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Aggregates landbank is shrinking

17 Oct 12 The future supply of rock, sand and gravel for the construction industry is looking precarious, according to a survey by the Mineral Products Association (MPA).

Its latest annual mineral planning survey (AMPS) reveals that the plan-led system is failing to free up sufficient land for extraction. This means that adequate reserves of materials might not be available when needed to fuel economic recovery. 

The MPA blames inertia in the planning system, with local authorities failing to make necessary planning decisions. At the end of August 2012, only 44 out of 95 mineral planning authorities in England had an adopted core strategy, when the original target for completion of these documents was the end of 2007. In Wales, only five out of 25 authorities had an adopted local development plan.

Sand and gravel approvals took an average of 28 months in 2010 and hard rock approvals 36 months. The statistics indicate that pre-application discussions do nothing to shorten this process. The majority of applications still take in excess of 12 months, MPA said.

Average replenishment rates of aggregate reserves (i.e. the rates at which production is being replaced with new permissions) are continuing to decline. Less than 50% of sand and gravel reserves have been replenished in the last 10 years to 2010 and only around 67% of hard rock reserves.

There has been a 40% drop in the total tonnage of landbanks in England and Wales since 1997.

The MPA said that the survey showed that it was getting increasingly difficult for mineral operators to work with the regulatory system to obtain their licence to operate.

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MPA chief executive Nigel Jackson said: “It’s not surprising that the planning applications aren’t coming forward. Whilst the overall approval rate of applications is adequate, they take too long, they cost too much – between £100k and £800k - and lengthy pre-application discussions don’t help.”

The fact that 80% of sand and gravel appeals are successful also shows that a lot of applications are being initially turned down that should not be.

“The performance of the plan-led system has been extremely disappointing in spite of recent changes,” said Mr Jackson. “Costs are rising as charges are levied for services that were previously considered part of statutory duties in the past and the costs of new and often pointless additional regulation are being heaped on top of that. There is a continual drift towards increased planning fees and charges for discussions with no commensurate improvement in planning performance.”

Operators feel that the system is now about finding reasons to refuse. The national planning policy framework (NPPF) is supposed to change all that but the early signs are not encouraging, he said.

“With too few plans, low landbanks, diminishing replenishment rates, increasing costs, and planning inertia fuelling uncertainty we are storing up supply problems for the recovery. Lack of demand is masking underlying supply problems for the future,” he said.

“Government needs to get a grip on the realities rather than assuming things will improve. The Department for Communities & Local Government and the Planning Inspectorate need to step up their monitoring and put pressure on local authorities to ensure that the plan making system is more streamlined and responsive.”

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