whether DCC has its new Minerals Plan ready or not. AI still owns the site, the gravel is still there, Venn Ottery Quarry has a limited life, and DCC has identified - wrongly in our view - a shortfall in sand and gravel reserves before the end of its Plan in 2031. Having sat on Straitgate for nearly 50 years, AI will not give it up without a fight.

For them Straitgate is the cheapest option - dig a hole, haul the as-dug material across Woodbury Common, process it at the existing Blackhill Quarry, sell the hole afterwards for inert landfill. No new expensive plant to build, maintain a foothold in the area and keep Rockbeare supplied. Just carry on as it has at Venn Ottery. Current economics are not favourable for AI - as their workers have found out - and demand is low. They would find it difficult to justify a new plant, so processing at Blackhill may be their only viable option.

So, we must expect to be ready for a fight. The planning climate has swung in favour of the developer, and if we are to be in with a chance of defeating a multinational giant, with its barristers and consultants, we will need to be organised, funded, and ready with the arguments. Having long petitions and local Councillors and MPs onside is good and shows weight of public feeling, but will not ultimately influence an Inspector at a Planning Inquiry. It's all about the reasons why this is the wrong site from a planning point of view. Fortunately for the people of Ottery St Mary and West Hill there are substantial planning grounds on which to refuse an application to quarry Straitgate Farm - such as the impact on groundwater supplies, the impact on flooding, the impact on Ancient Woodland, the impact on airport safeguarding, the impact on the European protected Woodbury Common, the need not robustly demonstrated, the viability not demonstrated, the impact on Grade I and Grade II listed buildings, and so on.

Oh, and if AI applies for permission before a new Minerals Plan is in place it must overcome the hurdle of "For as long as adequate sand and gravel reserves (i.e. a minimum of seven years’ supply) continue to be present at the existing quarries, there are no grounds to allow their further extension or new quarries" specified by DCC's current Minerals Plan. Devon has over 16 years' supply.

Some may question what a campaign could achieve, but if run effectively, and Buckfastleigh and Chew Valley are good examples, it can make a difference. There's a multitude of substantive planning reasons why Straitgate Farm should not be quarried. It will be up to us to ensure the authorities recognise these.