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When things move, you need rock

When things move, you need rock - Local Government Perspectives 2017

The recent earthquakes highlight the need for pragmatic policies on aggregates and access to urban quarry sites.

Roger Parton, Chief Executive, Aggregate and Quarry Association of New Zealand

As this article was being finalised, the earthquakes affecting Kaikoura, Marlborough, North Canterbury and even Wellington occurred with considerable damage to homes, commercial buildings, farms, businesses and infrastructure. Most of the repair work will require aggregates in one form or another for roading, concrete, railway ballast and bitumen.

The aggregates industry will respond as it has done in the past but its ability to do so is sometimes curtailed by planning decisions that either frustrate access to, or sterilise aggregate resources for, such important work. Local and regional authorities must be aware that the industry’s ability to help them very much depends on their willingness to ensure aggregates can be extracted as close as possible to the location where they are to be used.

New councillors: Better understanding of the issues?

Our industry observes that the triennial elections for New Zealand’s local authorities saw a number of new mayors elected, including in Auckland and Wellington, along with many new councillors.

The New Zealand quarry sector now looks to newly-elected councils to get a sense of any improvement in council policies which have tended to rope off access to urban or urban fringe quarry sites. There are particular concerns with Auckland, as our largest city, where the council recently signalled it wants to do away with a current dividing line between rural and urban parts of the city to assist with accelerating house prices and increasing demand for new homes.

Quarrying firms fear this could see urban encroachment on the few remaining areas where quarries operate within the greater Auckland area.

Controversial Supreme Court decision

A number of other councils are also implementing new 10-year district plans which uphold the controversial Supreme Court decision which maintains that no economic activity can take place in areas of outstanding natural landscape. These plans are seen as potentially meaning adverse and perverse impacts on quarries such as no longer being able to extract river shingle in flood zones which sit in areas of outstanding natural landscape. Imagine the consequences for a council which said no to extraction, only to see their constituents flooded out as a result.

Economic progress and environmental management

The AQA continues its efforts to promote to all politicians the need for a better understanding of the importance of quarries to New Zealand’s economic progress and our commitment to sustainable environmental management.

Our industry chose the country’s leading wine region – Marlborough – as the venue for its 2016 conference. Quarries from the adjoining region of Canterbury took out most of the industry honours.

Road Metals won the awards for safety, engineering, operations and quarry leadership.

Three Canterbury quarries took the annual MIMICO environmental awards with Isaacs Construction getting special recognition for its unique model where all its commercial activities – quarrying, dairy farming and a salmon farm – finance the conservation goals of its trust owners.

Perversely, Isaacs was one of 10 Canterbury quarries which had a bid to dig deeper at existing sites rejected by ECAN commissioners, partly on the basis of supposedly poor environmental management. It is appealing the decision.

The 2017 industry conference will be held in Auckland in July and is being redesigned to allow attendees to gain the maximum number of Continuing Professional Development hours.

That signals the increasing professionalism and maturity of the New Zealand quarry sector. We are determined to do our best to look after everyone who works in our industry, and the communities and businesses we serve.

More health and safety compliance requirements

The most important measure of the quarrying industry is sending our staff home safe every night. By that measure, we had a much better year than previously. As I write in late November, quarrying across New Zealand headed to the year’s end with no fatalities recorded compared to the black year of 2015 when four deaths took place.

That deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated; most quarries have really been working at lifting their game on health and safety.

However, as we headed into 2017, some smaller quarries in particular faced a real challenge meeting the December 31 deadline for all quarries to have qualified, competency-proven managers in place. Some small quarries may not be in a position to legally re-open in 2017 as WorkSafe increases compliance requirements.

Promised review of quarry-specific regulations

WorkSafe continues to target an estimated 1000-plus unregistered quarries, mostly small backblock operations producing low volumes but presenting the highest health and safety risks. We look forward to the promised review of quarry-specific regulations which will clarify the requirements for the industry. As many councils own quarries or at least the land they operate on, they have every reason to support this review.

The New Zealand economy continues to enjoy good growth, in what some commentators were earlier calling a ‘rock star’ performance, a term the quarry industry rather likes. Agriculture plays an important part in the New Zealand economy via limestone. However roadmaking and building dominate demand. The building industry softened in 2015 to use 10 million tonnes of aggregate following three years of growth from six million to 11.7 million tonnes in 2014.

While New Zealand quarries are certainly continuing to benefit from good ongoing demand for aggregate, there are signals that things have flattened a little.

New Zealand produced some 39 million tonnes of assorted aggregates in 2015 – down from 42 million in 2014.

This equates to 8.5 tonnes per capita in 2015, just a little down on the 2014 figures. In 2005, the industry produced a record nearly 12 tonnes for every man, woman and child. Canterbury has of course had a bumper few years since the 2010 / 11 earthquakes but that is starting to level out as the rebuild loses momentum, though it is still second only to Auckland in production.

Myth debunked

Auckland’s biggest challenge remains meeting demand and delivering it. The AQA recently commissioned a review of the often-stated quote about the cost of aggregate “doubling every 30 kilometres it is carried”. While that remains broadly true for the first 30 kilometres and costs do continue to mount, the level of increase does generally moderate after the first 30 kilometres.

In Auckland, however, the issue is the time trucks spend on the road, not the distance travelled. We can only hope that the joint government / council major roading programme for our biggest city will eventually ease the gridlock which often plagues it.

This article was first published in Local Government Perspectives 2017.

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