3 March 2021

Aggregates – an introduction

Key aims of the mineral industries and their regulators are to secure essential minerals for the economy and society safely and sustainably, this layman’s guide explains more about the UK supply.

Railtracks and aggregates
© Suganth/Unsplash

In this guide and other linked items, we consider - 

  • minerals and their uses
  • how mineral operations are undertaken
  • how the planning and environmental permitting systems work in relation to mineral operations, and
  • how communities can influence policies, applications and operations.

The material concentrates on key points and issues rather than attempting to be comprehensive. It can be used under aa Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License possible uses may be -

  • mineral operators needing to engage with the public on proposals for mineral working particularly in pre-application discussions
  • Mineral Planning Officers needing to discuss proposed planning policies or planning applications with the public, and
  • local action groups and quarry liaison groups wishing to brief members about minerals issues.

Minerals are needed to provide and maintain infrastructure and industry and underpin the national economy. Adequate supplies are essential for almost every aspect of modern life including construction, manufacturing and energy supply. Despite a growing emphasis on conserving and minimising the use of natural resources and recycling of materials, large amounts continue to be needed.

Some minerals are rare in the UK and must be imported, although there are indigenous resources of many others. It is not economically viable to import all of our mineral requirements because of the high costs of long-distance transportation. Where we have resources but do not choose to work them we should think about the ethics of ‘exporting our environmental damage’, including the added transport carbon and the adverse impacts to valuable local environments and peoples elsewhere in the world where environmental, health and safety and labour practices measures may be less stringent than in the UK.

Most minerals are worked by surface quarrying, which is significantly cheaper than underground mining. However, mining is economic and therefore undertaken for some minerals that sell for relatively higher prices such as metal ores and coal. Nevertheless, in general, where opencast extraction of coal is feasible it has economic advantages over underground mining. Fluids such as oil and natural gas are commonly extracted from significant depths within the Earth through boreholes. Gas is also obtained through boreholes drilled into coal seams and oil shale. Borehole extraction is also used to obtain salt by dissolving rock salt in water which is then extracted as brine.

Mineral extraction can only be undertaken where suitable and economically viable geological deposits exist and operators can buy or lease the land. Mineral sites must be carefully located and well operated to minimise environmental and social impacts while making a sound economic return. Permissions for extraction are only given where the environmental and social impacts of operations can be reduced to an acceptable level. Therefore, the range of suitable sites is often limited, and it may therefore be necessary to propose that minerals operations are carried out reasonably close to where people are living.

It is not possible to work minerals without some impacts on the local environment and any communities in the vicinity but these can be significantly reduced through good site and plant design and management. For instance, noisy equipment can be housed inside buildings and heavy traffic can usually be routed through good (or specially improved) access onto adequate roads. Mineral operators are willing and intent on reducing adverse effects to a minimum. Impacts are controlled through legally enforceable conditions in planning and environmental permits and by planning agreements. If sites are well-designed and managed then prior perceptions and fears about adverse effects can be worse than the reality. Beyond the supply of material needed by the economy, well managed operations can also create important opportunities for environmental and social improvements. The minerals industries pay close attention to -

  • reducing environmental damage
  • improving the efficiency of, and safety at, operations
  • reduction of carbon emissions
  • high quality rehabilitation of worked land, and
  • training of the work force.

Mineral workings employ people directly in site management, extraction, processing and restoration. Others are concerned with support services such as the maintenance of plant and machinery, quality control, sales and marketing and technical consultancy. Jobs for directly employed and contract drivers to transport products from the site are more numerous and are usually available in rural areas where other regular work may be sparse. Some sites have additional processing facilities such as asphalt and ready-mixed concrete plants which require additional staff. Also a far larger number work in industries that depend directly on adequate mineral supplies, such as construction and manufacturing. In some cases, as in brick, pipe and tile manufacturing significant numbers are employed at works often adjacent to the clay pit.

Overall key aims of the mineral industries and their regulators in the planning, health and safety and environmental permitting systems is to secure essential minerals for the economy and society safely, with the least adverse effects on the environment and communities, and making the best use of opportunities for recycling materials – essentially, sustainable development.

This information about onshore mineral extraction in the United Kingdom was originally prepared for the UK Minerals Forum.

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Minerals and their uses


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