Superquarry Saga Rumbles On
A situation update commissioned by ECOS: Journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, for publication in issue 24:2, summer 2003. Click here for full superquarry briefing index.
"... but I could only conclude that my friend had not taken the trouble to learn enough in advance of the West Highland scenery to put himself on terms with it, and that lack of familiarity had bred the contempt which could thus dismiss it as just a meaningless jumble of stones." - Hugh MacDiarmid.[i]
"The grandest scenery of the Outer Isles is in the Isle of Harris where the hills compete in sternness and sublimity with the great hills of Sutherland. This is indeed the oldest land in Europe, in the sense that the hills of Harris - and, of course, the hills of Sutherland too - have been so long above the sea as to make parvenus of the Alps." - Compton Mackenzie.[ii]
On 3 November 2000 the Scottish Executive – that is to say, the Scottish Government in our new devolved Parliament – rejected the application by Lafarge Redland Aggregates to open a superquarry in the National Scenic Area of the Hebridean Isle of Harris.[iii] We might have hoped that would be the end of it, but we live in an era where it is normal practice for massively resourced multinational companies to take on not only small communities, but sovereign governments.
Lafarge, the world’s biggest producer of building materials owning 800 quarries in 75 countries, duly announced their intention to appeal. They launched a two-pronged legal counter-attack.
In the first instance, they argued that the basis of rejection was insufficiently robust in law. A Scottish Executive spokesperson was forced to concede that “the Scottish Ministers have failed to give adequate and sufficient reasons for their decision to disagree with the recommendation of the Reporter”.[iv] Legal advice had suggested that the Executive could not justify upholding the original decision by Sam Galbraith, the former environment minister. The public inquiry reporter had recommended that the quarry go ahead, notwithstanding the enormous destruction that, she openly acknowledged, would be wrought upon the National Scenic Area. Unfortunately, Galbraith’s letter overturning her opinion had been botched. Western Isles MSP Alasdair Morrison told the Stornoway Gazette: “I am absolutely staggered that officials have not managed to take this competently through the due process. Questions must be asked of the officials of the department dealing with this. Are they up to the job and do they have the necessary skills to deal with a complex planning inquiry?"[v]
Scottish Executive officials pointed out that this setback does not mean a reversal of their decision. It merely means that they have to write another letter. Before so doing, steps have been taken to ask all relevant parties if they have any new information that should be taken into account. As yet, this has not resulted in a re-issued letter. We wait, and watch, with concerned interest.
Simultaneously with challenging the Executive’s rejection of their plans, Lafarge launched a second legal bid.
Back in 1965 planning permission had been given to a now-defunct company to quarry a 1500 acre site on Mount Roineabhal at Lingerabay. It was presumed that this concession, which had few environmental safeguards attached, had long since lapsed. However, Lafarge decided to chance their luck with contesting this. They only actually need 370 acres of the 1500 acres in question.
The company forced the holding of a mini public inquiry on Harris from 26th November to 6th December 2001.[vi] The outcome was announced in May 2002. It was summarised by The Herald in the following words: “Ministers are prepared to allow the establishment of a superquarry at Lingerbay on the island of Harris, but only if it covers just 12 acres and not the 370 acres sought by the developers.”[vii] In other words, they were told they could have their superquarry if it was very small and very deep! The 12 acres (5 hectares) in question was all that had ever been worked under the 1965 concession, and the Executive held that this was all that could yet be worked under such original terms.
Lafage are to appeal this Solomonic judgement in the Court of Session. The hearing has been set to commence on 25 November 2003.[viii]
An internet search quickly reveals that companies like Lafarge are engaged in similar legal actions at sites around the world. Recently I have been communicating with the Friends of Hudson in New York State, USA. In their battle against the massive proposed and opposed St Lawrence Cement (SLC) plant in the Hudson River valley, exactly the same strategy of re-invoking an antiquated or, as they rather charmingly call it, “grandfather” planning consent, has been attempted by SLC – a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Holcim Bank.[ix] However, on 16 June 2003, community protestors announced a major legal victory. Two judges recommended the State Commissioner of Environmental Conservation to “ungrandfather” the 1200 acre quarrying concession that SLC were after. They were told they could not presume to mine where mining had not already taken place just because an old consent existed.
