Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)

TUESDAY 7 DECEMBER 1999

DR DEREK LANGSLOW AND MR JONATHAN BURNEY

Mr Loughton

  140. Dr Langslow, you have obviously heard the questions we posed to the QPA, can I start with my question to them in terms of what your understanding is of the Government's aims and objectives of this tax, whether they have been properly communicated to the industry and the greater interested parties and how that compares with other proposed taxes such as the energy tax and landfill tax and pesticides tax?
  (Dr Langslow) I think that is a very difficult question for me to comment on because I do not know what the motivation behind the tax is beyond the fact that there are environmental externalities which are not presently covered and action needs to be taken. This is one of a series of taxes which has been proposed to try and address environmental externalities. Whether or not the Government has communicated it well, I do not know. We have been involved in a number of ways. We have been involved in discussions with the QPA over their package, over improvements to it and commenting through Government to them. We have also been involved directly with the QPA because, whatever happens, we have a large number of owners and occupiers of SSSIs within the minerals industry generally and we need to establish satisfactory co-operative arrangements with those owners and occupiers. We need to try and persuade them to improve further their environmental performance, whatever happens on other issues.

  141. You said in your Pre-Budget Report submission to us that the package, that is the QPA New Deal package, has the potential to tackle more issues than the tax and you therefore welcome this initiative since you believe partnership approaches between business and landowners are often the most effective way. On that basis, you are against the tax and have you communicated that to the Government?
  (Dr Langslow) No, we are not against the tax. We have remained of the view that there are a number of environmental issues to be addressed and there are a number of ways of addressing them, one of which is the tax. Our experience generally on SSSIs is that we deal with 32,000 owners and occupiers of SSSIs in England and that the most productive way of dealing with them is in partnership. We aim to gain their support and understanding of what the special interest is and why everyone values it and then to work with them to look after the individual piece of land in a way which safeguards that special interest. That may or may not involve payment from us or some other part of Government. It may involve just their own individual efforts, but our view is that it is far better to have a co-operative relationship with them than a hands-off, regulatory kind of "threaten with a big stick" relationship. This is, apart from the fact that there would be rather difficult, practical problems in dealing with that number of people if you are not dealing with them co-operatively.

  142. On the basis that you worked with QPA, as you say, to fine-tune their alternative package, if it were a choice between that package as they have enunciated it today and in their submissions, with various "guarantees" that it could be delivered along the lines Mr van der Byl was saying by his members, is it not the case that you would opt for that as opposed to the Government coming up with a broad based tax which appears to be the only thing on offer at the moment?
  (Dr Langslow) If the broad based tax did not produce recycled funds and there was no guarantee that all the funds raised by the tax would be recycled and spent on environmental issues, then we would think the tax was a bad idea. The package as published in July, is in our view, inadequate. We have pointed out to Government and to the QPA the inadequacies and they are primarily around some of the issues on SSSIs where we are seeking a greater commitment. If those new requirements were put in and the rest of the package was completed, and the targets were properly audited—and we believe the QPA is committed to that and I think they have made that clear today—then our view is that the environmental issues raised by this section of the minerals industry would be better addressed through the package.

  143. What you have said in your submission does not quite gel with what you are telling us now in that if you have got to come down on one side of the fence, and your advice to Government will have to be along those lines eventually, which side is it going to be? The key thing to you seems to be 100 per cent hypothecation and in the unlikely event that the Government granted 100 per cent hypothecation of an aggregates tax, would it then be your preference to go for that 100 per cent hypothecated tax over either the current New Deal or an enhanced New Deal along those lines? If that were the case, surely you would acknowledge that there are going to be some disbenefits from having compulsory tax over the voluntary agreements which the QPA has offered, and what are those disbenefits in terms of them not feeling obliged to do some of the things they have promised?
  (Dr Langslow) With respect, there are an awful lot of "ifs" in your question. The decision we finally take will be based on what is actually on offer. As I have said, the package as published in July is inadequate and needs to be improved. That is the first point. If the Government were to offer hypothecation and indicate how that money could be spent, then again that would be another question to address and one would need to compare. We are interested in the best option to address some of the environmental issues which arise. Until we can actually see the options set out exactly, then we cannot make that choice. I think it would be wrong of us to make the choice on unknowns. As regards your wider question, there clearly is some risk that if you have anybody who is coerced. They are less likely to be co-operative, and we would potentially lose on what I call "round the edges". I am sure the industry will do all the things they are required to do and they will continue to behave absolutely properly and we have seen no sign or indication that they would do otherwise, but many of them do extra things around the edges, and willingly do extra things. I suspect they would be less willing to do that if they felt they had been subjected to something which they thought was unfair.

  144. What are the examples of that? I think I would agree with that but what are the examples?
  (Dr Langslow) For example, in restoration schemes, they are often at the moment very amenable to putting in extra work to improve the wildlife benefits; in all kinds of restoration schemes they are prepared to fund extra activities, they sometimes sponsor other wildlife work, and I suspect they would be less likely to do that if they were taxed.

