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Mineral Safeguarding For Sustainable Communities

By Fiona McEvoy, British Geological Survey; Richard Bate, Green Balance; Ken Hobden, Quarry Products Association; and John Cowley, Mineral and Resource Planning Associates

‘Minerals can only be worked where they occur’. There are few mineral planning documents published that do not contain this phrase. Yet, until very recently, the land-use planning process has, in terms of practical application of policy, paid little attention to the protection of mineral resources for the future. Unlike other resources, such as landscapes, ecology and built heritage, statutory protection of mineral wealth is virtually non-existent. Consequently many exploitable materials have been sterilized indefinitely by inappropriate forms of development. The mineral resource requirements of future generations are often overlooked as the protection of other natural resources receives more popular and political support. Guidance on mineral safeguarding is less rigorous and less prescriptive than safeguarding policies for other resources. As a result, it does not have the same influence on decision-making as landscape, ecology, heritage etc, which have clear legislative backing.

At a time of increasing concern about security of mineral supply and increasing awareness of the need to manage all finite resources in a prudent and responsible manner, regulators are now beginning to attach more importance to mineral safeguarding. Minerals Policy Statement 1: Minerals and Planning (MPS1), published in November 2006, goes further than its predecessor, MPG1, to protect mineral resources from unnecessary sterilization by other types of development. This aims to ensure adequate supplies of important materials for future generations and to provide greater choice for society by keeping available the maximum number of sites for possible future extraction.

Past problems

The protection of mineral resources from unnecessary sterilization by other development, regardless of whether the mineral will ever be extracted, has been a theme of the planning process since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

Despite this support in principle, Mineral Planning Guidance 1 (MPG1) and draft MPS1, including their annexes, gave little weight to the protection of minerals of economic importance. Furthermore, guidance failed to provide a suitable incentive for the process of safeguarding to be undertaken. Mineral planning authorities (MPAs) were empowered to define Mineral Consultation Areas (MCAs). MCAs are, as their title suggests, simply a procedural mechanism designed to ensure that district councils liaise with county councils where surface development is likely to affect, or be affected by, the winning and working of minerals.

A review by BGS and partners of 24 Minerals Locals Plans and interviews with 40 MPAs revealed considerable disparity between MPAs in the interpretation and application of the mechanism, both regarding what constitutes a mineral resource worthy of safeguarding and the period for which a resource should be safeguarded. While some authorities incorporated the entire resource outcrop within an MCA designation, others only sought consultation around existing quarries or in preferred areas. Some MPAs use local designations, such as Mineral Resource Areas and Mineral Safeguarding Areas, or specific policies for specific resources, such as celestite or brick clay, contributing to variation in approach.

One reason why the process was less than successful in the past was the illogical nature of guidance. This suggested MCAs should be defined in county mineral plans but provided no guide as to their designation in district local plans (LPs), against which development that might sterilize minerals would be determined. MCAs were therefore mainly excluded from district LPs. As a result, guidance became interpreted as specifically not requiring designation in LPs. In one case an Inspector considering objections to the district LP specifically discounted the need for a policy and designation to prevent sterilization because of what guidance did not say.

Even when MCAs are defined, it often does not prevent incompatible development within them because the associated planning policies are weak. One district, for example, granted permission to rebuild a derelict property located on a mineral resource and between two permitted areas. The area lay within an MCA but was not shown on the district LP map. The amenity considerations of that property then seriously affected the viability of subsequent extraction operations.

Reasons for lack of consultation between district and county councils, even when MCAs are defined, have been given variously as:

  • absence of relevant policies from local development plan documents
  • unsatisfactory administrative procedures
  • rapid turnover of staff who are unaware of the requirements
  • concern about future extraction.

Whatever the cause, this clearly reflected the weakness of mineral safeguarding policy in MPG1 relative to other planning considerations and the real need for stronger policy and effective mechanisms to make the process more robust.

A further issue highlighted during research, and a relatively common occurrence, is the sterilization of mineral by development with more immediate economic benefit. An example is the allocation of, and permission for, an intermodal depot over land within an MCA, a primary source for future extraction in the minerals LP. The MPA made no objection for strategic reasons. However, in this case, alternative options for the depot away from the mineral resource were available, which were not properly considered. Moreover, the delay in bringing the depot online could have been exploited to allow some prior extraction. In this case, the safeguarding process was futile because both the mineral and district LPs considered the status of the site in isolation.

