FEATURE ARTICLE (Issue 5)

By on July 2, 2001

The following abridged speech was written and delivered by Robert Durward, Director of the British Aggregates Association, to the Institute of Quarrying’s Annual Conference held in Dunblane on 5th October 2001.

To assist in putting Robert’s speech into perspective remember that:

1/      The British Aggregates Association is the representative body for independent UK quarry operators. It currently has 70 members operating over 100 quarries.

2/      The five remaining major quarry operators Tarmac, Hanson, Aggregate Industries, RMC and Lafarge control 90% of the ready mixed concrete and asphalt markets.

Robert began:

I would first of all like to thank the Institute of Quarrying for giving me this opportunity to address its distinguished members and guests. The British Aggregates Association, in the main, represents privately owned quarry companies all over the UK and Northern Ireland. We currently have around seventy member companies plus a healthy number saving hard for their subscription.

I have come to Dunblane to give my honest opinion of our industry, at this moment in time, and also to tell you what I think is going to happen in the future.  

Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious. To repeat a simple fact that seems to have been overlooked, Quarrying is a local industry. You can only work minerals where they occur and your market is limited by the cost of transport and your nearest competition. Until fairly recent times, this mantra held well and the system worked as you might expect. Not any more. Hundreds of small quarries have now been bought out and closed down and large, well-known companies have merged. This has resulted in tremendous loss of employment, materials having to be transported further and the rural economy becoming poorer, as a result. This is called progress, we are told that small units are simply not cost effective and that economy of scale is necessary to survive. At first this seems reasonable, in fact we see examples of this activity in other sectors, engineering, car and commercial vehicle manufacture and now even in the electronics industry. It is not the same; there can be no logical comparison. The small local quarries which were bought out were successful businesses, so much so that premium prices were paid, and who can say that the mergers have improved our industry, or equally important, the lot of our workers. We have all lost a great number of friends in what seems to have been a ruthless exercise.

When I first opened the Quarry Management trade journal, some 20 years ago, I was struck by an article which suggested that no-one should be allowed to sell quarry products before they had first of all worked at the coal face, as it were, to give them a better understanding of the difficulties involved. This would achieve two principal objectives; first of all, they would be less likely to undervalue and so undersell their product, and secondly, they would have a better understanding of what difficulties could be caused by selling outside the normal production band. The old chestnut, make more 20, 14 and 10mm and forget about all the scalpings, 6mm and dust which no one wants, is still being heard today. Furthermore, not satisfied with having sales people out of touch with reality, I am told that we now have people in even greater positions of power who understand little of the coalface. In fact we now have a completely new breed of people with an active interest in quarrying, they are known as shareholders and, all too often, murder is committed in their name.

However I am not a Luddite, I recognise the need to become more efficient, to control costs and compete strongly. That said, what has happened to our industry is not acceptable. We are now sharply divided into two camps, large and small, and this has become little short of a disaster area.

So why have we become a divided industry, what has changed? After all, there always have been fundamental differences between local and national quarry companies. The majority of local companies are family concerns, often with no great ambition beyond gifting their way of life to the next generation. However, most national companies, do have much higher ambitions and many would say, that it is the pursuit of these impossible goals that have not only caused a massive division in our ranks but has left us exposed to all sorts of bizarre and adverse legislation. One single policy, more than anything else, has caused this split, it is so called vertical integration, or as the unions used to call it, the closed shop. Just as small companies have had to accept that large companies have a part to play, the large companies have to realise that small companies have a right to a level playing field.

We have become weak; we have lost pride in our trade. We appear to be an easy target for all manners of consultant and other witch doctors, whose first priority is a self-perpetuating system of bureaucracy and inflated fees. We have useless quality assurance schemes coming out our ears, some of which, such as HAPAS, positively discriminate against the smaller company. I speak as the director of a company which sells 1 million tonnes, per annum, in 48 product sizes, on a regular basis, to six countries, without a BS or an ISO to our name.

We have also become a target for environmentalists who specialise in stirring up all sorts of trouble with a breathtaking blend of fiction, hypocrisy and ignorance. We have few problems with the environment, in fact, we do a fine job. Many millions have been spent upgrading our plants and process and our products are used on almost all the so-called environmental projects. We comply with the strictest environmental laws in the world and very few complaints are made about our operations.

We have become a target for our record on health and safety. The quarry industry has actually halved the number of accidents over the past 10 years but has not been given any credit. Furthermore, we will be heading down a blind alley if we attempt to impose even more rules and regulations. There is no substitute for close and effective supervision by experienced managers and foremen. If you overload these people with mountains of superfluous paperwork you will increase the number of accidents, not decrease them. You might have protected yourself from prosecution but that will be of little comfort to the worker who has been hurt or the family of someone who has been killed.

Mobile Plant

I predict that the present move to mobile plant will be short lived. I spent my first 8 years in quarrying, totally dependent on mobile plant, and it is not an experience I will easily forget. It does have a part to play but long term it is will not be significant. There is no doubt in my mind that good quality static plant offers the lowest long term capital cost, the lowest maintenance costs, the best plant availability and the best quality products. If you cannot justify putting your own full-time staff and equipment into your own quarries then I would respectfully suggest that you may already be on the road to nowhere.

Control Legislation.

Our association has assembled a list of all the present legislation that controls the UK quarry industry. We have sent this to the authorities and told them that the present system is spiralling out of control and must be curtailed. We are asking that no one be permitted to frame any new legislation, whatsoever, without first proving that a problem actually exists, which cannot be adequately dealt with by existing legislation.

In Conclusion

There is no doubt in my mind that, although our industry continues to suffer from an unfortunate amount of negative outside influence, we have the solution within our own hands. I think there can be a bright future for large and small operators, that they can exist together and that they should support each other. We simply have to get back to basics, re-discover our pride in what we do and accept that quarrying is a local industry. 

About Gavin Moreira

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