Marine aggregates play an important part in the provision of high quality raw materials for both the UK construction industry and for coastal protection. Sand and gravel are generally taken from the seabed by trailer suction hopper dredgers that are capable of loading and transporting cargoes of up to 9,000 tonnes from offshore dredge sites to wharves located close to the point of end-use. The dredge areas are leased from The Crown Estate following an extensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the stakeholder consultation process and granting of permission by the MFA/MMO. This was formerly regulated through the Department of Communities & Local Government (CLG), before responsibility was transferred in June 2007 to the Marine & Fisheries Agency (MFA), an executive agency of Defra. Following the successful Royal Assent of the Marine and Coastal Access Act in November 2009, responsibility for regulating marine aggregate activities will transfer from MFA to the new Marine Management Organisation (MMO) in April 2010.
The areas of seabed that are under licence for aggregate extraction represent 0.15% of the UK continental shelf area, and the zones that are actively dredged at any one time represent only a small proportion of those areas licensed. Key statistics on the industry’s performance during 2008 has recently been summarised in a report by The Crown Estate and the British Marine Aggregate Producers Association (2009) as follows:
- A total of 21.24 million tonnes of sand and gravel were dredged from Crown Estate licences in England and Wales during 2008 (23.09 million tonnes in 2007)
- The total area of seabed licensed in 2008 decreased to 1,287km2 (1,344km2 in 2007)
- Extraction took place within 137.9km2, representing only 10.8% of the licensed area (134.7km2 - 10% of the licensed area in 2007)
- The area of seabed dredged for more than 1.25 hours per year (high intensity extraction) decreased to 9.28km2 (10.16km2 in 2007)
- 90% of extraction from Crown Estate licences took place from an area of 48.22km2 (49.95km2 in 2007)
Despite the small areas of seabed that are dredged for marine aggregates, it is recognised that aggregate extraction has potential environmental impacts. Our understanding of the nature and distribution of these resources, and the development of improved methods of minimising impacts from aggregate extraction has in the past been mainly supported through Research and Development funds from Defra. Such work has also been supported by the industry through the British Marine Aggregate Producers Association (BMAPA), by individual operating companies, by The Crown Estate and others.
In 2002 the UK Government introduced an additional source of funding which was derived through the imposition of a new Aggregates Levy on primary aggregate sales from both land-won and marine sources. The Levy was introduced as a means to better reflect the environmental costs of winning construction minerals, and to encourage the use of alternative secondary and recycled construction materials. To reduce the environmental consequences of winning primary construction aggregates, a proportion of the revenue raised by the new Levy has been allocated to a research fund, known as the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF). Of the £20-30m per year released from the Treasury to Defra to support the ALSF in England, about 10% of the net amount has been allocated to projects relating to the marine environment. This is administered through the Marine Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund (MALSF). The remaining 90% of the ALSF is allocated separately to support terrestrial-based projects.