Breedon Group – Hope Concrete

Report of Meeting Friday March 25th 2022 with John Mulryan and Dr Ed Cavanagh of Hope Cement.

Digging chunks out of the Peak District is older than the UK’s first national park; the current quarry business started at Hope in 1929, while the Great Trespass was not till April 1932. That helps explain why it’s still a substantial industry here. The other explanation, of course, is the geology of our neighbourhood offering limestone and shale laid down 350 million years ago. We take carbonates and aggregates where we find them; the problems are involved in getting the stuff to where it is needed.

AIM-listed Breedon Group now has 350 sites all over the UK, with 3,500 employees and a market capitalisation of £1.6bn. The business has seen tremendous growth in the last ten years, including taking over Hope Cement in 2016; that, said Works Manager Dr Ed Cavanagh, was a game changer. More recently another cement maker, Largan in Ireland, has been added.

Hope makes cement: that’s the trickiest bit. Breedon then provides the aggregates – sand and gravel – needed to make concrete. The product leaves Hope as bulk powder in 30 or 80 tonne deliveries. You won’t get a bag for the garden path there (try Chapel DIY) – it’s bagged up at their Dagenham plant for industrial customers.  1 million tonnes leaves by rail – the Hope Valley line upgrade is a welcome development – and another 500,000 tonnes by road.

Cement has been in use since the Romans’ “opus caementicium” mortar made from volcanic ash, lime and seawater bonded their aqueducts, viaducts and bridges. Today it’s used in thousands of applications, from poured concrete in a new nuclear power station to garden gnomes. This is not a product we can do without, or one for which replacements are available.

I have visited Hope and it’s only up close that the massive scale of manufacture becomes plain – the plant is enormous! The limestone quarry alone is over a mile long. Ed took us through the process: back in the early days, 1,000 employees at Hope produced less than they do now with around 195 colleagues. Automation is vital.

So – how is cement made? Rotary mills grind the limestone into a fine powder; it is then roasted in huge rotary kilns to 1,000°C to produce tri-calcium silicate. That’s the main ingredient of cement, along with gypsum (calcium sulphate). The fuel used to be coal, but in recent decades it’s chipped tyres, refrigerator foam, paper and card waste, processed sewage pellets.. anything that will burn. One supplementary material is ash from old power stations – there’s a lot of it – to assist in clearing eyesores, and help cut sulphur emission from other fuels. The idea is to reduce the plant’s carbon footprint by incinerating waste, and thus not needing fresh oil or other carboniferous fuel.

The massive elephant in the room is that this process produces carbon dioxide as the carbonate ion disintegrates, and that is unavoidable. A million tonnes of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere from Hope every year. It’s not clean enough to be used for food production just yet, though that’s a future possibility. The answer long-term involves working with other operators on large scale carbon capture and storage plans which could result in the gas being pumped out under the Mersey basin; this is not going to be cheap, as a pipeline from Hope to the coast would cost at least half a billion pounds. For the moment, small gains can be made, for example using hydrogen in their vehicles, and they’re aiming to be at Net Zero by 2050.

General maintenance is a whopping £10 million annual budget, the responsibility of John Mulryan, who visited the place as a schoolboy, was hooked, did his apprenticeship and is now a chartered engineer. One recent project was the replacement of Kiln 1 shell section, which had been running continuously since the 1970s; the crane lifting the huge cylinder was the sort of gigantic thing you’d see at a rocket launch pad.

Hope is co-operating with other local employers on what is now an urgent problem: how to get enough trained staff into the works. The problem is set to worsen, as by 2024 31% of the UK’s mechanical and electrical engineers will reach retirement age. Apprenticeships are the key; Breedon’s success rate at recruiting and training apprentices is much higher than the national average, but still they have fewer than they’d like, even though the rewards can be considerable. This is really a national crisis (don’t start me on Mickey Mouse degrees…). Advanced Apprenticeships last four years with one year full-time at college, and the aim is to reach the same standard as Rolls-Royce in Derby or Bentley in Crewe. Club members came up with lots of ideas for promoting this important occupation, including emphasising the excellent rewards that can follow qualification, the superb job satisfaction, the international nature of the industry. I’d like to see a “Camborne School of Mines” in this area, for quarrying and extractive industries. We suggested a promotions budget, more visits to and from schools, casting the net across a much wider range than traditionally. And they need to do it now, and not leave things to chance.

In all 800 acres belong to the quarry, with planning permission for the next 20 years. Great effort has gone into making the location attractive and an asset to the community: a 9 hole golf course, bowling green, nature reserve, angling ponds and a social club are part of a “welfare society” and are open to anybody. The forestation we see around the works is all planted by them, with a restoration project which started some 80 years ago, after the war.  There’s even an old Roman fort been found (possibly because of lead-mining in the area) with ballistics and pottery remains. Environmentally, this is a highly responsible company (they don’t have much choice in the National Park).

A remarkable business with a strong future – another Peak District business of which we can be proud.