Home   Maidstone   News   Article

Director and CEO of Gallagher answers questions about proposal for Hermitage Quarry extension at Aylesford

It is 50 years since a young Irish emigre to Kent first went into business for himself with the help of a £2,200 loan from a friend to buy a digger.

Pat Gallagher soon learned that he was a pretty poor digger driver, but good at finding others to drive it for him, and the Aylesford-based business that he started has since grown and expanded into many different fields and now has a turnover in excess of £150m a year.

Pat Gallagher
Pat Gallagher

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Despite being a family-run business with a social conscience, supporting many community projects over the years, the nature of the business – quarrying and construction – has often led to controversy, particularly since 1988, when he purchased Hermitage Farm off Hermitage Lane in Aylesford, convinced that there was valuable stone beneath it, and two years later created Gallagher Aggregates to quarry that stone.

Each stage of the business, from its opening to later extensions, has been met with howls of anguish from protestors worried about everything from the loss of farmland to the destruction of ancient woodland; from HGV traffic on Hermitage Lane to noise and dust from the quarry blasting.

Just this month, the company became the focus of another storm of protest after responding to a “Call for Sites” issued by Kent County Council, which is preparing a new Kent Minerals and Waste Local Plan, in which KCC makes provision for the extraction of minerals such as hard rock, sand and gravel across the county.

The local authority determined that there would be a shortfall in the provision of hard rock of 17.5m tonnes over the plan period up to 2038.

In the Call For Sites, Gallagher Aggregates was the only company in Kent to come forward with plans to address the shortfall. It suggested a 96-hectare expansion of its Hermitage Quarry site would be capable of providing 20m tonnes of ragstone within the time period.

Pat Gallagher started with just one JCB digger like this one
Pat Gallagher started with just one JCB digger like this one

But the proposal, which takes in areas of high-value Grade 2 agricultural land and areas of plantations on ancient woodland sites, has sparked a storm of protest, not least from the national charity the Woodland Trust which described it as “A shocking and short-sighted proposal that completely disregards the national commitments to tackle the nature and climate crises.”

The trust has already garnered a staggering 21,000 letters of objection against the plan.

But is there another side to the story?

Last weekend, Gallagher’s held three consecutive open days at its Aylesford quarry site (the company has another quarry at Blaise Farm in West Malling) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the business.

Our reporter Alan Smith went along to the middle one of those open days, where around 80 guests were enjoying a cooked breakfast and tours of the quarry site, and he talked to Sean Connor, the company’s managing director, and to Lance Taylor, the company’s Chief Executive Officer.

Sean Connor, MD, and Lance Taylor, CEO
Sean Connor, MD, and Lance Taylor, CEO

So tell me what today is all about?

Sean Connor: “We have an open day at Hermitage Quarry every few years and invite our neighbours, local communities, stakeholders and customers. This year is particularly special because it’s our 50th anniversary of Pat Gallagher starting the business back in 1973, and also the quarry is 33 years old.

“Unfortunately we missed our 30th year celebrations for the quarry because of the pandemic, so this is a great opportunity to have a catch-up. Today is very much about our clients and stakeholders. It’s an opportunity to say thank you to them for their support and to show them what we do.

“That’s important because really not a lot of people do know what we do. They see our trucks on the road. But if you drive down Hermitage Lane and into our quarry, you’d think you were coming into a National Trust site, the way that we run it. We’re very proud of what we do, so we want to show it off.

“Yesterday, we had 400 school-children here, some with special needs. We had jobseekers here from the local employment office looking for jobs. That’s very much driven by Pat and Lyndsey (Pat Gallagher’s daughter and the company’s Chief Operating Officer), wanting to give something back.

Pat Gallagher addressing his guests at his open day
Pat Gallagher addressing his guests at his open day

“Tomorrow, we’ll have all of our employees’ children visiting. It’s about mentoring them, helping them to make some life choices, not necessarily in our industry, but helping them see what’s possible.

Tell me about the quarry restoration process.

Sean Connor: “It’s a progressive restoration scheme. The idea is that you quarry the stone and behind you, you restore the quarry. This is a unique site in that although the woodland itself isn’t ancient, the soils beneath the woodland are classed as ancient soils.

