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Scotland struggles with its 'local'materials quandary

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With talk of 'foreign' building materials continuing to bedevil the construction of Enric Miralles' new Scottish Parliament building, Scotland stands at a crossroads over the future of its indigenous mineral resources, writes Julian Holder.The furore over the original specification of Chinese granite as a cladding for the new Holyrood building has put the spotlight on a set of problems that both the stone industry and bodies such as Historic Scotland have been aware of for some time.

At its height, 150 years ago, the Scottish stone industry boasted more than 1,500 quarries.This figure now stands at barely 20.

A conference called by the recently formed Scottish Stone Liaison Group took place in Edinburgh earlier this month to debate 'New ideas about old materials'. A key message was that small-scale sustainable quarries are necessary.The problem for the conservationists, however, is creating a big enough niche market to be attractive to the industry, while the industry has to find ways of working a large number of small pits at a profit.

The suggestion from the industry seemed to be the idea of 'campaign' quarrying to make local distinctiveness viable and raise it above the level of being merely a cottage industry.What is also clearly needed is a programme to educate the public about the issue of sustainable quarrying and the maintenance of national character in buildings.

The Scottish Homes Agency puts a conservative figure of £329 million on the maintenance of roofs over the next 30 years.Even if only a proportion of these roofs are on listed buildings or in conservation areas, this is a considerable market.With only one slate quarry still in operation, industry would be happy to expand - if it were allowed.

The problem in this delicate, new, and somewhat unholy alliance between conservation and the industry would seem, ironically, to be the protection of the natural environment currently taking precedence over all other arguments. It is ironic that conservationists may be tarred with the same brush as the quarrying industry - the best hope for the future is that they are both in the same hole together and the sooner the Scottish Stone Liaison Group makes them realise that, and includes the environmentalists in the debate, the better.

In May, when the group was launched by deputy minister for culture and sport Rhona Brankin MSP, she argued that 'Scottish Natural Heritage has recognised that the sustainable extraction of stone and slate can occur without compromising environmental concerns'.

It remains to be seen if this vision can become a reality and that the roofs over Scottish heads can once again be made of local slate.

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