Evaluate the environmental impacts of aggregates within designated areas
Superimposed on the geology of England is a network of sites and areas of national, European and even global value where new proposals for the excavation of aggregates, like other developments, are strictly controlled. Nonetheless, important aggregates reserves continue to be worked within or close to some of these protected areas, making a significant contribution to fulfilling demand. Pressures for the extraction of aggregates poses a challenge: policy aims to continue the protection of designated sites and meet overall demand while facing tougher conflicts everywhere about how land should best be used in the interests of a rising population. This research study examines how the pursuit of these aims has affected decisions on proposals for significant aggregates extraction in practice, both inside and outside key designated sites.
Policy on planning for aggregate minerals in England is set out primarily in Minerals Planning Statement 1 (MPS1), issued in November 2006. The current study examined all significant proposals for aggregates working (taken as being accompanied by an Environmental Statement (ES)) decided by either the Mineral Planning Authority (MPA) or Secretary of State between that date and the end of July 2009. This comprised 60 cases, which were analysed in depth.
The designated areas covered were:
- World Heritage Sites (cultural value);
- Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas (designated under European law) (wildlife value); and
- National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) (landscape value).
Aggregates proposals were identified as being wholly or partly within one or more of these designated sites (four proposals) or at varying distances from them. The policies in MPS1, aimed at protecting the sites for the qualities for which they were designated, appeared to be working well.
The environmental impacts of all new permissions were examined by analysis of the ES and MPA officers' reports to their committees of councillors, and the approaches inside and outside designated areas compared. This included a review of the topics on which most attention was focused, mitigation measures, and an assessment of any preference for short term impact mitigation or long term landscape restoration. An initial assessment was also made of schemes which might be classified as exemplary in planning and design, either in respect of minimising impacts during operation or in respect of providing beneficial restoration or after-uses (or both). Seventeen sites exemplary in one or other respect were identified, offering approaches, techniques and solutions to typical aggregates planning issues which were considered as transferable to other sites. However, no significant analysis was practical to compare experiences inside and outside designated areas in view of the very small number of proposals within them. The four sites are reported in depth to assess whether attention was properly paid in the decision process to the designations they are associated with. This appeared to be achieved in all cases, though in one – refused permission on unrelated grounds, against officers' advice, and appealed to the Secretary of State – the proper approach to the handling of European wildlife interests, in relation to MPS1, is currently being decided in the High Court (as a result of a further appeal against the Inspector's decision). The overall analysis suggests that current legislation and policy on the protection of designated areas in England is meeting its objectives.
An analysis was carried out for the study of public perceptions and degree of acceptance of quarrying, with particular reference to designated areas. This was by means of a desk-based literature review. This identified only a few relevant studies, which often focused on controversial cases, favoured qualitative methods and rarely captured public attitudes directly. However, two UK-based studies addressed attitudes to quarrying, and a range of other background indicators were informed by studies internationally. UK adults were found to have a generally negative view of quarrying close to their homes, though attitudes were shaped by deeply held values which tended broadly either towards the preservation of natural environments or towards their utilisation. Public attitudes to extraction in designated areas (notably National Parks) are particularly affected by such values, given that these places are recognised in planning policy as well as in local culture as areas where the aesthetics of landscape should be preserved, colouring the views of visitors as well as residents.
The research also considered the impact of local cultural pressures on decisions on proposals for aggregates working. The intention was to try to identify, by reference to decisions taken contrary to officers' recommendations, whether underlying forces decidedly sympathetic or unsympathetic to aggregates working were influencing decisions and, if so, whether these correlated consistently with any local circumstances (such as unemployment levels). The study identified eleven such decisions, just one of which was an approval against officers' recommendations for refusal. As only one case was within a designated area, there was an insufficient sample for a further previously-anticipated analysis to examine differences in cultural pressures inside and outside designated areas. In all eleven cases the overwhelmingly important consideration in the decision had been councillors' perceptions of the impact of the proposals on local amenities (in all cases with little weight being given to strategic issues such as the policy for sustaining a sufficient local landbank of aggregates with planning permission). Councillors also appeared to be influenced to some degree by the planning history of the site or the company's past performance. However, conclusions were difficult to draw in the absence of a review – beyond the scope of the current study – of the officers' reports and committees' decisions in the other 49 cases, where comparable issues may have arisen but had different outcomes.
The study concludes with a series of recommendations for further work to enhance the initial findings which the study has established. These recommendations include:
- Investigating the implications for 2042 and beyond of the continued application of MPS1 and related policies;
- Examining the reasons why councillors accepted officers recommendations for the 49 cases identified in this report;
- Gathering primary evidence on public beliefs and acceptance of quarrying;
- Enhancing the site inventory and number of designations examined;
- Identifying transferable lessons from exemplar quarries.