“So what we do is we collect those soils and move them carefully into the restored area behind us, so that they’re retained for future generations. And instead of planting back what was an introduced species of sweet chestnut coppice, on top of those soils we then replant with native species such as oak, maple, hawthorn. There are many species that we plant, but they are all indigenous to the UK.

“What is here at the moment is sweet chestnut coppice that was introduced probably in Victorian times, as a crop to grow for hop poles, which was a big thing in Kent, and fencing. Now obviously those industries are a lot smaller these days. Most timber for fencing is imported, so most of the sweet chestnut is used now for biomass. It’s a fast-growing crop essentially.

Sean Connor, Gallagher's MD
Sean Connor, Gallagher's MD

“We also re-plant at far higher density than the sweet chestnut that was growing there before. The idea being that we add value to the land when we put it back.”

“We’ve had a number of awards for the quality of our restoration, our creation of wildlife corridors and our use of indigenous species.

“When people come here, they are initially quite wary of what we do, so that’s why the open days are so useful to show people what we’re really like.

“It was fantastic yesterday to see 65 kids out in the restoration area doing their best, with our help, to plant oak trees. It was a magnificent day.

“And they all got a certificate with GPS coordinates to say exactly where their tree was planted so that one day they can come back here with their children to show them their tree.

The quarry is mining a bed of high quality Kentish ragstone from the Jurassic Age
The quarry is mining a bed of high quality Kentish ragstone from the Jurassic Age

So are you saying that Oaken Wood (the ancient woodland) is all sweet chestnut?

Sean Connor: “Within the whole, the vast, vast majority, 80 or 90% is sweet chestnut, Of course there are some standard trees that have grown between them over the years from airborne seeds.

“They have to be dealt with very carefully, Some we’ve managed to retain in situ and quarried around them, In other cases, we have had to apply for a felling licence; then we’ve generally used them around the quarry to create log piles to enrich biodiversity.”

Tell me about the proposed extension.

Sean Connor: “Well to be clear, we haven’t applied for any planning. We are responding to Kent County Council’s Minerals and Waste Local Plan Review.”

The rock is blasted away from the cliff face and then scooped up
The rock is blasted away from the cliff face and then scooped up

“What they’ve identified in their latest review is that there is a shortfall of crushed rock in Kent, and by the end of the proposed plan period which is 2038, there’s going to be a shortfall of 17.5m tonnes of crushed rock.

“So KCC is duty bound to put out a call for sites to Kent land owners and operators to ask, is there any more crushed rock to be had in Kent to meet this shortfall?

“So we’ve identified an area of search – and that’s all it is at the moment – that meets that requirement for an extra 17.5m tonnes.

“So our response is just letting them know that we’ve found some, and we think it’s of good quality and it’s in this particular area – and that is just the beginning of a two-year call for sites programme which will have to go through public consultation, through numerous technical reviews, in terms of public rights of way, in moving soils, power lines and blasting and so on.”

“But we’re not at that stage yet. So all we’ve done is to respond and say yes we think we have found what you are looking for.”

The area of the proposed extension
The area of the proposed extension

There may be a long process ahead, but since yours was the only submission, isn’t the extension inevitable?

Sean Connor: “Far from inevitable. The process we went through last time to get our previous quarry extension took probably five years and we faced a lot of criticism back then as well

“But we managed to answer those questions that were raised and to convince the Secretary of State and the planning inspector that the gain in terms of crushed rock over the period mitigated any losses.”

Lance Taylor: “My experience of the process of allocation is that the process sorts out whether you get a consent or not. You give robust answers to tough questions. And then it’s audited.

“We’re ambitious, but also realistic.”

Lance Taylor, Gallagher's CEO
Lance Taylor, Gallagher's CEO

“There’s a process to run. It’s a very long process. I can see this lasting five to seven years before we know where we stand, or where Kent stands.

“We can provide arguments for the extension to counter all the arguments against, but in my experience it’s a very balanced judgement, because there’s so much evidence to be gone through.

Sean Connor: “You are right that ours was the only return made in the call for sites.

