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Will Howie Extracting the truth

Last week was Minerals 98 week, a ploy to show the quarry and mineral extraction industries in a good light. Why such a move was needed became evident in a Lords debate last Wednesday which probed the 'environmental damage caused by quarrying'.

To some sensitive souls, of course, any hole in the ground is an eyesore and, it has to be said, that is often true. But, speaking at the conference which launched Minerals 98, John Gummer, the now almost entirely green former Environment Secretary, reminded environmental enthusiasts of the need to adopt a holistic approach to the question of the extraction and use of minerals.

True enough, Gummer claimed that he did not like the word 'holistic', which shows that he is not yet entirely lost. What he meant was that both sides of the equation had to be taken into account, the point being that if people wanted minerals to use, they had to come from somewhere. That might seem obvious, but not to everyone.

For the most part, Peers avoided that trap and worried mostly about the impact of quarrying on national parks. It seems that about 10% of construction aggregates come from these and that there are a number of planning permissions for extraction outstanding, some of which go back 50 years or more. The feeling was that this state of affairs should be remedied and that there should be stiffer regulation of these permissions in future. That seems not unreasonable, as does the recurring chorus of demands for more recycling.

Though the tone of the debate was polite, there was a running thread of genteel hostility, countered only by Lord Glenarthur's plaintive assertions that 'no-one quarries for fun', and that 'there is nothing wrong in digging up the resources given to us on this earth'. He is, of course, perfectly correct, and that is where Gummer's holistic approach runs into trouble.

According to figures published a week or two ago by the British Geological Survey, about 40% of the materials used by the construction industry are mineral-based. These range from aggregates through bricks, cement and tiles to structural steel, glass, and even ceramic bathroom fittings. They have a combined value of some £20bn, which is a sizeable part of the economy.

The survey goes further than general figures, and provides a breakdown of such materials used in a small detached house with garage. More than 10t of sand are needed for mortar and concrete roof tiles; nearly 20t of clay are required for bricks; 5t or so of cement goes into mortar, ready-mix concrete and roof tiles; and a somewhat surprising 100t of aggregate in the shape of sand, gravel and crushed rock are needed for foundations and concrete blocks. What is more, these estimates do not include such things as drains or paving slabs.

As we all know, 4.4M households have to be accommodated in the 25 years from 1991 to 2016. Even if that is expressed more cosily by John Prescott as 176,000 homes a year, it still means that a lot of holes will have to be dug to meet the demand, even allowing for recycling.

The Lords were not wholly oblivious to such uncomfortable facts, but they did not dwell on them for long. Aware that something had to be done, they called for demand to be controlled, one going so far as to invoke the demise of 'predict and provide' in aid. But mostly, the speakers wanted better regulation, more recycling and, above all, a tax on mineral extraction. Since this is what is known affectionately as a 'green tax', people would not mind its imposition and it would have only beneficial consequences.

It is perhaps possible that pigs fly, but if they do they have not often been seen at it. Lord Glenarthur shot down any flying pigs easily enough by saying: 'If it is high enough as a tax, it will reduce consumption of aggregates. Prices will then soar to the detriment of the economy, the construction industry and jobs, damaging quality of life in the most direct way possible. Set at any other level, it will simply be a money-raising exercise by the Treasury.'

Even so, I shall be surprised if Gordon Brown does not come up with an extraction tax at some stage. After all, he needs the money and would probably like to display the bleeding heart which lies behind that Presbyterian countenance.

Meanwhile at Minerals 98, the quarrying industries issued a four point plan proposing a new policy for the National Parks. And this week, three of the industry's big hitters gave up their claims to quarry in Snowdonia, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. Will Friends of the Earth be pleased? I can hardly wait.

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