The government is treading a fine line between protecting the environment and maintaining a sufficient supply of minerals in its latest update to mineral planning policy. But this balancing act fails to go far enough for environmentalists.
The draft version of MPS1 released last week (Planning, 26 November, p2) attempts to align key policies for minerals planning in England with sustainable development. It recognises the need to supply an adequate stream of minerals for development while pledging to safeguard designated landscapes such as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
But green groups have blasted the strategy, claiming that it puts an "environmental gloss" on quarrying while ignoring the countryside's capacity to provide minerals without undue damage. Despite the draft's support of better countryside protection, materials recycling and quarry restoration, campaigners argue that it sticks too closely to a predict-and-provide approach.
Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), which includes the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the Council for National Parks, the Ramblers Association and Friends of the Earth, is concerned as to whether the policy is really sustainable.
Ramblers Association head of countryside protection Emily Richmond says: "While MPS1 seeks to mitigate the impacts of quarrying, it makes no mention of the environment's capacity to absorb it. This is a fundamental flaw." She insists it falls short of WCL's ten principles of sustainable minerals planning, which advocate a more flexible plan, monitor and manage approach.
CPRE head of planning policy Henry Oliver echoes Richmond's concerns: "Quarrying blights communities for decades and leaves permanent scars on the landscape. Yet ministers are still talking in the old discredited terms about balancing quality of life against prosperity."
Oliver wants to see minerals moved into the front line of the planning process as part of a drive to minimise the environmental footprint of all development. "Spatial planning and sustainable construction are opportunities to do that, which the government is in serious danger of missing," he warns.
Richmond slams the draft's environmental aspirations as shallow. "It seems to say that if there is a possibility of using recycled materials then authorities should consider it," she argues. She believes that the guidance should provide a greater impetus to use recycled materials by outlining targets for their use.
But Duncan Pollock, planning director at the Quarry Products Association, warns of the practicalities of making better use of minerals. While he admits that more recycling is desirable, he says the reuse of mineral waste has been constrained by the adoption of the aggregates levy.
"Low-grade materials are now taxed, making them virtually unsaleable," Pollock claims. "I understand why the government wants more recycling, but quarry operators are hampered by the amount of waste building up because they cannot sell it."
Environmentalists are also worried by the suggestion that minerals extraction "need not be inappropriate on green belt land", despite the caveat for high environmental standards. "Green belts are a fundamental resource for all communities. To start chipping away at them is a retrograde step," says Richmond.
She believes that the draft will make little difference to current practice.
"Authorities trying to be more sophisticated in minerals planning will have difficulty standing up against regional spatial strategies that demand a certain amount of minerals for development," she observes.
Green groups are unconvinced by the environmental slant of the draft policy. With a three-month period of consultation under way, now is the time to make their voices heard.
Draft MPS1 can be viewed via www.PlanningResource.co.uk.