The campaigners’ attorney said: "Working together, the intervenors proved that SLC had not continued the permits once granted to Universal Atlas. We demonstrated that the mine has been dormant for a very long time. SLC's presumption that they could mine the full 1200 acres was a fallacy, since the extent of the [proposed] mining is dramatically different than anything that had been approved prior to the enactment of the State's Environmental Quality Review." Grandfather’s grip had been ungrandfathered.
Commenting on the similarity with Lafarge’s bid in Scotland, Jim Cashen, President of Friends of Hudson, said, “It is eerie how similar this all is to our situation.”[x] Of course, the only “eerie” thing about it is globalisation. Everybody’s back yard is now becoming a level playing field in a worldwide ballgame mediated by such corporate-driven bodies as the World Trade Organisation. This, however, can cut both ways. On the one hand, competitive globalisation makes no corner of the world safe from environmental threat. On the other, co-operative One World internationalism means that we can rapidly share experience and solidarity.
On Harris, the Coastal Quarry Local Supporters’ Network (CQLSN) recently welcomed Lafarge’s continued commitment to the quarry. At a meeting in January 2003, a representative of Lafarge assured the group that enthusiasm for the sought-after £70 million development had not wavered. John MacLeod, chair of the CQLSN, said: “We are trying to keep the interest in the quarry going…. Over the last year there hasn’t been much said of the quarry, but that is because we are awaiting the outcome of two appeals to the Court of Session, over the applications made in 1965 and 1991…. It is the only way forward for Harris. We hear plenty of talk of fishing and fish farming, but these industries are already very insecure. The new motorway network upgrade being planned for England will require plenty aggregate. It would be crazy if Norway had to provide that aggregate when we have the resource and supply on our doorstep.”[xi]
The CQLSG is a supposedly “independent” group. It was, however, set up and funded by Redland Aggregates, the superquarry’s developer before the French Lafarge mounted its successful predatory takeover of the smaller English company in 1997.[xii] Responding to the CQLSG chair’s remarks in the letters column of the Stornoway Gazette, Dr David Hill of Northton, Harris, wrote: “The Lingerbay superquarry is dead but it won’t lie down…. The best argument put forward by the Superquarry Supporters’ Club to justify all the damage is that the aggregate would help build new motorways in England. Brilliant! One ecological tragedy to support another!”[xiii]
Speaking at the AGM of Harris Development Ltd., an enterprise company originally set up to explore the wider options for Harris (and very successfully so), the then UK Energy Minister, Brian Wilson MP said: “Of course, the issues became more complex as it was not just a quarry which was eventually proposed but the biggest hole on earth. Nobody on Harris ever asked for that and I have always felt that the developers who chose to pursue that jackpot, rather than something more in keeping with local needs and expectations, had a lot to answer for. But whatever the scale of the application, the failure of Government to give Harris - even down to the present day - a definitive answer on the outcome remains one of the most scandalous episodes in the recent administration of Scotland.”[xiv]
Perhaps one of the most obviously representative voices is that of Harris councillor, Morag Munro, who recently regained her seat with an overwhelming majority. She points out that at the time when the quarry was first proposed, unemployment on Harris was 150 out of a population of under 2,000. Now, as a result of many diverse small business development measures, it is down to just 69, and there are labour shortages in the new fish farm processing plant. “These are developments that we need - little packages here and there to keep people on the island, as well as a variety of work,” Munro said. “Those who are vociferous for the quarry have always been vociferous for it…. There are people who are living near to the site and they don’t know if the quarry is going ahead or not. They have been in that situation for 12 years now…. It is really unfair to the people of this community to have these kinds of delays. Let them make a decision. Let these people be able to get on with their lives. It is very unsettling for the local community.”
