Build, build, build… but don’t take construction materials supply for granted
If our politicians want to succeed on housebuilding and major infrastructure projects, they can't afford to ignore the supply of construction materials.
Sir Keir Starmer has become the latest convert to the cause of planning reform, pledging to reinstate mandatory housing targets and preside over a revival in housebuilding, should he win the next general election.
He’s not the only one. While the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes per year has drifted off, they remain committed to building major infrastructure projects, including new nuclear and offshore wind, and easing the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects.
But planning and permitting is just one part of the process for making these dreams of new houses, offshore wind farms, and nuclear power plants a reality. They also require a lot of construction materials – primarily concrete, cement, and aggregates like crushed rock, sand, and gravel. Without these, nothing would get built. And the good news is that Britain is largely self-sufficient in providing these essential resources.
However, despite representing the largest material supply in the national economy, with 1 million tonnes or resources and products flowing through every single day, future supply of these essential materials is taken for granted. The Mineral Products Association’s (MPA) latest Annual Mineral Planning Survey (or AMPS) should serve as a timely wake-up call.
AMPS has found that in the ten years to 2021, the replenishment rate for sand and gravel reserves was just 63% - meaning that for every 100 tonnes sold, the industry only gained planning permission to extract another 63 tonnes in the future. The figure for crushed rock was just 52%.
While the mineral products sector is able to cope with demand now, if this situation continues, future supply cannot be taken for granted. Many quarries across the country are already operating at maximum capacity. Moreover, regions that are traditionally major exporters to other parts of the country, such as the East Midlands, are seeing some of the fastest declines in permitted reserves.
AMPS has shown that aggregates sales increased by over 15% in 2021, and previous MPA research has projected that demand for these vital materials will increase over the coming years. A boom in housebuilding or new infrastructure projects will push that demand even higher, potentially putting an even greater squeeze on supply.
The good news for policymakers is there’s no shortage of rock, sand, or gravel in the ground – and they can act before the spectre of a shortage starts to loom over their laudable ambition to build, build, build.
Planning reform isn’t just the key to more housebuilding and more major infrastructure projects. It can also be the key to halting and reversing the decline in permitted reserves of the aggregates on which those projects rely. And reform must not solely focus on changing the process either. Many of the root causes of the current failings are actually about the resourcing, capacity and competence available to support the effective and efficient delivery of the existing processes.
Obtaining permission for new aggregates extraction is a long, costly, and often arbitrary process. AMPS has found that in 2021, it took on average over 30 months to secure permission for new sand and gravel reserves, and over 20 months for new rock reserves. In 2021 only eight applications were approved, while two were refused and another two were withdrawn.
These adverse and uncertain conditions discourage businesses from working to identify and obtain permission for new extraction sites. It usually takes between five and fifteen years for a potential new site to go from initial exploration to an operational concern – the current planning and permitting system only adds cost, delay, and uncertainty to an already long and difficult process.
And while there’s no shortage of these materials in the ground, there is a natural, geological limit to where extraction can take place. Minerals can only be extracted where they are found. You might, theoretically, be able to build a house or a nuclear power plant in someone else’s backyard; but you can’t move limestone extraction to a place where there’s no limestone.
MPA recently set out a series of recommendations for planning and regulatory reform in order to ease the process while maintaining high environmental standards, which would help reverse the decline in permitted reserves.
But the time for action is drawing ever closer. Given how long it takes for a new site to go from exploration to extraction, even reform today would take several years to fully bear fruit.
Britain needs more houses, and it needs more infrastructure – from roads and rail to clean energy. Politicians in all parties are right to be thinking about how they can tackle the planning barriers, and shortage of skilled and experienced planning officers, that are holding up these crucial building projects.
But AMPS is a timely reminder that they also need to tackle the planning barriers that are running down permitted reserves of the essential mineral resources that these projects will need. Without that, materials supply risks becoming another barrier to those projects becoming reality.
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