Joan Walley

  145. Mr Langslow, can I press you a bit further on that? Leaving aside the issue on hypothecation, in terms of how you would reach a decision on what would be the best way forward in terms of SSSIs what specific further things would you like the association to do to satisfy you on the SSSIs?
  (Dr Langslow) There are several things. The first is we want a commitment from them that they will not apply for new planning permissions on SSSIs unless the application will lead to no damaging effect on the special interest or there is some judgment by Government of an overriding public interest. Many of the SSSIs which are related to the minerals industry are ones which are geological sites and in which quarrying can often go on perfectly happily alongside the maintenance of the special interest. It is not a question that quarrying is bad for an SSSI necessarily, it depends on what it is. The second thing is that we want, with the industry to do a review of all of the dormant permissions. We want a commitment to that review with the aim of eliminating those dormant permissions where they adversely affect an SSSI. Thirdly, we would want a commitment from the operators who own a lot of land outside SSSIs that they would introduce management schemes on that land which would make a measurable contribution to the nature conservation interest in the local area. Fourthly, we would want to make sure that performance indicators are published and are audited.

  146. In respect of the Quarry Products Association can you envisage a situation where you might be dealing with companies who are not members of that Association and who therefore were not party to any agreement that you might wish to see as, perhaps, a way forward?
  (Dr Langslow) There is the problem with cheats in any system like this, that is one of the down sides of package or partnership agreements. I think there are several actions you can take. You can make sure that much of the use of these terms is through public contracts. You can certainly specify within those contracts that the bodies from which you take the material have to have met certain standards. I think you can also shame the industry into doing it as you can tighten the planning regulations. There is clearly a risk with cheats. One of the benefits of the tax is there cannot be any cheats. The QPA membership is very wide, particularly in England. It is slightly less wide, I understand, in other parts of the United Kingdom.

  147. In terms of what you just said, how would that tie up to the export market?
  (Dr Langslow) The export market would, again, need to be either regulated in some way—the export market is currently quite small—or you would seek, I guess, a European-wide regulation. There are difficulties, as I understand, on the taxation side relating to exports as well as with the import side and making sure that any system works adequately.

  148. Can I ask, finally, how you square that with the current lapsed discussions in respect of world trade?
  (Dr Langslow) I cannot possibly comment. All I have seen is newspaper and television reports. Clearly the economics of the industry is such that most of the supply is likely to be United Kingdom supply, unless, for some reason, the cost of supply within the United Kingdom becomes so high that you supply aggregates from outside the country. Certainly one of the things to be brought in is some real consideration of what the environmental costs are, what are the transport costs. It may or may not be economically viable to bring it in from Norway or Finland but what are the relative environmental costs between that and sourcing it in this country. That too needs to be a factor.

Mr Jones

  149. You heard the QPA answer a question that I asked about environmental impact and SSSIs by saying that they were only about a handful of SSSIs that there was a deleterious effect on and for special interest possibly only one. If that is the case, are we not using rather a huge sledgehammer to crack a very, very tiny nut? How much information do you have on the impact of quarrying on SSSIs and what are the results?
  (Dr Langslow) I do not think I heard the QPA quite say what you suggested but I think there is a lot of things in principle. There are towards 700 SSSIs which are related to the minerals industry, not all of those are aggregates sites. Of that 700 about 450 are sites of geological interest. It is unusual if there is a conflict between the geological special interest and the quarrying activity. Normally sensible negotiation can solve that without any problem. It is mostly the biological sites where there are some problems. Of that 700, 350 are disused sites, thus about half of them are disused sites. Some of them are very long disused, one of our best National Nature Reserves is Barnack Hills and Holes in the north part of Cambridgeshire, which is a wonderful limestone grassland. That quarry is eight centuries old and the holes are now Peterborough Cathedral. There is a huge range of issues in here. We have about 350 sites which are active and about half of those, about 180, have some issues to resolve. The 180 include all mineral sites not just aggregate sites. There are about 16 or about 10 per cent where we believe there is an extremely big problem that might lead to the need for revocation of the planning permission eventually. Nearly all the others can be solved in dialogue and we are steadily working away at that. Sometimes the management is not good enough, sometimes there are hydrological issues to be sorted, where we are working with the Environment Agency and the quarry operators to try and solve.

  150. It is three handfuls rather than one handful.
  (Dr Langslow) Yes. Those are the really acutely difficult ones where finding a negotiated solution is going to be very difficult because it would involve the companies concerned giving up considerable economic assets. Since they have been given permission by their local authorities, they naturally feel they should be entitled to use those resources.

  151. Should the Government be looking at other forms of regulation, rather than a taxation, to deal with that level of problem?
  (Dr Langslow) I think most of it could be dealt with by regulation on those particular sites, that is quite true. That is why I emphasised at the outset that it is a regulation-plus matter because we need the regulation, the existing regulation but there are also places where that could be tagged on. The minerals planning guidance review, that is coming up, is one of the opportunities to improve regulation.