“On the other hand,” she added, recognising the community’s severe fragility, “I am quite sure that the Census will show there has been a decline in the population and that is the big concern for us.”[xv]
It is an asymmetry of the planning process that local people don’t get paid large salaries for sitting around, year after year, trying to force their schemes through the system and knowing that they only need a few jackpots scattered around the world to keep the multinational cash flow positive. The big worry for affected communities is, as Morag Munro indicated, planning blight. Indecision or long drawn out legal processes could gut the social development of Harris just as surely as were the quarry itself to go ahead.
Informed sources at senior levels within Lafarge suggest that Harris is low on the company’s immediate list of development priorities, but they see it as a “land bank” for the long term when other European aggregate sources become depleted.[xvi] Fearing as much, Kevin Dunion, until recently Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland and somebody who has done much to advance the anti-quarry campaign, has said: “Lafarge have accepted that UK aggregate demand has remained millions of tonnes below the projections of national need which it claimed at the public inquiry. It needs to come clean about its intentions. Would it start quarrying on Harris if it got planning permission, or would it simply mothball the site as an asset on its balance sheet?”[xvii]
There might be just one consolation on the horizon. The Stornoway Gazette of 29 May 2003 announced a new grants scheme from the Scottish Executive. Communities within 5 miles of past or present quarrying operations can now apply for handouts of £5,000 to £50,000 to “improve the quality of their environment.”[xviii] The kitty is funded … yes … from the Aggregates Levy!
Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology and author of “Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power” (Aurum Press), listed by Paul Kingsnorth, George Monbiot, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool and Robin Harper MSP as one of their top “inspirational” books.
[i] MacDiarmid, Hugh, The Islands of Scotland, BT Batsford Ltd., London, 1939, p. 116.
[ii] Cited in MacDiarmid, ibid., p. 129.
[iii] See ECOS 22:1 2001 and 16:1 1995. Also my book, Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum Press, London, 2001), and the “Superquarry Briefing” section of my website, www.AlastairMcIntosh.com. Many people have contributed to this material, for which I am deeply grateful.
[iv] Macinnes, Donnie, “Isles MSP mounts attack on Executive over Lingerbay”, Stornoway Gazette, 21 March 2002, pp. 1 & 16. See also Ross, David, “Blunder by executive reopens saga of island superquarry”, The Herald, 19 March 2002, p. 4. Both these are on my website.
[v] Stornoway Gazette 21 March 2002, ibid..
[vi] Reference P/PP/75/W/4.
[vii] “Ministers to cut Lingerbay superquarry plan down to size”, The Herald, 29 May 2002, text on my website.
[viii] Macsween, Iain, “Court action by Lafarge to be heard on November 25”, Stornoway Gazette, 13 February 2003, p. 3.
[ix] See www.friendsofhudson.com .
[x] Pers. com. 13 June 2003.
[xi] “Lingerbay ‘only way
forward for Harris’ states supporter”, Stornoway Gazette, 23
January 2003, p. 2.
[xii] Soil and Soul, op. cit., pp. 253-261.
[xiii] Hill, David, “Against Lingerbay superquarry”, Stornoway Gazette, 30 January 2003, p. 5.
[xiv] "Momentum must be
maintained on renewable energy developments", West Highland Free Press,
31 May 2002, p. 10. We should be alert to the possibility that future such
developments may be planned on an ostensibly small-scale foot-in-the-door
basis to get round initial environmental shock and get communities hooked on
[xv] Stornoway Gazette, 21 March 2002, op. cit..
[xvi] Anonymous pers. com., Paris, 2003.
[xvii] Stornoway Gazette, 13 February 2003, op. cit..
[xviii] “Grants for Scottish communities affected by past or present quarrying”, Stornoway Gazette, 29 May 2003, p. 19.
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