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.