Nigel Jackson: The straight-talking mineral products’ champion
First publishedin Aggregates Business Europe
As chief executive of the Mineral Products Association, Nigel Jackson is a key figure in championing the needs of the UK’s vital and diverse building products sector to the British government. He spoke to ABE editor Guy Woodford about the MPA’s work and the fundamental importance of mineral products to Britain’s present and future prosperity.
Nigel Jackson is a talker and a doer. He is also refreshingly frank when it comes to talking about the UK minerals and mineral products industry and the challenges it faces.
“It’s a £20 billion [annual turnover] sector that is critical to propping up a third of the UK economy. It’s hard to find a part of the economy that does not have some form of dependence on minerals and mineral products. Whilst the minerals and mineral products industry’s direct employment is around 80,000, there are nearly 3.5 million people involved in the supply chain it supports. The overriding tragedy over the last 25 years, for me, is that no matter how hard we try, all governments consistently fail to make the link between their ambitions and aspirations for housing and infrastructure and the supply chains on which they depend, of which ours, when it comes to construction, is the biggest.
“I can only think that this reflects the general lack of trading and commercial experience that haunts Westminster. They are all very good on emoting on health, social care and education, as we all are. But when it comes to the heavy side of the economy and trade and industry, there is very little experience.”
Last autumn, the MPA warned that the current UK mineral planning system could threaten future supplies for construction. Jackson, who is also chairman of the CBI Minerals Group and a founding member of the UK Minerals Forum, which draws together all key minerals industry stakeholders, to debate and inform government and the public on the prudent use, sustainable management and supply of UK minerals, is clear on what he and the MPA feel needs to be done to safeguard future building materials supply.
“I would like to see the system that was built from the mid-1970s and has operated reasonably well until recent years, re-established and sustained. The truth is that DCLG (Department for Communities & Local Government) as was and now the MHCLG (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government) has always had a primary focus on housing. The re-badging of the department is actually quite honest, as it admits what we have always known. However, the economy is not just about housing. It’s very important politically, socially and to our industry, but it comes back to the link to the supply chain. If you are going to have a plan-led system, that was supposed to be in place in 2004, and nearly 15 years later we still don’t have full plan coverage and we have substantially less detailed local plan coverage, it is no wonder that companies are not applying for sites that they want to bring forward as urgently as is needed.
“There is lack of clarity to the system. It’s a big business risk to potentially invest anywhere between £100,000 and £1 million to seek planning permission, particularly when it can take five to 15 years to get sites into production. If it’s a plan-led system you really need sight of the plan and well-resourced county councils with the right expertise to process applications. I think they [county councils] do a pretty good job under very difficult circumstances. We’ve never sought to attack the planning officers. This is an attack on the lack of appreciation in government in the critical role that planning authorities play in enabling the economy to thrive, and making the planning profession something people want to do. They are underpaid, overworked and under-recognised, and that needs to change, otherwise we will continue to lag behind in terms of replenishment of mineral reserves.”
Hanson UK, a HeidelbergCement company, is among the more than 500-strong MPA membership drawn from large and small to medium enterprises and affiliated associations from the aggregates, asphalt, cement, concrete, dimension stone, lime, mortar and silica sand industries. Pictured is Hanson UK's Shap Beck quarry near Penrith, in county Cumbria, North West England
Jackson said he has been outlining his and MPA members’ concerns over the current state of the UK minerals planning system to government for quite some time now, but to date there is little progress. “It appears to me that government cutbacks have drained away good capacity and capability, and we’ve been left stranded on the beach. I would estimate that of the 420,000 civil servants, we have less than one FTE [Full Time Employee] to deal with the biggest material flow in the economy.”
Great Britain produces around 360 million tonnes of aggregates and manufactured mineral products every year, but the continuation of such an impressive annual output has been placed in doubt due to the UK’s dwindling mineral reserves. Jackson, a chartered geologist and scientist, says the issue is among the MPA’s and its members’ biggest concerns. “Take sand and gravel, which is particularly important to SMEs. The replenishment rate is now under 60%. It’s as plain as day that if you don’t replace what you are consuming, you are going to run out. We are not saying there is an imminent crisis, but we need to avoid an inevitability.