“The reason for that is that the lower greensand beds of the Hythe formation that run through Maidstone – the Romans found them 2,000 years ago and we are just continuing that history - they appear here at the very highest level of the rock strata.

“The rock is quite close to the surface as its runs through Maidstone and away to West Malling.”

The rock face bordering the "void"
The rock face bordering the "void"

“Then the rock dives down deeper and therefore the overburden makes it uneconomic to mine that distance down.

“So this quarry is very important for a number of reasons; one is that this is the last remaining Kentish ragstone that can be economically quarried in Kent.

“We have a planning condition that says we must produce Kentish ragstone for the restoration market and we provide saws on-site to cut the stone for that restoration market.

“So that stone will go to things like the restoration of Leeds Castle, Rochester Castle and Westminster Abbey. We’re sending loads of stone every year up to the Tower of London because that was built with Kentish ragstone that was sourced from Maidstone.

“So it’s important as a historic stone. But instead of just complying with that planning condition, we’ve built that side of the business up to quite a substantial level now and we’re really proud of the fact that over half the ragstone that we turn into dimensional stone actually goes into new buildings in and around Maidstone and right across the county.”

The M&S store at Eclipse Park is partly faced with Kentish ragstone
The M&S store at Eclipse Park is partly faced with Kentish ragstone

“So our Kentish ragstone is now being used under planning conditions in housing developments to bring that vernacular link to our past.

“We have a team of eight masons in the quarry that will saw and carve beautiful dimensional stone into building stone, so, for example, take the Marks and Spencer’s store down at Eclipse Park, half of that building is Kentish ragstone.”

You say the use of ragstone is often a planning condition, if you’re the only supplier of Kentish Ragstone does that mean that builders have no option but to come to you?

Sean Connor: “They are conditioned to use locally sourced vernacular materials, that might be Kentish ragstone. It might be something else. It might be ‘Kentish Ragstone’ from somewhere else. Incredibly the French produce something they call ‘Kentish Ragstone’, a bit like the UK makes ‘Camembert’ cheese in Ashford.

“The other reason that this quarry is important is because of the high strength of this particular rock which makes it suitable for making ready-mixed concrete, and for making concrete blocks, and for making high specification aggregate products, which you wouldn’t find at our other quarry. The quality of the rock is just much higher here.”

Gallagher’s now has its own cement division
Gallagher’s now has its own cement division

How do you feel about the opposition to your plans, particularly from the Woodland Trust?

Sean Connor: “We absolutely respect their point of view. There are many things that I don’t like that go on in life in terms of local development and things, so everybody has a voice and everybody should be heard.

“So we have taken the view to embrace communication with all sides of the argument.

“There are a lot of people who support the Gallagher business and what we do, our social values, our employment and community projects. But we’re well aware that we have a duty to communicate with those who don’t necessarily agree with what we do.

“Everyone in the business here is keen to just talk about the facts – they are quite clear – and making sure we communicate those facts to people. Ultimately if people chose to object that’s their right and we respect that – that’s our planning system.”

Dimensional ragstone
Dimensional ragstone

“In short we consult and we’ve already opened our doors to local parish councils and local stakeholders who have seen the stories in the Press and said, ‘What’s going on?’

“Our first response is always: ‘Come and talk to us.’

So do you think those voices raised in opposition have simply misunderstood the degree to which there is Ancient Woodand on the site?

Sean Connor: “It’s essentially the same argument that was raised 10 years ago. Nothing’s really changed since our last quarry extension.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a case of getting it wrong. What we see is the headlines, you know ‘ancient woodland, destruction’ and all of those emotive words.”

Ragstone prepared for restoration use
Ragstone prepared for restoration use

“I’m very keen to let people know about the good stuff that we do. What we do give back and how we do add bio-diversity and net gain.

“But that will all come forward in the technical review. We will have the opportunity to put our case forward in the next two years.

Lance Taylor: “We could have promoted this land in a different way. We could have chosen to actively seek planning consent without it being in the call for sites process. The last time consent was gained, it wasn’t following a call for site process.

“But we believe that this process is a good thing. There’s more debate.

“We’ve got around eight to 10 years of aggregate still left to quarry here, so we’ve got a bit of time.”

