Examination of Witnesses (Questions 91
WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
91. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you very
much for coming to see us and answer our questions. It would be
very helpful if each of you would identify yourself before speaking
so that your voice is recognised for the broadcast transcript.
May I begin by asking you about the environmental costs and benefits?
Perhaps you could tell us what you perceive to be the costs and
benefits of aggregate production in Northern Ireland?
(Mr Woods) Thank you. My name is John Woods. I am
head of campaigns and development for Friends of the Earth (Northern
Ireland). My colleague, Dr Tim Jenkins, who is our expert on these
issues for Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)
unfortunately is unable to be with us today because he is giving
evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee in Portcullis House
as we speak, otherwise he would be here. He is our expert on the
more specialised questions. However, we will certainly do our
best to answer those questions.
(Mr Allison) My name is Declan Allison. I am a volunteer
with Friends of the Earth. As to the environmental costs and benefits
of aggregate extraction, I can talk about the environmental costs
but I am unsure about what the environmental benefits are. There
would be the obvious costs of the creation of dust and noise associated
with transport issues such as pollution on the roads, dirt from
them and so on. These are relatively short-term issues that can
be dealt with by appropriate management schemes suitable technologies
and so on. There would also be longer-term costs which, as we
see it, would probably the most important costs. They could be
hidden costs that currently are not internalised by the aggregates
industry.such things as loss of landscape, biodiversity
and amenity. We would see the amenity cost as a longer-term matter
as regards rural and other communities' ability to diversify into
more sustainable economic activities. We see quarrying as a long-term
threat to those alternatives. Those, I think, would be the costs.
92. You see no benefits at all?
(Mr Allison) Well, obviously there would be the benefits
for employment, for the provision of building materials. I am
not sure about the environmental benefits.
93. Are you in a position to quantify the direct
and indirect costs associated with aggregates extraction and also
with aggregates recycling?
(Mr Allison) The costs are difficult to quantify because
of loss of landscape, biodiversity and amenity, as I explained.
GDP does not measure those types of things. So I am uncertain
about how to begin to quantify them. Perhaps my colleague has
some ideas on that.
(Mr Woods) It is difficult in terms of long-term irreversible
costs. It is something about which a political judgment has to
be made rather than a direct economic calculation.
94. I noticed that Friends of the Earth said
that they are not entirely happy with, or had problems with, the
research methods that the Treasury employed. Are you able to suggest
an alternative approach?
(Mr Woods) Our main concern about that was that, as
we understand it, that research did not extend to Northern Ireland,
therefore that Northern Ireland's situation has not been taken
into account. We are at one with many people in that belief. It
is clear that with our unusual position of having a land border,
some research should have been done in Northern Ireland to take
account of this.
95. So it is not the methodology that is the
problem, it is your feeling that Northern Ireland was not adequately
(Mr Woods) Exactly. I imagine that my colleague Dr
Jenkins might have made some detailed points about the methodology
but as far as I am aware we had no particularly strong reservations
about the methodologies used.
Chairman: Perhaps it is helpful for me to say
that if your colleague wishes to present us with additional information
in written form, he is free to do so.
96. My question follows on from the question
from Mr McCabe. One of the supposed benefits is obviously that
if a levy were imposed it could lead to a reduction in demand
for what are often called virgin aggregates, and, it is hoped,
more demand for recycled products. But the point that you made
about the problems of the land border in your reply to Mr McCabe
suggest that it is less likely that virgin products would not
be used because people would source from across the border. Can
you comment on how confident your organisation is of the success
in reducing demand for virgin aggregates if the levy is imposed?
(Mr Woods) As an organisation we believe strongly
that if the levy is spread across the United Kingdom there will
be considerable benefit, We agree with the Chancellor about that.
But a user of virgin aggregates in Northern Ireland probably has
three options: he can use less by being more resource efficient,
and he can use recycled aggregate or an alternative product. So
with virgin aggregates I do not see problems of displacement.
On the question of the secondary, processed product, the options
open would, I suppose, be to use less of the product by being
more productive, being resource efficient by using a product made
from recycled aggregatesusing alternative materials or
buying from across the border. I suppose that it is that specific
that you are driving at.
(Mr Woods) We feel that this must be the subject of
further study. One of our suggestions for removing that threat
would be some negotiation with the Government of the Republic
to see whether they would be interested in implementing a similar
measure, thereby creating a level playing field. After all, tax
harmonisation was one of the issues to be dealt with by institutions
established under the Good Friday agreement to consider, so it
seems reasonable. So far we have had a negative response from
both the Treasury and the Minister for Finance and Personnel.
98. So, as a Northern Ireland organisation,
are you saying that in the absence of an agreement by the Govt
of the Republic, you would have less confidence in the levy's
ability to reduce use of virgin aggregates in Northern Ireland
than in the rest of the UK?
(Mr Woods) Certain matters such as what effect the
border will have, especially on the migration of jobs, are unknown
quantities at present. All that is very unclear. At the moment,
the research that everyone is relying on is that carried out by
the industry association rather than that done by the DETR which,
as far as we know, did not extent to Northern Irelandand
so far as we know, the Northern Ireland department has not done
its own research. In the absence of this latter research, I am
reluctant to draw firm conclusions. Clearly there are real concerns
and real arguments to be made, but at some point I should like
to talk about the jobs implications and about some of the claims
made about jobs migration.
99. You suggested that you do not know whether
there is a case for delaying implementation of the aggregate tax.
Is that dependent upon Northern Ireland's taking a decision, or
do you see that as a different problem?
(Mr Woods) I think that we would see that as a different
problem. It would certainly help if the Republic were to announce
its intention to consider it. Present evidence is not sufficiently
compelling to allow us to decide that we should delay implementation
of the tax in Northern Ireland until that happens. That might
take some time; the debate on the issue has not yet really got
going in the Republic, if at all. In our view, there is as yet
no argument for postponing implementation, but that is because
we are considering this with so little evidence, no independent
research having been done.