Burying treasures - Guardian
There are no guarantees against development of land that is 'protected' or part of a national park. Paul Evans on how hundreds of sites are at risk
Wednesday April 13, 2005
Thornborough Henges, in the Vale of York near Ripon, is one of the largest complexes of megalithic sites in Britain. But the grassy ring of undulating earthworks - 5 metres high and some 250 metres in diameter, with other great rings beyond - is no Stonehenge. There are no signs guiding tourists to the site, no interpretation boards, ticket kiosks, or gift shops, just a fence and a locked gate.
You know when you get to this important archaeological site because of the sound of bulldozers. Thornborough Henges has Britain's largest quarrying operation on prehistoric land. Nosterfield Quarry - run by construction firm Tarmac Northern - produces more than 500,000 tonnes of sand and gravel each year and, until last week, the firm was planning to extend its activities all around and right up to the site.
Following protests, it has now agreed not to quarry sand and gravel from the nearby Thornborough Moor, but is applying to expand its existing quarry by 45 hectares (111 acres), which at its closest point will be half a mile away from the nearest of the three Thornborough Henges. A Tarmac spokesman this week said: "We are committed to the protection of the monument and have provided financial assistance to English Heritage for its conservation plan study."
Although the rings will not be damaged, much of the historical landscape around them has already been destroyed by generations of quarrying, - something inconceivable at Stonehenge or at many sites of far less historical importance in the south of England.
David Austin, a landscape archaeologist and co-editor of the journal Landscapes is appalled. "Thornborough Henges have had a presence in the landscape for 5,000 years and every fibre of that [wider] landscape can tell us something about deep histories. But if this is stripped out by quarrying, we lose that history. We're back to year zero. It's an archaeological Pol Pot." The problem is that landscape protection in Britain is arbitrary, eccentric and frequently unable to stop the bulldozers. Almost one in three of Britain's designated 7,100 sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) are not in their target condition, and national parks and many sites of historical, ecological and cultural value are under threat from large scale developments.
The Welsh assembly has recently demanded that sand and gravel beds in the Usk estuary, which has SSSI status, be protected from future mining. Morlais Owen, chair of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales says: "These potential sand beds have not been evaluated for their quality, nor has there been an environmental impact assessment."
In Britain SSSI have been obliterated to make way for the Newbury bypass, the Twyford Down road, the M6 toll road, Fairmile, Manchester airport, and the Cardiff Bay development. It seems that having legal protection is just asking for trouble.
The problem, says the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is that no government has had the guts to revoke the archaic planning system that 50 years ago handed out mineral extraction permissions. According to Andy Tickle, senior countryside campaigner at the CPRE, these "dormant" quarries in national parks are "ticking time-bombs".
A recent report by Friends of the Peak District National Park revealed that there are 119 permissions in national parks across England: including 46 in the Peak District, 27 in the Lake District, 16 on Dartmoor and 14 in the Yorkshire Dales. All could re-open at any time until 2042.
More than a third of these old permissions have not been reviewed and 20 quarries are still working without any modern environmental control. Moreover, progress on closing damaging quarries using "prohibition orders" has been poor.
"There are still quarry sites in national parks and elsewhere that have not been reviewed and are working with no environmental impact assessment or control because of a presumption that permission was given years ago. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has said it will bring these quarries back under control, but it hasn't done so yet," says Tickle.
At Backdale Quarry in Derbyshire's Peak District National Park, quarrying restarted in July 2003. The operator, Merrimans of Leicester, had been given permission to remove a small amount of limestone in order to reach a vein of mineral fluorspar. But 175,000 tonnes of limestone later - which was sold as construction aggregate - and the fluorspar is still there.
The national park authority ordered Merrimans to stop in January, but the decision is being appealed against and next week will go to a public inquiry.
Just a few miles from Backdale quarry at Stanton Lees, protesters have for five years been camped out to try to protect the bronze age Nine Ladies stones from quarrying. Operator Stancliffe Stone is taking the Peak District National Park authority to court over its classification of the quarry as dormant. Stancliffe claims the quarry is active and that working it would not impact on the ancient monument.
"If the national park loses it will be awful," says Dot McGahan, a CPRE director. "Stancliffe could start quarrying or trade the site for another."
The quarry industry is pragmatic. "To close quarries down would mean a local authority buying out the owners," says Duncan Pollock, planning director of the Quarry Products Association (QPA). "In the Peak District National Park it would mean the park authority buying 137m tonnes of the permitted reserves at £5 per tonne."
Quarrying is believed to provide up to 10% of the UK's GDP. According to the QPA, each person in the UK generates 4 tonnes of aggregates a year (about 240m tonnes in total) and every new house uses 60 tonnes of quarry products. The Treasury's recent review of future housing needs by Kate Barker suggests that for supply to meet demand, 140,000 new houses must be built every year. That means some 8.4m extra tonnes of stone will have to be quarried annually.
Despite the demand being talked up in government plans, the QPA does not believe that there will be a significant increase in aggregate extraction. "During the construction boom of the 1980s the UK market was being supplied with 300m tonnes of aggregate," explains Jerry McLaughlin, a spokesman for QPA. "Today, the market is 200m tonnes of extracted aggregates and 65m tonnes of recycled material."
Although the association has a four-point plan that aims to control or phase out extraction from protected areas, it believes that if it is forced out of quarrying reserves in the Peak District and North Yorkshire, the industry would have to exploit other areas such as the East Midlands and Wales.
Not surprisingly, the QPA is not in favour of the aggregates levy, a tax on quarry companies to provide funds for communities suffering from thundering lorries, noise and dust from quarrying on their doorsteps. "The levy is a way of collecting money for the Treasury," says Pollock, "and is no incentive to improving local operations."
Back at Thornborough, it is not the henges that sit as ruins on the landscape; they have weathered the past 5,000 years. Instead, it is the landscape that is ruined.
The printed article includes a large image of the central henge credited to www.timewatch.org
Posted by BrigantesNation
13th April 2005ce