“With crushed rock, we are very dependent on a limited number of strategically important quarries. And whilst the replenishment rate on crushed rock is at parity plus, that is biased because when big quarries get permissions it helps the arithmetic. We know there are a number of the larger quarries that will need to get new permissions over the medium to longer term.
“Given that it is quite an interconnected and complex system of supply, if you’ve got something as significant as sand and gravel struggling, it is bound to have some form of impact. We know that crushed rock is doing a fair amount of substitution.”
Of the health of the UK recycled aggregates market, Jackson, who is also vice president of the European Aggregates Association (UEPG), says: “We are a European leader in terms of consumption per capita, and certainly in the top three in terms of tonnage recycled. We are at around 95% in terms of recycling what can be recycled. And if it’s not recycled as product, it is reclaimed for quarry restoration.
“Marine aggregates is also doing what it can do. It is very important, particularly to London – which represents 50% of its supply. But there is pressure on wharves, as there is on rail heads for rail-link quarries.
“There are some serious downside issues bearing down on future supply which need addressing. If they are addressed via the reinstallation of the mid-1970s mineral planning system, they would be avoidable problems. But with the withdrawal of expertise, this is a slow-motion car crash.
“We don’t think there is a huge cost linked to what we are asking for. The government needa to get a handful of civil servants with the right expertise to pick up the methods by which they used to operate.”
The MPA chief executive stresses that the association is keen to work with the government to develop an effective UK mineral planning system. As part of this, he says the MPA has “stepped up and raised its game” in terms of producing “credible evidence” to help planners and other stakeholders understand the mineral products industry. “We are happy to work with them. We are happy to do more than in the past. But they need a core team,” reiterates Jackson.
The MPA holds an annual, well-attended Health and Safety Awards event in London. Pictured are senior representatives from FM Conway – 2017 winners of the John Crabbe Memorial Trophy for overall 'outstanding excellence in health and safety'
Jackson pulls no punches about his and his members’ feelings about the UK Aggregates Levy, introduced in 2002, which sees a levy charged at £2 for every tonne of rock, sand or gravel extracted for commercial gain.
“It was a badly designed levy from day one and we’ve been opposed to it. It’s a tax. However, like most things that endure, we’ve lived with it for over 15 years, and it has become an imbedded irritation. Successive governments have been very receptive to the arguments we have placed for keeping the levy at £2, which amounts to a very significant amount of tax burden reduced for the industry. If there was a potential environmental benefit to the Aggregates Levy, the landfill tax probably banked most of it by driving and accelerating the use of recycled aggregates material.
“Corporate social responsibility, best practice sharing, GRI (Global Reporting Initiative). Any number of initiatives and non-fiscal pressures have also borne down to ensure there has been behavioural change and improvement in our industry.”
Jackson’s 42 years’ experience working in the quarrying, mining, construction and waste industries in a variety of differing, predominantly senior management roles, have coincided with not only sustained periods of high demand for mineral products, but also periods of great demand volatility, partly due to the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis and, more recently, due to business uncertainty linked to the narrow vote in June 2016 in favour of leaving the European Union.
Following some improvement in demand towards the end of 2017, Britain’s mineral products markets started the year slowly, hit by weak construction activity and the impact of the particularly cold weather. Sales volumes for asphalt and aggregates fell by 4.8% and 4.9% respectively in Q1 2018 compared to the previous quarter, and ready-mixed concrete by 7.7%. Mortar sales, which last year received a significant boost from new housebuilding, also contracted by 3.8% in the quarter under review, the biggest quarterly fall since early 2013.
“The figures do not paint as happy a picture as we would like,” summarises Jackson. “Construction is taking a bit of a downturn, which is a trend that we observed throughout 2017. Our members’ interests are very tightly tied to construction, which in turn is tied to the state of the economy. Too many people who are keen to seize on the fact that the post-Brexit referendum period has not been a [economic] catastrophe, forget how good it was back in 2007. It has been a very protracted downturn with better years and worse years, but the simple fact of the matter is that we are operating [as an industry] below capacity, as is the economy. Our members’ lack of confidence in the market means a lot of investment is being held back.”