The quarry is mining a bed of high quality Kentish ragstone from the Jurassic Age
The quarry is mining a bed of high quality Kentish ragstone from the Jurassic Age

“We thought we’d respond to the call for sites which was much earlier than we thought it was going to be, and we will follow the process.

“It’s a robust process. I believe in these five-year plans with 20-year responses to aggregate requirements and landfill requirements. We’ll go on the journey and respond and see how we get on.

“But I would say there’s a lot of discussion around the ragstone and the limestone, but half of our business operation is recycling. That often gets missed.

“We are a landfill site for inert waste material. That’s part of our planning consent. We refill the quarry with inert waste as part of the restoration. Where would all those soils go without us?

“We also take those soils and extract the aggregate back out of them and mix it with our waste stone that’s generated as part of the quarrying process and sell it as good quality aggregate.”

A third of all aggregate sold from this site is recycled

“So recycling is a massive part of our operation, probably a third of all the aggregate sold from this quarry is recycled.”

Sean Connor: “Yes, we are so close to the M20, which makes us ideally located for all the utility companies to bring us their waste, and all the aggregate waste collected at KCC’s household waste recycling centres, all the bits of broken pots and so on. It all gets recycled here.”

Lance Taylor: “Yes. When you go to a tip and drop stuff off, all of KCC’s waste, that is anything that is aggregate-based, comes here, then we mix it up with our sands and gravels...

“The utility companies, when they put their services in the ground, they create waste – gas, water and particularly broadband these days – they create a lot of waste and they bring it here.

“We mix it up here and send it back out. We’re proud of our recycling operation.”

Much of the business is recycling waste aggregate
Much of the business is recycling waste aggregate

“The other consent that we have is for manufactured aggregate. So you know the waste-to-energy plants in the country, where you basically take the black bin rubbish and burn it. After burning, you have an aggregate that’s left over – it’s like fine soot.

“Sean has spent five years investing in a plant that can take that, mix it with sand and re-sell it as light-weight aggregate. It’s another recycling facility.

“Recycling is really important for us. On our carbon footprint, we aim to become carbon positive. Getting to carbon neutral is first and it’s tough. But we’ve already reduced our carbon footprint by over 55%.

“And we are absolutely determined to become carbon neutral by 2050 and if we can become carbon positive through our recycling operation, that will be brilliant!”

“The headlines that we see about ‘woodland destruction’ ignore our massive effort in the recycling.”

A view within the quarry
A view within the quarry

Sean Connor: “When we go back to those emotive words. When we see ‘quarry extension’. Well ‘extension’ implies it’s an increase in the void. But as I described earlier about the continuous restoration that comes behind you, it’s a continuation of what we have been doing for the past 33 years.

“The void will continue to be restored behind us. It’s not making a greater extended void than we are doing already. That’s a very important distinction. We’re just shifting along.”

So how big is the void area?

Sean Connor: “So the whole estate is around 660 acres, with the potential for the new allocation area, you’re looking at maybe 800 acres of estate land, and at any one time we are quarrying in the region of 120 acres right in the middle.

“And that’s what’s made me really proud this morning with a number of guests who haven’t been here before coming up and saying: ‘I can’t believe it. I’ve driven back and forth to Maidstone Hospital all my life and yes I’ve seen your trucks, but I would never have imagined what was going on here.”

Horse riders in the restored quarry area
Horse riders in the restored quarry area

“The other thing is that Pat Gallagher – well I’ve been working in the aggregates industry for over 35 years, and if most companies are conditioned to spend £1 on restoration, then Pat Gallagher will spend £2.

“What you get as a result of that is this beautiful boundary around our operations, which we open up to the public.”

“There are beautiful walks. People can enjoy riding and cycling here.

“The vast majority of paths and accesses around this 660-acre estate are actually permissive – they are not solely public rights of way, and that is for a very good reason.

“It is because Pat Gallagher is a community player. He’s lived in the county for 50 years and he wants to give something back in terms of amenity. All those paths are open to the public all the time.”

The public can comment on KCC’s draft Minerals and Waste Local Plan, which includes the proposed Gallagher quarry extension, by visiting here.

Responses must be received by July 25.

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More