A plan for UK minerals

An annual survey of the British minerals sector argues that planning authorities need a clear plan from the government if they are to ensure an adequate supply of aggregates


  • Mark North

18 October 2019

© Mineral Products Association

Sales of sand and gravel continue to outstrip the amount of new reserves being permitted, according to the Mineral Products Association (MPA)'s 7th Annual Mineral Planning Survey Report 2018. The data is derived from confidential information provided by MPA members around Britain and the annual aggregate working party (AWP) reports, and it found that aggregates demand was broadly flat in 2017 compared to 2016. The survey's objective is to see how efficient the mineral planning system is by assessing the interface between mineral operators and the mineral land use planning system.

The latest survey has been produced in the context of a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and confirms that the ten-year average replenishment rate decreased to 53 per cent. In other words, for every 100 tonnes of sand gravel sold in Britain, only 53 tonnes is replaced by new consents. During 2017, new sand and gravel consents were even lower than this decade-long average, making up just 24 per cent of the year's sales. The ten-year average for crushed rock fell to 69 per cent, with new reserves permitted representing just three per cent of 2017 sales.

Other findings include the following
  • Sales: total sales of land-won sand and gravel, not including marine-dredged material, decreased by 1.4 per cent in 2017, while sales of crushed rock increased by 0.5 per cent. On balance, demand for land-won aggregates was stagnant during 2017.
  • Numbers of planning applications: there has been a slight increase in submissions for sand and gravel in 2017 at a total of 15 sites, compared to 13 in 2016; the majority are to extend existing operations. The number of crushed rock applications decreased by one, while 19 applications were made for time extensions and similar arrangements, compared to 23 in 2016.
  • Appeals: for the first time in several years, MPA members recorded two appeals against applications for planning permission for new working refused by mineral planning authorities in 2017.
  • Number of planning decisions: the number of determinations for mineral applications continues to be relatively low – a total of ten approvals and five refusals across sand, gravel, and crushed rock sites, compared to the heights of 2008–09, when determinations were made on more than 30. The highest number of refusals since 2003 were also made in 2017.
  • Time taken to obtain permission: it takes 29.4 months to secure permission for sand and gravel reserves and 29.9 months for crushed rock reserves, based on a ten-year average. The data for 2017 suggests that sand and gravel determinations were four months shorter than those in 2016.
  • Numbers of core strategies or development plans adopted: the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 required full plan coverage to be in place within three years. However, as of August 2018, only 80 per cent of English and 88 per cent of Welsh local planning authorities had an adopted core strategy or local plan.
  • Plan allocations: in the ten years to 2017, 44 per cent of all new permissions issued were for sites that had not been allocated in mineral plans.

While the revision of the NPPF reinforced the essential role of minerals supply in meeting the government's housing and infrastructure policy ambitions, the long-term downward trends in replenishment rates identified by MPA underline the fact that the supply of critical minerals cannot be assumed.

It is increasingly evident that the managed aggregate supply system (MASS), which is meant to ensure steady and adequate supply, is struggling to perform. A key factor is the continued failure of the government to update guidelines so as to provide a clear and strategic statement of future need or construction aggregates. Without this, there is greater risk of underprovision thanks to subjective local interpretation of what constitutes need.

The local aggregates assessment process, while intended to forecast future mineral needs, is actually backwards-looking, most often based only on past, recessionary sales figures. This may result in a spiral of declining planned provision and site allocations, fewer applications and permissions, and diminishing sales. A clear national statement of need is therefore required for construction aggregates in England and Wales.

In the absence of government forecasts, the MPA has produced Long-term aggregates demand & supply scenarios, 2016–30, which indicates that between 3bn and 4bn tonnes of construction aggregates are likely to be required by 2030 to support economic growth and development across Britain, the majority of which will be primary sand, gravel and rock.

Securing the supply of these materials will require positive planning and active management, supported by data to monitor supply and demand and ensure the proper resources are made available in the right place and at the right time. AWPs play a critical role in coordinating MASS but have no long-term basis for their operation, which significantly reduces their effectiveness. Because of cuts at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, the working parties' funding is uncertain, as is the future of key surveys such as the Aggregate Mineral Survey for England & Wales.

"Securing the supply of these materials will require positive planning and active management"

Despite these challenges, there are some grounds for optimism. The recent publication of the government's Industrial Strategy: Construction Sector Deal explicitly acknowledges the importance of mineral products in the wider supply chain for housing and infrastructure development. This is reinforced by the minerals and mineral products industry's UK Minerals Strategy, which sets out the steps needed to ensure that society's demands can be met sustainably over the next 25 years.

The government's response to the NPPF consultation suggests there is a growing awareness that supply of aggregates needs to be planned, monitored and managed, all of which require strong direction. A well-supported, forward-looking MASS is vital if mineral planning authorities are to plan in good time for mineral demand and to give the industry the confidence to invest and meet that demand.

Mark North is director of planning – aggregates and production at the MPA

Related competencies include: Minerals management, Planning and development management

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