  152. You also heard me ask the QPA about why we are taxing aggregates. They answered, particularly about limestone quarrying, that it could be producing all sorts of different end products. The environmental impact is on the extraction itself. I was particularly concerned that the environmental impact of coal open casting was at least as great, if not greater, than that of aggregates. What is English Nature's view about that?
  (Dr Langslow) That is one of the technical problems undoubtedly with the tax, when a particular quarry produces several different products, some of which would be taxed and some which would not. You could, I guess, still recycle the part that is taxed back into addressing the environmental externalities, but you are quite right, the environmental impact is the digging up process. Although again it is surprising how well hidden large quarries can sometimes be in practical terms. There are nevertheless major impacts because you have to move the aggregate stone away and often that is one of the most difficult things to cope with. In terms of coal, we are lucky in that most places where there is open casting of coal are not in areas of prime nature conservation interest and we have not had a significant issue with coal extraction in recent years. Certainly the environmental impacts in the wider sense are quite considerable and quite devastating sometimes, but they have not specifically been on issues related to SSSIs.

Joan Walley

  153. You seem to be making a distinction between the special value of the SSSIs and the biodiversity issues generally. Just a short while ago you were saying that you wanted proper auditing of what was happening. In terms of the general undermining of the biodiversity, is that not just as important?
  (Dr Langslow) No, the special sites are the high quality sites and generally speaking the "density of biodiversity" is much higher on those sites. That is why our prime interest is with them. What we are going to seek in areas outside the special sites is to maximise the opportunities. But in terms of the land involved in any of the mineral activities, it is minute compared to, say, the impact of agriculture which is a far, far more significant issue in terms of the biodiversity of England as a whole.

Dr Iddon

  154. You heard the discussion we had about the percentage figures for recycling, are you generally in agreement with what the QPA said in reply to my question?
  (Dr Langslow) This sounds like a good numbers game, which Mr Burney will help you on I hope.
  (Mr Burney) I think the interesting part of that conversation was on the recycling figures. The Rocky Logic report seems to suggest that there is 70 million tonnes of construction demolition waste arising per year and, if I understood Mr McLaughlin right, he was suggesting an ambitious but reasonable maximum target might be to use 60 million tonnes or more of that. So in terms of the recyclable material from construction and demolition waste, there seems to be a reasonable consensus about the long-term target although there is some dispute about the actual amount there is recycled at the moment. Where there seems to be much less consensus is on the amount of secondary materials which could be used and we are certainly conscious of the arguments that there are problems in the amount of these which can be used and the location of them. There seems to be much less consensus about the amount which can be used. Our understanding of the tax at the moment is that there will not be a distinction between secondary materials and primary materials in the rate of tax except for clay wastes, so that is a consideration as well.

  155. Nevertheless, do you see there is a possibility of reducing the demand for primary aggregates significantly?
  (Dr Langslow) It depends how significant is significant. There is undoubtedly room to increase the recycling although we are aware that there are some practical problems, less from the nature conservation side than from the fact that the material for recycling will tend to arise in urban areas and unless you are going to spend a lot of money transporting it you need to recycle it in the urban areas. That is sometimes not very popular for those who live nearby. Undoubtedly the recycling percentage can go up a little and I think we largely accept the figures which have been quite widely promulgated both by independent commentators and by the QPA that probably the 20 to 25 per cent band is about as high as it will ever go.

  156. When it came to the question of mining waste and fly ash, I got the feeling that the QPA reckoned that most of that material was back-filled on site and was not tipped above ground level or transferred to another landfill site. Is that your understanding?
  (Dr Langslow) I am afraid I am not familiar with the arguments about where the waste goes.

  157. Do you think the landfill tax is at too low a level so that it does not encourage recycling of aggregates material?
  (Dr Langslow) I do not think so. There was some discussion in the previous session about china clay and those who have ever visited Cornwall will have seen the huge quantities of material, but even if it had a highly beneficial use, it is an awful long way to carry it to South East England. So even if it has a beneficial use, it is difficult to move around. So most of it I think will be put back in the holes from which it came.

  158. The Government have set targets for secondary and recycled aggregates. Do you agree with what the QPA said this morning, that they are well up beyond those targets? Have you any feel for that?
  (Dr Langslow) I do not have a feel for it. Certainly the numbers that we have seen in comparison with European countries suggests that they are doing quite well, but equally there is clearly a lot of material not yet recycled and there is secondary material not yet used. One would hope that there will be continuing pressure to increase the proportions used. I am not familiar enough with the building industry to know what can be done for example in altering the specifications for construction which would enable more of it to be used more easily or would change the economic balance. I am afraid I do not know enough about those areas to offer a useful comment.

  159. Do you have any comments to make about the fact that recycling of secondary aggregates has an environmental impact in itself, for example on the rural landscape?
  (Dr Langslow) Yes, the recycling undoubtedly has an impact. One of the major ones is going to be the transport impact. As I said, a lot of the recycled material will often arise in urban areas, or peri-urban areas, and you need to have the recycling plant close to where the material is generated, because you do not want to spend a lot of time and money moving it around. The environmental impacts of moving it are quite considerable, both in terms of CO2 emissions as well as the more obvious impacts of lorry movements. The road impacts and all the other things which arise from that, will largely be from lorry movements. Because of the nature of where recycled material arises, the chances of involving rail transport are very limited.


 
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