Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 91 - 99)




  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.

Mr McCabe

  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 consulted?
  (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.

Mr Clarke

  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 aggregates—using alternative materials or buying from across the border. I suppose that it is that specific option

  that you are driving at.

  97. Yes.
  (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 Ireland—and 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.

Mr Tynan

  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.

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