Thursday, 28 November 2013

Things on the up for aggregates, yet the MPA complains as fiercely as ever

Nothing is ever good enough for the Mineral Products Association. When it is not extolling its members’ virtues as nature’s champions, it is moaning about something or other not being right, and this time it’s a long-winded diatribe about the planning system not working in favour of its multinational friends. The MPA sees problems ahead:
Permitted reserves of sand and gravel are in serious decline and planning authorities are putting too much effort into reducing potential future supply rather than getting on with the business of adopting robust mineral plans.
Which is ridiculous, because in a sustainable society we should of course be looking at ways of limiting extraction of virgin material, leaving something for the next generation. The MPA continues:
With too few plans, low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates, increasing costs, and planning inertia fuelling uncertainty we are storing up supply problems… we need the industry and planning and regulatory systems to be pulling in the same direction...
In other words, "why can't planners and regulators be in our pockets”? Regulatory systems are precisely that, to regulate and control, not to "pull in the same direction". But the strange thing is, MPA members don’t seem to be complaining of planning problems. Things are actually looking good for the aggregates industry at the moment. When Breedon Aggregates gave a trading update on Tuesday, there was no mention of "planning inertia". In fact, after buying some of AI’s assets earlier in the year, it seems to be doing rather well:
The Group's trading performance has been very encouraging and pre-tax profits for the full year to 31 December 2013 are expected to be somewhat ahead of market expectations... Sales volumes of aggregates, ready-mixed concrete and asphalt are all ahead year-on-year in both England and Scotland, assisted by contributions from our acquisitions of Aggregate Industries' operations in Northern Scotland... Against this backdrop, we have reason to be optimistic about the coming year and remain confident of making further progress in 2014.
And when BDS Marketing Research forecasts a 5% rise in demand in the UK aggregates market in each of the next three years, it did not mention "low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates” impeding growth rates, “storing up supply problems". What BDS did remind us is that: "This is now a market of four leading national players, with Lafarge Tarmac, Hanson, Aggregate Industries and CEMEX having around two-thirds of the market". Which means these companies are more than able enough to look after themselves. It is the people, the wildlife, the landscape that do not have the backing of trade groups and corporate finance that need help.

What must be remembered is that the MPA represents its members, nobody else. It needs to keep complaining to justify its existence and the fees it extracts from its members. If all was “well” the MPA would cease to exist. The MPA ought to get real. In this populated island, councils can’t just assign future quarries willy-nilly. Planning is a complicated and time-consuming business, local people must be consulted and have a right of reply. And rightly so. Without planning controls, land-grabbing cement conglomerates would trample all over the landscape. In any case, aggregate companies will apply for planning permission whether there’s a landbank of 15 years or 3 years. And environmental considerations are rightly higher on the agenda than they were in the heady quarrying days of old.

Maybe if there is an issue, it is not with planning authorities but with mineral companies for not spelling out the benefits of quarrying, for not getting communities on board before applying for planning permission, for making their proposals so damaging to people and environment, for taking so much and giving nothing back. Aggregate Industries is preparing to apply for planning permission for Straitgate Farm shortly. Has AI been out selling the idea, convincing people, making the case that what is good for Aggregate Industries is also good for Ottery St Mary?

Perhaps the MPA should put its own house in order before blaming the planning system.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

How Aggregate Industries supports the communities it works in

For a company that impacts the environment and local people wherever it goes, Aggregate Industries, a major international company with wealthy Swiss parentage and sales of c.£1billion, should be able to afford significant and meaningful donations to communities to offset the harm it causes.

At least you would have thought so. But in 2011 the amount AI gave back to communities was less than 2p in every £100 of sales. And it’s getting worse. It’s almost the end of 2013 and AI has only just published its community donations and support data for 2012. It's easy to see why AI was in no rush - donations have halved. Is AI really doing so very badly that this is the most it can find to donate to communities and local projects? £82k - less than 1p in every £100 sales. An accountant's rounding error. A crumb off the directors' table. 

Here’s what AI’s “Community Plan” claims: "All communities can expect to have a part of the Aggregate Industries PIE” - Participation, Investment, Engagement with local communities. Did AI forget the ‘I’ in 2012, or did the £82k simply satisfy the company's tick box exercise?

Oh, and what happened to Open Days in 2012? See our quarry, speak to our staff, understand what we do. Not any more. Any wonder why local people object to AI proposals?

