Decarbonisation, growth, delivery: the next Government’s real to-do list
As we enter 2024, the Prime Minister has made clear that this will be a general election year. While the date of the election remains unknown, we can be certain that the next Government – whichever colour it may be – will face a challenging in-tray.
Whoever wins the election will be expected to revive Britain’s economic growth while accelerating our progress towards net zero, and build the necessary infrastructure to achieve that aim. They’ll also need to help businesses support them in those goals.
The mineral products sector is well-placed to support these goals. As the largest supplier by volume to the UK construction industry, the sector makes an essential contribution to all kinds of infrastructure development, from housing, to transport, to new nuclear power plants. The sector also includes two energy-intensive industries – cement and lime – putting it at the forefront of industrial decarbonisation.
Therefore, the Mineral Products Association (MPA), which represents the sector, has set out what it hopes to see in the main parties’ manifestos ahead of this year’s general election, in a new paper titled Priorities for the Next Government.
The short document outlines three priority areas where Government action can help the mineral products sector maximise its contribution to the UK’s economy and progress towards net zero.
The first of these is ensuring that British industry is supported to remain competitive while it transitions to net zero. Both major parties have said that decarbonisation must not mean deindustrialisation, but the rhetoric hasn’t fully translated into reality, with domestic producers in energy-intensive industries enduring comparatively high energy prices. For example, while in 2012, only 13% of UK cement sales came from imports, by 2022 that figure had more than doubled to 30%.
Priorities for the Next Government makes a series of recommendations to deliver a level playing field between domestic industry and international competitors. This includes reducing costs for new grid connections, implementing a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism by 2026, and action to deliver CCUS and scale up production of net zero heating fuels like hydrogen for hard-to-electrify uses.
Planning reform has crept towards the forefront of political debate in recent years, but the mineral planning system remains dysfunctional. Difficulty obtaining permission for new mineral extraction means that permitted reserves of aggregates are declining at an unsustainable rate, and new biodiversity net gain rules could ironically end up incentivising less ambitious nature restoration schemes for former quarry sites.
MPA’s recommendations in this area include regulatory reform to reduce cost, delay, bureaucracy, and duplication in planning and permitting processes; support for planning authorities to appoint more specialist mineral planners; and industry-specific biodiversity net gain rules that reflect the unique nature of quarry sites and therefore encourage businesses to continue their decades-long record of transforming old quarries to stunning, biodiverse nature spots.
It might have been hard in recent years to deliver new quarries, but national infrastructure projects have also regularly found themselves delayed, scaled back, or scrapped altogether. The cancellation of the northern part of HS2, successive delays to Hinkley Point C, and the scrapping of multiple major road improvement plans all serve as prime examples.
This is bad enough for economic growth by itself, but it also has a knock-on effect across the economy – including in the mineral products sector, where businesses have found it increasingly difficult to confidently predict future demand for their essential materials. Therefore, MPA are calling for the main parties to commit to common-sense reforms that will lead to better delivery of major infrastructure projects.
Recommendations include requiring major projects to produce resource and material supply audits early on in the planning process, so the supply chain has a clearer idea of future demand, and can plan accordingly with confidence. The next Government will have to be more realistic when initially planning major projects, and then stick to their plans once they’ve been made.
Moreover, MPA have proposed that the next Government should make low-carbon concrete and asphalt the default options for new public infrastructure projects, thereby growing the market for these innovative materials and helping the sector to decarbonise.
Decarbonised and competitive UK industry, a planning system that supports growth, and better delivery of projects would all help the next Government deliver the economic and environmental ambitions shared by all major parties. They would help not only the mineral products sector, but also other industries, boosting economic growth and facilitating the net zero transition.
As the general election approaches, and parties decide which policies they’ll pursue if elected, they would do well to focus on these three priorities, and commit to implementing the recommendations in Priorities for the Next Government.
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