Mineral Policy Statement 1: the quest for real safeguarding

The published version of MPS1 attempts to address some of the fundamental problems identified in the draft versions and in MPG1. It gives mineral safeguarding, in particular, more serious treatment. Stronger national policy backing for safeguarding is based on the expectations that:

  • MPAs will define Mineral Safeguarding Areas (MSAs) in their Local Development Documents (LDDs), to ensure that mineral resources are adequately and effectively considered in making land-use planning decisions
  • MSAs will be included in district councils’ LDDs as well (in two-tier areas) and be linked into formal policies everywhere: this should also bring an end to districts failing to consult with the county on planning applications which could sterilize minerals
  • district councils should not allocate sites in MSAs for development, nor should sensitive development be proposed around safeguarded mineral areas: this should help avoid a recurrence of the ‘intermodal depot’ situation
  • planning authorities will safeguard existing, planned and potential railheads, wharfage and associated storage, handling and processing facilities for bulk transport by rail, sea or inland waterways, for all kinds of minerals
  • MSAs carry no presumption for extraction
  • the prior extraction of minerals, where practicable, is encouraged if non-mineral development must necessarily take place in MSAs
  • additional obligations apply to the safeguarding specifically of brick clay and of building and roofing stone.

MPS1, therefore, gives planning authorities at all levels the opportunity to improve their performance in avoiding the sterilization of minerals.

MPS1 tackles the issue of how to decide which mineral resources are worthy of safeguarding. The accompanying good-practice guidance states that they should be defined objectively using the best geological and mineral resource information. A good start is the BGS ‘County’ Minerals Resource Maps for England, the development of which was funded by DCLG. This information can be further refined using more detailed information from the minerals industry or elsewhere. MSAs should be defined irrespective of other planning considerations which are much more prone to change. Their role is simply to make the relevant parties aware of the presence of a mineral resource. Defining MSAs on a common basis using a consistent approach is essential for them to be credible.

MSAs should only need updating if the geological boundaries of the resource are amended as a result of further information made available by industry, more modern geological mapping, or changes in the mineral qualities that industry requires.

MPS1 leaves open the possibility of district councils consulting MPAs on surface development proposals over slightly different areas than shown in MSAs. This is somewhat confusing, so there would be merit in DCLG explaining when this might be appropriate.

Mineral resources versus development – who pays?

The greatest challenge posed to planners within the context of mineral safeguarding is the weighing up of the sometimes uncertain value of a mineral resource against the certain value of the non-mineral development. This is particularly true in situations where limited information may exist on the extent and quality of the mineral. In some instances, mineral resources may be inferred primarily on their mapped extent, supported by little, or in some cases no, ‘hard’ data. It is difficult to judge what weight is reasonable to give to protecting such a resource in comparison with other planning pressures. Insufficient information can render the future economic, commercial and technological parameters difficult to predict and quantify.

MPAs, with their continuously squeezed budgets, cannot be expected to commission evaluations of potential development sites. In any case, unless the authority is the developer, it is not appropriate for it to do so. The best that can be achieved is to have policies in place in LDDs that place the onus mainly on the potential developer to prove that minerals interests will not be compromised by their development proposal within an MSA. In relation to other issues, such as wildlife and archaeology, it is already the responsibility of the developer to demonstrate that no harm will arise or that mitigation can offset harm. There is no reason why that should not be the case in respect of development proposals that might affect safeguarded mineral resources. National agencies and consultancies could provide independent advice on the value of the resource if required. However, MPS1 does not specify that surface developers must do this.

Beyond MPS1 towards legislative protection of mineral resources

Even with the stronger policy protection for mineral resources afforded by MPS1, protection as robust as that applicable to other natural resources still does not exist for mineral resources. Although strengthened, national policy leaves much in the hands of planning authorities who will no doubt find mineral safeguarding yet another difficult task. It remains to be seen whether safeguarding policy for minerals will be applied with the same rigour as policies for protecting other resources. Optimism must be tempered because MSAs do not have the same force in decision-making as apply to areas affected by agricultural, landscape, ecology and cultural designations, all of which have a clear legislative or established policy basis (and national advocate bodies such as Natural England and English Heritage).

Minerals that fuel the economy and sustain economic growth warrant as much prominence in policy as other national resources. The planning system could move further towards the protection of mineral resources. With genuinely long-term planning, the potential exists to go one step further than safeguarding, by aiming to ease the constraints on mineral working in the future. For example, planting woodlands decades in advance of likely mineral working might screen otherwise intrusive sites. The prospect of working under existing habitats could be more achievable if there is a real prospect of equivalent habitats being created in advance on adjacent land (through the migration of species into them over many years). Mineral planning could be in the vanguard of integrated land-use planning, maximizing benefits for both the economy and the environment in the long term. MPS1 provides a framework for mineral safeguarding although it is not the entire solution.

Footnote

The BGS in partnership with Mineral and Resource Planning Associates, the Quarry Products Association and Somerset, Durham and Staffordshire county councils are undertaking research into mineral safeguarding in England. The objective is to assess the effectiveness of current guidance and mechanisms and to develop a simple GIS-based methodology to allow a consistent framework for the delineation of Mineral Safeguarding Areas. This research is being funded by the ALSF through the DCLG SAMP programme.

A free half-day dissemination workshop will take place at BGS, Keyworth, on 27 March 2007. For further information or to register for attendance, contact [email protected]. The event is aimed at planners in all types of authorities, from local to regional level, who are in the process of preparing development frameworks, as well as potential developers and other interested parties.

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