Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001

MR JOHN WOODS AND MR DECLAN ALLISON

  120. Overall in terms of the island, not of Northern Ireland, was the question. You are just as interested in the environment in the Republic as you are of that of Northern Ireland?
  (Mr Woods) Certainly.

  121. I thought that you would probably have to say that.
  (Mr Woods) We have our partners in the Republic, Earthwatch as well. This is the unknown. From our point of view, sustainable development is about the environment and about society and the economy also. So for us the jobs issue is critical. We want jobs to be stimulated in other areas also as a result of the tax. That is the unknown. There could be effects from a movement of extraction to the Republic. The industry has suggested that most of the extraction will probably stay in the north; that it is the processing that will stay in the Republic, with its attendant transport costs and so on.

  122. With several environmental disadvantages?
  (Mr Woods) Yes, with environmental disadvantages. But there may be advantages elsewhere. I come back to my point about a dynamic economy. We could be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Northern Ireland needs these taxes to move on and be innovative in the future. It is critical that we hang on to this and find a way to make it work. But I agree that we must find that way, and it depends on research. We feel that it could be done swiftly. We should not like it to delay the implementation of the tax, and we believe that that is still practical.

  123. What you have said, and acknowledged—and I am not trying to back you into a corner—does not quite add up. You said that the result of the introduction of the tax will be that just as much aggregate will be extracted in Northern Ireland but that, instead of being processed near its point of extraction, it will be taken to the south where the value-added aspect will come into play and it will be taken back again. What is the environmental advantage of that?
  (Mr Allison) The main point is that the tax should provide an incentive for Northern Ireland companies to move away from quarrying rather than simply carrying on quarrying there, shifting their stuff south, processing it and bringing it back. The idea of the tax is that in Northern Ireland aggregates will become more expensive so there should be a move from aggregates extraction onto such things as recycling and alternatives such as timber, for example.

  124. Which you can achieve in Great Britain, arguably, because there is a level playing field. How can you achieve that environmental benefit in Northern Ireland. It seems to me that you will just have to dig it up, move it, make it and bring it back. So you therefore have a huge environmental disadvantage. Is that not right?
  (Mr Allison) To go back to the point that John Woods made, we have to separate the jobs lost as a direct result of the border and the jobs that will be shifted as a result of the tax generally.

  It must be remembered that quarry companies in the north-east of Northern Ireland will be largely unaffected by the border, so there is a considerable portion of land which the border will not affect.

  125. Which would you say was the lesser evil, the loss of the jobs or their transference?
  (Mr Allison) There should not be too many. Perhaps along the border there may be slight job losses to the Republic, but on the whole we would see a shift away from quarrying into more sustainable alternatives. There would merely be a job shift into alternatives rather than job losses.

  126. You have said that this is what you wish to see. What makes you think that you will see it as opposed to the other scenario that I painted to you? What is the incentive, the imperative, that will mean that Northern Ireland's quarries will become more environmentally friendly and do less quarrying when there seems to me to be no incentive to do this, and that all that we are doing is increasing the amount of movement, therefore the environmental damage, and losing jobs. I am looking for the benefit that will override those disadvantages, and I am looking to you, as people who are interested in the environment, to tell me what the benefit will be.
  (Mr Woods) I do not see that the disadvantages have yet been proven. If independent research can be undertaken and can demonstrate that what the quarry industry thinks will happen will do so, then clearly we have a problem.

  127. Do you need research to tell you that if it costs a tax of £1.60 a tonne applied in Northern Ireland but not applied 10 mines way in the Republic, it will not happen in the Republic? You do not need research to tell you that. It is common sense.
  (Mr Woods) But it needs to be quantified. What percentage of the industry being affected are we discussing? Will it be affected fundamentally? It is also to do with questions of investment. Companies will have to choose to invest in the Republic, which is a pretty major decision against a background of economic uncertainty generally, and of recession, and against a possible background of the Republic doing something about this itself. Indeed, it is also against the background that the general thrust across Europe is towards taxation of resources and moving taxation away from employment and onto resources. It might well be a fine judgment. I am not saying that nothing will happen in terms of job transfers; I am saying that we are indulging in an awful lot of guesswork generally unless we have some seriously independent research to look at it.

