Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 189)




  180. Do you mean they do not have enough people to monitor this but otherwise they are sensible and excellent arrangements?
  (Mr Burton) Yes. Minerals planning is an under-resourced element of the local planning authorities, and enforcement and monitoring is an under-resourced element of minerals planning. That is a key gap which we believe could be addressed through the revenue. There is also, as has been recognised, a need for substantial new research in some of these key areas. One of the blockages to the elasticity of demand could be that we are lacking research to explore some of those issues in the way the Government has actually addressed them in relation to other economic instruments. So there are opportunities there for using the money in a positive way to target the use of the revenue to meet the precise reasons why the levy or the tax has been placed in the first place.

Mr Jones

  181. Do you not have any concerns that a taxation system would not distinguish between quarrying which was having a much more deleterious effect and other quarrying which was not having a particularly deleterious effect; you are simply taxing the aggregates? I asked the other two sets of witnesses this question. You are only taxing aggregates which are coming out of the ground, you are not taxing the process of quarrying, but it is the process of quarrying which is causing the environmental impact and it causes at least as much environmental impact whether it is quarrying aggregates or quarrying something else.
  (Mr Jenkins) On the issue of what role the tax has to play, within the package the role of the tax is not aimed specifically at your first point, looking at where those actual quarries are. The other part of the package is that the planning system is precisely designed to do that. The new elements of the package which the tax will give would be able (a) to provide that incentive through the price mechanism and (b) be able to provide some of its revenue to be hypothecated back, to maybe increase the elasticity and therefore enhance that effect. In terms of how wide the tax should go, if you take the case of opencast you can see how other parts of the package with recent changes and with now no presumption for opencast mining has been one of the mechanisms to actually squeeze down on opencast. Secondly, it should be said that Richard Caborn did say, when he was in charge, they were not ruling out being able to expand the tax at a future point to cover other operations.

Mr Gerrard

  182. Just following up on that point that has just been raised, how sensitive can a tax be made to deal with local issues where you have significant differences between both sides?
  (Mr Burton) I do not think that a tax makes a difference to that. I think that is precisely why the tax has to be in combination with other measures which are size and place sensitive, particularly the land use planning system. The tax is not a solution to the local problems which we have heard about. It is not a solution to the damage being done to SSSIs. There are other mechanisms which we need to do that. The tax is about bringing a base expectation up to recognising that this is a valuable resource which is not being accounted for effectively in the current regulations and which need to be addressed.
  (Mr Jenkins) That is not to say we do not believe that outside of tax there are things that should happen in the regulatory package to actually give greater protection to Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

  183. What specifically would you like to see as changes in the regulations?
  (Mr Burton) Much stronger planning presumptions against the development of SSSIs and a whole series of measures in relation to designated landscapes. The lack of primary legislation on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks is a case in point. We need to value these environmental resources in wildlife or landscape terms much more effectively. This will have an impact on a whole range of issues, of which mineral extraction will be one.
  (Ms Chambers) There are two forthcoming opportunities with which the Government has to take these regulatory improvements forward, one is MPG 6, and as we mentioned a policy issues paper is coming out soon. There the Government has a very real opportunity to improve the regulatory framework. The other is the Countryside Access and Conservation Bill, which will have very important measures of SSSI management in it. Two opportunities there for the Government to look at this issue in the not too distant future.

  184. How far should we be concentrating on SSSIs? How far should we be thinking more widely about national parks?
  (Mr Burton) I think there is a danger in all this debate of just focusing on areas which you define on a map, draw a red line around and say, these areas are special and the rest by implication is not. The point of the aggregates tax is precisely that it recognises the wider environmental issues at stake. That is not to say those special areas do not need strong protection and could be better addressed. The tax is not the solution to the problems that they face. They will benefit, as will other areas, from a tax but the other areas need the uplift as well.

  185. Do you think that means that the DETR have, perhaps, underestimated the environmental costs because of concentrating on certain areas?
  (Mr Burton) Undoubtedly. They explicitly recognise the benefits of the countryside to non-residents outside designated areas, where minerals extraction takes place, are not accounted for in their estimate of £380 million. It is a very modest assumption which the DETR presented for the environmental costs of extraction. That is a baseline which is still way above what current regulation is addressing.
  (Ms Chambers) If I can add on that, some wildlife and countryside local members feel that English Nature is being slightly over optimistic in terms of its estimations for damage to SSSIs. There is a very clear need here for proper and more thorough research to be done on that and for that to be agreed between all of the main parties. There is disagreement about that, certainly from our members. In terms of national parks, one fact to leave with the Committee, national parks actually occupy 10 per cent of the land area of England and Wales and actually provide 10 per cent of the United Kingdom's construction aggregates as well, so they are suffering a fairly heavy burden. It is absolutely right for us to be looking at them as special areas but as Mr Burton says, that should not be at the expense of the wider countryside.

Mr Jones

  186. Just one question, would you not see something perverse in putting a tax on all quarrying when some quarrying could actually enhance and increase the biodiversity of an area which the quarry was put in?
  (Mr Burton) No.

  187. Have you any argument other than an assertion?
  (Mr Burton) The wider benefits of the tax are clear, in our view. The problems of designing such a sophisticated tax instrument which would be able to respond to that are too great. The benefits for that site and for other sites can be achieved in other ways, not least through revenues that are being raised so we can compensate for any perverse impacts that the tax might have.

  188. Thank you. Your purpose in coming here is to persuade us of your view that there are wider benefits of the tax system.
  (Mr Jenkins) I think the wider benefit of the tax, the matter that adds to the package of measures the Government has in front of it, is that it is able to use price mechanisms to actually achieve that prudent use or start to achieve the prudent use of its natural resources. It actually provides a signal for the industry to be able to manoeuvre itself. On the point about whether the Government has communicated the purpose of the tax, there have been points within this particular tax where that has not been clear. I do not believe any government could have been clearer saying, actually the objective of this tax is, within the package of whatever we are doing, to manoeuvre those changes within aggregates supply, increasing recycled, reducing primary and that it will be able to augment many of the policies already in place. There is lot to be said for that, it augments the land-fill tax, quite clearly, in making those linkages. That is what, I think, when the Chancellor says they have been persuaded that it will deliver, that is what it is delivered on. The problem has been that in the design that takes into account some of these issues, there has not been a point where we have been able to debate exactly what was on the table. I think, undoubtedly, it presents itself as a new element in reducing the environmental impact of the quarrying.

Mr Loughton

  189. Can I confirm, you are in favour of a flat rate tax, a broadbrush tax, which would appear to be all that is on offer from the Government at the moment, which would make no distinction between cowboy quarriers and, your words, the modern, grown-up, environmentally-conscious quarrier?
  (Mr Burton) Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. We have to draw the session to an end. Thank you for a very forceful presentation.

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