Here’s what Holcim paid its CEO in 2012: CHF 4,950,494, or about £3,373,000. Compare the compensation to one man vs. the compensation to one country. Does AI feel ashamed? It should.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Dormice are sleeping

Dormice across the county, including in the hedgerows of Straitgate Farm, are now hibernating for the winter, but at least there are some people speaking up for them. Earlier this week it was pleasing to learn that someone had the right idea, someone valued nature, when an 11 year old girl spoke up for the endangered species at a planning meeting at Mid Devon District Council in relation to an application to erect a wind turbine.
Devon represents something of a stronghold of the dormouse in Britain, and we therefore have a particular responsibility to ensure that the County continues to provide a home for this fascinating little mammal. Fragmentation of woodlands, caused by either built development such as roads or agricultural clearance, results in isolated, non-viable populations of dormice, with little opportunity for re-colonisation (particularly problematic if hedges which connect woodlands are no longer present). Short distances, possibly as little as 100m, form absolute barriers to dispersal, unless arboreal routes are available to dormice... indirect evidence, from the losses of hedgerow length and declines in quality of hedgerows and woodlands that have occurred in the County over the past few decades, indicates that dormice have probably declined in a similar fashion.
Dormice, a European Protected Species, are rightly part of the planning process, and yet numbers are still declining as their habitat - ancient woodland and hedgerows - is being destroyed. Aggregate Industries will now have to jump additional planning hurdles if it is to quarry Straitgate and rip up two miles of ancient hedgerows, and will need to convince Natural England that:
The consented operation must be for “preserving public health or public safety or other imperative reasons of overriding public interest including those of a social or economic nature and beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment”; and
There must be “no satisfactory alternative”; and
The action authorised “will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the population of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range"
Here's the extensive Dormouse Mitigation Plan that was required by Mill Water School, in connection with its relocation to Bicton College. A new main school and sports hall will be built. The site of the hall was thought to be habitat for dormice, although as of September none had been found.

AI's plans for Straitgate are of course hundreds of times the area of a sports hall. Note again the three Natural England tests above. Note the "and" between each one...

Friday, 8 November 2013

A thought for the trees

The trees don't feature on Aggregate Industries' plans for Straitgate - they are just something else to strip away before any quarrying can begin. They do however feature prominently on the landscape. The photograph above shows just some of the trees that would be lost, some of the farmland that would be lost, and some of the hedgerows that would be lost if AI had its way. Here's another view:

The trees also feature in the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre report of 2001:
Straitgate Farm… contains a large number of mature 'veteran' oaks... Old trees, because of their age and rarity, create a diversity of microhabitats supporting a range of species, including many invertebrates, fungi, epiphytes and lichens. Several of these are specialist species and consequently rare… Holes in rotting wood are also good as roost sites for bats. The fact that there are several of these trees in a small area increases their conservation value, as they provide more niches and habitats for specialist species.
By our reckoning, at least 11 substantial mature trees would need to be felled by AI. Another 7 veteran oaks would be at risk by being in an area AI think fit to use for the dumping of soils and overburden.

The ancient oaks and hedgerows provide habitats for European Protected Species, bats and dormice. And since dormice act as an important ‘bio indicator’, "preferring to live in rich, well managed native woodland with a mix of species for seasonal food - its presence is a marker of woodland rich for many species of wildlife", it wouldn't be just the trees that would be lost.

"Trust us", AI would argue, "your rich and ancient wildlife habitats are in safe hands. We, and our industry, protect and enhance biodiversity throughout the country."

No "Welcome" sign to Britain’s newest "National Park" here

We recently commented on Britain’s new "National Nature Park", the one proudly announced by the Mineral Products Association. Aggregate Industries' Blackhill Quarry on Woodbury Common is one of the 50 sites that make up this new Park.

Local people may ask "What's changed?" What new access points? What new nature trails? What new signage, hides, visitor centres? People will be disappointed. As far as can be seen, nothing has changed; the East Devon Way runs through the middle of the site as before. There's no "Welcome" sign to this new National Nature Park, just these:

The MPA was right - this National Park is just a “web based concept”, not part of the real world at all. Here's where you can find Britain's real National Parks

Monday, 4 November 2013

It's a question of trust

Could local people trust Aggregate Industries if it were ever permitted to quarry Straitgate Farm? Trust it to act within its planning conditions? Trust it not to harm water supplies? Trust it not to harm ancient woodland or European Protected Species? Trust it to restore the site as agreed? Trust it not to attempt to get permission for something else, not sell it and walk away from its obligations? Local people would have to take a lot on trust.

What happened when the people of Boston trusted AI? It was an episode AI no doubt wants to forget. It was called the "Big Dig", and became the most expensive highway project in the US. AI was the main concrete contractor. AI didn't deliver what it promised it would. There's no need to reproduce all the salient facts here - the headlines are all over the internet for anybody who cares to look. Here are a few to give the gist of the story:

Boston's "Big Dig" ended up with leaks and lawsuits. How would a Big Dig in Ottery St Mary end up? Would you trust this multinational to look after Ottery, its inhabitants and its landscape? A multinational that supplied 5000 loads of defective concrete for tunnels and sea walls.