Image of newly built terraced housing in Cheddar, Somerset
New housing in Cheddar, Somerset © Lovell Stone
New housing in Cheddar, Somerset © Lovell Stone

Is the ‘Small-Scale’ Perception of the Dimension Stone Sector Threatening Its Future?

By Mark North, Director of Planning-Aggregates and Production and Dimension Stone at the Mineral Products Association

A million tonnes of mineral products are transported across the UK every day. The UK minerals industry provides essential raw and other manufactured materials to the construction sector and to other industries.

The mineral industry directly employs 74,000 people and supports an additional 3.5 million jobs in the economy. There are 390 million tonnes of aggregates and manufactured mineral products produced annually.

A very small part of the wider industry, in volume terms, is the extraction and manufacture of dimension (building) stone. The UK has a long and proud tradition of building with dimension stone.

Historic city centres and heritage landmarks are made of indigenous rock hewn from quarries, usually locally sourced but sometimes from much further afield.

The diversity of the UK’s geology means the country is blessed with a variety of stone for building. This has been used in a multitude of ways over the centuries and continues to be used to this day. This supports place making by ensuring the local distinctiveness of new housing is maintained using locally derived stone.

While dimension stone represents a fraction of the total mineral products market, more than one million tonnes is produced in the UK each year. Yet for too long there has been a perception that this represents a ‘small-scale’ cottage industry that only exists to supply the heritage market.

This is an image that is stifling the development and competitiveness of British dimension stone, particularly in the face of foreign competitors. One of the reasons for this derives from the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which is the high-level planning policy document for England.

The NPPF says planning authorities should “consider how to meet any demand for small scale extraction of stone at or close to relic quarries needed for repair of heritage assets” and “recognise the small scale nature and impact of stone quarries”.

The implication is that dimension stone quarries only exist to supply limited volumes of material for repairs to local heritage assets. As ‘small scale’ is not clearly defined, mineral planning authorities can misinterpret the requirement and think building stone quarries must be ‘small-scale’ in a way that constrains growth and threatens the viability of the sector.

However, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the dimension stone market was buoyant as architects, designers and developers sought to reflect a classic look and feel in modern structures and urban landscapes, not to mention interiors.

Planning policies should not restrict the ability of dimension stone companies to grow their quarry operations, production outputs or the markets they supply. It is perverse to do so, especially in a climate where British stone is receiving international recognition with exports increasing as discerning clients worldwide want British stone. While supplying material to support repairs to local heritage assets is important, stone producers cannot survive commercially waiting for work from the heritage market alone.

The impact of Covid-19 on the dimension stone sector is yet to be seen. However, with the forthcoming Planning White Paper and the likelihood of a review of the NPPF there is a timely opportunity for the Government to clarify the ‘small-scale’ reference. This will go a long way to securing the future of building stone supplies, by allowing the sector to grow its customer base and in turn ensuring it still exists to supply the heritage market.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if individual mineral planning authorities adopt a more flexible approach to help the sector firstly survive and then thrive.

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