  128. No one would argue with that. But I am talking about the principle, not the practical aspects. You are in principle in favour of imposing a tax for which you cannot yet tell us there will be an environmental benefit. There will be job losses, there will be some environmental damage and the basic quarrying which I imagine is what you find the most environmentally unfriendly will continue unabated. What I am looking for is a balance; you have given me one half of it, but not the other half.
  (Mr Woods) In principle, we do not want there to be implemented a tax that does not meet

  the test that such a tax should meet.

  129. You do not want to see that.
  (Mr Woods) So it should be properly researched; we feel that proper research will achieve that. May I add that this is not the only country that shares a land border that has, or proposes, an aggregates tax. There is such a tax in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. Those countries must be looked at in detail to examine what effect there has been along their borders borders before we come to conclusions about Northern Ireland.

  130. Do you know what effects they have had?
  (Mr Woods) Not along the borders, no, I do not.

  131. Does Friends of the Earth in Belgium, Denmark and Holland not know?
  (Mr Woods) We do, and we could do some work on this.

Mr Pound

  132. Thank you very much gentlemen. I greatly enjoyed the evidence session. I am very interested in two areas. One is replacement for unemployment—and in the context of the Northern Ireland economy, 6,000 jobs is of far greater significance in percentage terms than in the rest of the United Kingdom—and the second is substitution of materials. I am reminded that last year, Liverpool city council, in an effort to replace some of the aggregates used in road building, decided to use the waste by-products of Chester Zoo—an exercise known as the zoo poo initiative—which was extraordinarily ineffective. This was because although the material was contained within a slurry, it dissolved into the ground and was quite unpleasant. My concern is that although Mr Allison said that you could, in domestic construction, replace some aggregates and some minerals with wood, that is only a tiny fraction of it, Can you give us more evidence as to a), what substitution for the product there could be, and b), how you justify the statement in your memorandum that the 6,000 jobs in the Northern Ireland economy could be replaced?
  (Mr Allison) Those figures were based on research done elsewhere in the United Kingdom and Europe, and in the United States, so the figures that we have are extrapolated from that: no primary research has been done in Northern Ireland. Our ideas were first, to address the needs of the rural economy, allowing it to diversity into more sustainable employment, away from fundamental unsustainable employment such as quarrying, and, secondly, to reduce the need for virgin aggregates such as refurbishing empty properties—of which currently there are 35,000 in Northern Ireland.

  133. Thirty-five thousand?
  (Mr Allison) Yes.

  134. Sorry. I had not come across that figure before.
  (Mr Allison) We would refurbish those properties, going for more compact urban forms and mixed use, we could convert empty spaces above shops and so on in town centres. There would be more brownfield development and fewer roads—which use considerable amounts of aggregates.

  135. Fewer roads?
  (Mr Allison) Yes.

  136. I cannot think of any local authority anywhere in the world which actually talks of taking away a road. It is a wonderful aspiration.
  (Mr Allison) The idea is fewer road developments. We currently have more per capita road capacity in Northern Ireland than we do in the rest of the United Kingdom[2], as well as considerably less rail network. There are other things such as recycling and re-using materials involved in salvage operations, and producing alternatives. So it not merely one or the other; it is a combination of several factors.

  (Mr Woods) On the opportunities for brownfield building, a great proportion of Northern Ireland's building is done on greenfield sites: in fact, our targets on that are petty abysmal. Belfast has a density of the average North American city and there is huge potential for development in Belfast, for example, which would automatically result in less use of aggregates.

  There are, of course other materials. An innovative architect in Northern Ireland is developing the use of the hemp building block as opposed to the concrete block.

  137. That chimes with the Home Secretary's recent initiative.
  (Mr Woods) So there are things that can be done.

  138. God help you if the places catches fire.
  (Mr Woods) Building regulations do count in this respect.

  139. I was just thinking of people who might be downwind.
  (Mr Woods) Innovation is taking place and with it real potential. When the correct signals go out, these things tend to jump to the fore because they are bubbling under at the moment.


2   The road network is 2.5 times more expensive, per head of population, than in England and Wales. Shaping Our Future: Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025, Department for Regional Development, 2001. Back


 
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