Conundrum Holdings longstanding struggle for quarry approval

By on August 4, 2023

Conundrum Holdings longstanding struggle for quarry approval

Victoria is growing quickly, facing unprecedented large-scale road, rail, airfield, gas pipelines and water projects that are part of the ‘Big Build’, as well as on-going maintenance, housing, hospital and school projects. As a result of this, the demand for quarry materials was forecast to double between 2015 and 2050, already tracking at levels higher than this. Despite this significant increase in demand, little has been achieved in securing Victoria’s extractive resources – the sand, rock, gravel and clay that will be used for these projects.

Sample of diamond drill core tray ground level to 47 metres from drill hole one, drilled at proposed North Central Quarry site. | Photo 2006.

Ron Kerr, Managing Director at Conundrum Holdings Pty Ltd, continues to advocate for the importance of the quarry industry as an essential primary industry for the community, for Victoria’s growth and local jobs. As a respected member of the quarrying community, Mr Kerr is concerned for the future of the industry as it faces significant challenges with new quarry approvals, costly compliance requirements and increasingly complex regulations and conditions for quarries. “We are witnessing the gradual demise of family operated quarry businesses throughout our State.”

Conundrum Holdings is currently awaiting approval for a permit for a new quarry located in the Mitchell Shire Council (MSC) between Beveridge and Wallan to Melbourne’s north – North Central Quarry – a resource that will present choice and opportunity for future generations, local people, customers, suppliers, along with those metropolitan councils without quarries.

The search for this greenfield site started 19 years ago like many before (see “visual timeline” on page 9). “We could see the life of Northern Quarries [located in Epping] coming to an end, we’ve been there for more than 30 years,” said Mr Kerr.

Conundrum Holdings was privileged to be approached by the landowner in 2004 to apply for [North Central Quarry] as the adjoining land to the west of his property had only recently been compulsory acquired for wastewater irrigation. With the first of two pivot irrigators turned on in 2006, this provided a compatible land use in the western buffer area. The land had been identified as an Extractive Industry Interest Area in 1990 and there is no significant vegetation or watercourses. Furthermore, the rock is a very high quality suitable for rail, air, concrete, sealing aggregate and general purpose commercial use.

Finally, the site is within 530 metres of a nationally recognised road network for heavy transport, minimising impact on the community by avoiding the need to pass residential housing. This aligned with Conundrum’s business model in keeping the product as close as possible to the market thereby ensuring the more competitive unit rate and minimal carbon footprint.

Earth Resources Regulation, the Victorian quarry regulator, issued the application its own identification, WA1473, in 2011 mapping it onto the State’s publicly available register, GeoVic. Even though the site meets all the requirements including statutory endorsement in 2015, the application is still today waiting on a planning decision from the Minister for Planing.

Line of sight from the centre of North Central Quarry (WA1473) to key landmarks. The Northern Highway, a HML road, is only 530m from the site. | Photo 2021.

Although Conundrum Holdings initiated the proposal in good faith at the request of the landowner, “in 2008 the proposed Work Authority area (WA) and wider growth corridor was investigated for potential urban uses by the VPA. In 2010, part of the WA area was confirmed for future residential purposes with the balance identified for Rural Conservation which allows
extractive industry. In 2012, the land north of the WA through to Wallan was included in the Urban Growth Boundary with the advisory committee commenting that the quarry would need to be considered in future PSP”.

“I feel the local council believes that there is greater opportunity to have this area used for residential land. There is a genuine lack of understanding and respect for our industry. Quarries have multiple uses; it’s not just a single time land use and it normally runs in line with the growth and development of the community. Unfortunately, the respect for these resources over time have been lost to residential development,” he explained.

To bring a better understanding of our industry and the support given, Conundrum Holdings recently published a series of books highlighting the support for the North Central Quarry. Volume One is called ‘Delivering Choice and Opportunity’, documenting North Central Quarry’s journey to date, including a selection of submissions of support for the quarry from almost 400 different people. Volume Two is called ‘From Quarry to Community’, a pictorial book illustrating the art of quarrying and its benefits to the State, using photos and quotations from various submissions to assist in building public awareness and pride within the quarrying
industry. Volume Two is available from Conundrum Holdings.

“We’ve been very grateful to have the support of a broad mix of community and industry. Whilst we acknowledge there is a small protest group supported by the local council, the difficulties we face are of the MSC’s doing,” said Ms Andrew.

Ron Kerr, Managing Director, with a copy of ‘From Quarry to Community’, available from Conundrum Holdings.

Mr Kerr added, “At the end of the day our industries significance has not been respected as well as it should by its governors and as such our State is suffering and will continue to suffer material shortages in both sand and rock. That is absolutely unequivocal.”

“We [Victoria] don’t have a policy of strategic replacement or annual reviews of policies focusing on use and replacement. There is a great deal of work needed and it is only recently that the government has started looking at this issue,” he said.

Conundrum Holdings has been subject to an ongoing and relentless campaign of misinformation and fearmongering by the Mitchell Shire Council, Freedom of information requests have found they have spent in excess of $1.2 million (GST exc) with third parties and we can only assume more internally, costing millions of dollars. Examples include their overtly religious and offensive, “Tell Minister Wynn This Quarry is a Sin”, a slogan for which they had publicly apologised for in 2021, and despite this apology it remained on display in the Wallan Public Hall and on the MSC website until June 20 this year; through to the Council not accepting the outcome of the C106 Planning Panel which totally supported extractive industry activity in this area nor the multiple versions of the PSP prepared by the State Government showing and allowing for a quarry in 2013 and again in 2022.

Just one of the signs used by the council – taken at a community event held by a local Catholic school | Photo 2021.

“It is hard to understand why a local council should hold the
power to manage and orchestrate the objection process when they are meant to be a balanced, unbiased, and responsible authority,”
said Mr Kerr.

When asked where to next for Conundrum Holdings, Mr Kerr explained that they find themselves in a very difficult position. “North Central Quarry is a quality source in a good strategic location, and it is not replaceable. My concern remains that there may be a decision in our favour one day, however with conditions such that North Central Quarry is rendered financially unviable to open. I can’t say there’s an answer because clearly we don’t have an answer – we will just have to continue to push our case respectfully,” he said.

“We’ve tried our hardest, we’ve played a very straight bat and we have always articulated where we’re going before we do anything. Community engagement has been well supported particularly on social media.”

Sarah Andrew, Resources and Land General Manager at Conundrum Holdings, said, “As a society we’re focused on immediacy instead of allowing the land use to take its course. If we look at the Brunswick area as an example, it was filled with quarries, then used for manufacturing and now is high density residential.”

“Without a doubt, you could say that as a family business we’ve had a lot of people work with us and know us. Our industry is a great industry, it serves and supports our society and helps build communities.”

“In hindsight, I wish the basalt was somewhere else, but the rock is where the rock is, the market is where the market is and the road network is where the network is,” said Mr Kerr.

And Mr Kerr delivered this ominous warning about the state of the, proposed changes to the MRSD Act industry and its future “And finally, and probably the most important point in this article is that we as a collective need to be acting now to ensure our future. Conundrum’s journey is a cautionary tale for the whole extractive industry. We must remain galvanised, work as one and support each other or we will no longer be an industry but a group of disparate operators totally at the mercy of increasingly complex government regulations”.

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