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Minerals Extraction and the Historic Environment

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Jon Humble
Senior Rural and Environmental Policy Adviser (Minerals), Historic England

Chris Wood
Acting Head, Building and Conservation Research Team, Historic England

From the stone in Stonehenge to the iron in Ironbridge, the extraction of minerals in prehistory through to the modern era is a story of remarkable human endeavour and ingenuity, in sometimes extreme and hazardous environments. Nevertheless, the scale and technical proficiency of the modern extractive industries means that they can have profound effects – both positive and negative – on what we value most about the historic environment. These effects can occur in terrestrial, subterranean and marine contexts.

Government mineral planning policy emphasises the importance of ensuring that extraction is carried out according to the principles of sustainable development, both in terms of minerals supply and by adopting an integrated approach to the consideration of social, economic and environmental factors (Minerals Policy Statement 1 (MPS1), DCLG 2006).

Recently developed Historic England policy on mineral extraction and the historic environment reflects these aims under three headings:

  • the historic significance of mining and quarrying sites and landscapes
  • the impacts on the historic environment that can be caused by mineral extraction together with advice on appropriate mitigation measures
  • the need for, and supply of natural stone and other materials required to conserve the historic environment and maintain local distinctiveness.
The mineral legacy: mine engine-house at Botallack, Cornwall. In 2006 the Cornwall and West Devon mining industry was inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

The legacy

A geologist tests the suitability of stone for historic building repairs.

Mineral extraction in the past has created a widespread and, in some areas, fundamental social, economic and environmental legacy. Its physical remains therefore form a significant part of today’s historic environment. Each generation has placed its own values on this legacy with attitudes changing radically over time and continuing to change. Historic remains initially perceived as derelict structures and land may eventually become highly valued, particularly as the pool of surviving examples declines over time – requiring difficult, pragmatic choices on what is conserved for future generations.

In recent years our understanding of historic mining and quarrying sites and landscapes has developed rapidly, as part of the growing interest in industrial archaeology. The contribution of voluntary sector special–interest groups has been an important factor in this development. Frequently these groups have developed as a response to community associations with the extractive industries that have developed over many generations, and which have become imbued with a strong sense of local identity and heritage.

Historic England and its voluntary sector partners believe that concerted endeavour is required to raise general awareness of the extent, significance and cultural value of former mining and quarrying remains if the legacy of the extractive industries is to be safeguarded.

Impacts and mitigation

Survey and excavation have revolutionised our understanding of the past as a result of the minerals industry's compliance by with the requirements of Planning Policy Guidance notes 15 and 16. The environmental costs, however, can be considerable. In addition to the destructive impacts within the footprint of minerals extraction, the surface disposal of mineral waste can preclude appreciation of historic sites. Inappropriate restoration of former sites can also disfigure the historic character of the landscape and compromise the setting of ancient monuments. Noise, dust and the vibration caused by the regular passage of minerals–related heavy traffic can similarly damage the fabric of historic buildings and reduce opportunities for their enjoyment and appreciation.

Nevertheless, more effective approaches to mitigation are being developed, both for terrestrial and marine–dredged extraction. Dialogue between heritage professionals, mineral planners and the minerals industry is needed to ensure mitigation meets sector standards, as well as the test of ‘reasonableness’ required by the planning process. It is particularly important for these sectors to continue to develop strategic approaches to understanding the significance and distribution of historic sites and landscapes in order to ensure effective protection for the most significant sites and to limit the cost of compliance for the industry. Areas actively under discussion include: approaches to the pre–determination evaluation of land proposed for extraction; measures to ensure that the numerous ‘old minerals permissions’ (granted between 1948 and1982) comply with modern requirements for safeguarding the historic environment and mitigation; and the appropriate restoration, end use and aftercare of former extraction sites.

Natural building and roofing stone

Government policy (set out in MPS 1 and its annexes) has now recognised the importance of supplies of stone for conserving historic buildings and for maintaining local distinctiveness during new build. Re–opening old quarries, however, has become increasingly contentious and many applications have been subject to strong objections. Using authentic sources of stone is nevertheless essential if local character is to be maintained and individual buildings are to be repaired effectively.

Planning authorities are now charged with safeguarding important sources of stone that could be used for these purposes. The problem is that too often little is known about the stone used on historic and vernacular buildings – or where it came from. Historic England has begun a major national study to draw together the very considerable amount of fieldwork and archival work that has already been done – but currently this mostly resides in ad hoc collections or as undocumented specialist knowledge.

Although a primary aim is to protect important sources for the benefit of the historic environment, there are other tangible benefits to rural areas in these highly sustainable operations. Winning the material is still very much a hand–crafted operation that involves minimal traffic movements. Local farmers have found this form of small–scale quarrying an effective form of diversification that also results in local employment.

Winning stone is essential but there is no intention of needlessly destroying old quarry sites that are now recognised for their archaeological, geological or wildlife interests. The aim will be to find new sites were closely matching stone can be won with the least damage. Failing that, mitigation measures will be expected to minimise harm and conflict if there are competing interests on the site in question.

It is something of a paradox that Historic England might seek to protect old quarry workings as an industrial legacy, but at the same time want to exploit such reserves for much needed stone. But this is the stuff of conservation. Accommodating all competing interests in mineral extraction, its aftermath and old quarry sites may often be contentious. Those with a particular interest in the historic environment will need to articulate the full significance of the asset. Having this information ready before detailed consideration begins will be a necessity if the site or resource is to be effectively conserved or used.

© Copyright Historic England.

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