Jackson and the MPA are predicting a flat year for the mineral products industry, with some upturn in 2019. “The mood amongst our members is that they can live with it, but they don’t like it. There is some anxiety. The infrastructure spending earmarked for 2019 will, if the cash flows, make a difference. There is also housing (house building) – which was quite perky in 2016 and 2017. In early 2018, the bad weather has undoubtedly had an impact. The Q2 figures, particularly on housing, will be quite important in giving us a clue of what to expect for the rest of the year.”
The ‘Zero Harm’ health and safety in the workplace philosophy has been championed by the MPA, sharing best practice with its members and celebrating vital work in this area through its annual and popular Health and Safety Awards event in London.
Nigel Jackson with some of the MPA team
“Health and safety is our number one priority,” emphasises Jackson. “It also represents the single biggest cultural shift in outlook I’ve seen in this industry. Fifteen to 20 years ago, if you’d said that we’d now all be committed to achieving Zero Harm, you may have got a mixed response. I’m convinced everyone has got the message. The stories that arise from companies who are unfortunate enough to experience fatalities and serious injury incidents, we share that and they share that. The sharing process has accelerated the common outlook we have now.
“Although we have made good progress over the last ten years, last year was not a great year. We realised that we are not as good on this as we thought we were, and we need to reset the agenda and change the conversation. I think in a genuine attempt to achieve the Zero Harm target we may have complicated the management process. If you’re a modern day quarry manager every good idea that rains down from the group, board, division, region or area, ends up on your shoulders. Whether it is health and safety, planning or another issue, there is a lot on your plate and fewer people on your very busy and complicated site. Hazards lurk in all weathers and lighting conditions. It’s a big ask – but it [Zero Harm] is achievable, as some sites have shown.
“Where we have been able to help is by sharing, celebrating, showcasing best practice, and also by provoking and trying to push to create the imperative for change. The MPA board are in effect the controlling mind of the industry. They have the power to make profound changes, and this has been one of them.”
MPA membership has grown significantly in recent years to over 500 large and small to medium-sized enterprises and affiliated associations from the aggregates, asphalt, cement, concrete, dimension stone, lime, mortar and silica sand industries. The figure is double the 250 members of the Quarry Products Association (QPA), the MPA’s predecessor which merged into MPA in 2009.
“I think the increase in membership is due to the inclusivity of our organisation. We have 14 product groups that we represent and are the go-to organisation for over 90% of the minerals and minerals extractive industries. Instead of having 14 different houses discussing health and safety, carbon, biodiversity, planning and other issues, there is one house. It provides a means of having a national conversation.”
Despite his previously alluded to frustration over a lack of detailed government response to his repeated voicing of MPA’s concerns over the current UK minerals planning system, Jackson says the association’s Victoria, London-based HQ has been a huge asset in gaining access to Westminster movers and shakers – with meetings with over 150 parliamentarians taking place each year.
“We meet Lords and MPs continuously. We can get to parliamentary groups and select committee meetings. We can have one-to-ones at Portcullis House, 1 Parliament Street or The House of Commons. We are seen around the place. We operate two parliamentary groups: one for highways and the all-party parliamentary group for mining and quarrying, that I set up five years ago. We normally time the meetings so they get the latest trading figures and we can pick topical issues to discuss.”
Jackson sees automation playing a greater role in the British mineral products industry in future years, but it won’t represent a major threat to jobs. “I think as an industry we will be smarter, and I think we will be safer. There is a lot of opportunity offered by automation, particularly around logistics and transport in quarry haulage. I think there may be more analytical jobs created, but the industry has to work out what new technology can do for it.”
Talking to Jackson, it’s clear that his passion for all things mineral is just as strong as it was on graduating in Geology from King’s College, University of London, in 1974. “I get out of bed to serve the industry. It is an industry worth serving. We’ve been working for 20 years on an industry-led UK minerals strategy and are going to launch it in July. A lot of people have worked on it over that time. Producing that strategy will, for me, be one of the most significant days in my career. Whether the government recognises it or not, we should use it to help us move forward as an industry. Part of the strategy captures the learnings of the last 20 years. A lot of senior industry figures are retiring, but the next generation of miners and quarry workers will have a platform to push on from. That’s very important to me.”