Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 166)

TUESDAY 7 DECEMBER 1999

DR DEREK LANGSLOW AND MR JONATHAN BURNEY

  160. May I apologise for having to withdraw at this stage?
  (Dr Langslow) You may indeed, Dr Iddon.

Mr Gerrard

  161. You made very clear your view that the tax ought to be hypothecated. Are you essentially saying that you do not think that price signals in the tax would have much impact or that it would have to be set at a very high level to have any price impact?
  (Dr Langslow) It does not seem to us it will have much impact because it is largely an industry which reacts to demand. While it might have marginal effects, and it might have marginal effects on the use of secondary material, it will have quite small effects in our view. The other thing is the question whether it will make behaviourial change. The tax in itself will not, I think it is regulatory systems which are more likely to do that or the commitment of the companies themselves.

  162. So what would be the argument in favour of the tax? Purely that it provided some money for environmental schemes?
  (Dr Langslow) I think that would be the main potential benefit as we would see it. If the purpose of the tax is to address the environmental impacts in some way, which are not otherwise addressed, you need to recycle the tax money. We would be looking for it to be used on issues like the revocation of planning permissions which are potentially damaging on SSSIs, on producing schemes to manage local transport better, on providing grants for education and training initiatives, for doing research on important issues and so on. It is those kind of issues which we would look at the tax to be used for.

  163. You said that the impact varies from site to site, obviously, and you have mentioned geological sites where there might be completely different issues to be addressed from sites which were essentially biological sites. How do you start to measure that? In Professor Pearce's report he suggested that phasing out seven quarries located in national parks would do as much as a tax levied on all the rest. Is that a fair comparison?
  (Dr Langslow) I am not sure I would entirely share that view. What we would look for is what is the impact on an individual site and how scarce is that particular mineral resource. Is it a re-creatable interest nature conservation, for example? Some of the sites which have resulted from sand and gravel extraction have become very fine wetland sites of great wildlife interest and are enjoyed by lots of people, and those have often generated their wildlife interest over a 20 or 25 year period. So you can say that if, for some reason, you wanted the particular land for re-use at those gravel pits, then you could dig some more gravel pits nearby and the interest will develop in those. So in that sense, it is re-creatable. If you take an ancient woodland or you take a prime piece of limestone grassland, that is essentially un-recreatable. Once you have taken it, it is gone, it is using up your environmental capital. We would say that is a place you should not quarry, you should find another place to take your mineral resources from. By looking at the individual sites like that you can make a judgment about what the quality is of the nature conservation interest that you might be taking. Is it essentially irreplaceable? If it was, then you should say there are almost no circumstances you should quarry that. One has to add in there a potential overriding public interest, one which Government might have. One is essentially saying irreplaceable assets should not be taken, whereas there are other kinds that are recreatable. One can do more imaginative things with those sites, where change is allowable, and then you might be able to achieve the net benefit for wildlife interest.

Mr Gerrard

  164. How do you start to measure those benefits? If we do go for a voluntary agreement you said you would like to see indicators built in, can you give us some idea of what those indicators might be?
  (Dr Langslow) With the SSSIs, it is relatively straightforward because what one would look to do is have an agreed site management statement for every SSSI. That would have a series of targets by which you would know whether or not the special interest was being maintained. If you take other sites then you might find that a particular plant or animal was a key feature and you take steps to measure annually, or whatever, often in partnership with some local interest groups, what those interests are. You can then make a measurement about whether or not the wildlife is doing well and you couple that to the agreed actions that need to be taken on the site. You check the two processes. You can quite easily do that side by side. It is not, in our view, difficult, either bureaucratically or in principle.

  165. Have you tried do any estimate of the environmental benefits of a tax? Again, the report that was done by the QPA said a value of 32 million was their estimate of the environmental financial benefits; have you looked at that figure?
  (Dr Langslow) Not really, no. We have not looked at the numbers. Our concern, as I have emphasised, is to look to seek what is the best option for the environmental interest that we represent, that is particularly the wildlife and geological conservation. A tax, providing the money is recycled, can buy a number of benefits. The alternative is to go for a package where there is a voluntary agreement with audited targets which provides a commitment by the companies, and in effect money, because the money is provided in other ways, a part of it is in their fund. Doing a lot of other things will cost them money as well and that has to be fitted in with their business.

  166. If we went for a voluntary agreement what changes do you think would be needed alongside that in terms of regulatory regimes?
  (Dr Langslow) We need to make sure that when Mineral Planning Guidance 6 comes along, the planning issues are tightened up so that they are consistent with the kind of actions that we are asking for in the package. The hydrological matters are reasonably well catered for with the current Environment Agency regulations. There may be other issues, if you like, in the wider environmental sphere on noise, and so forth. We would also look for some of the transport matters. In terms of sustainability we would look for efficiency in the way the transport system is run, so that it minimises the amount of CO2 used per tonne moved. That would be in addition to the specifics on SSSIs.





 
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