Out-Law Guide | 23 Mar 2022 | 12:31 pm | 8 min. read
It was introduced as an environmental tax to encourage the recycling of aggregate. However, in addition to applying to the quarrying industry, it often applies when aggregate is extracted in the course of an infrastructure project. There are exemptions, but HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is increasingly taking an aggressive line as to when aggregates levy applies, and a narrow approach to exemptions and credits.
This guide explains how the tax operates and highlights some of the current issues surrounding it.
Aggregates levy is charged at a flat rate of £2 for every tonne of rock, sand or gravel extracted, and proportionally for any amount under that weight.
The majority of businesses or individuals that 'exploit' aggregate within the UK are required to register with HMRC for aggregates levy. Unlike VAT, there is no threshold for registration.
To be caught by the levy, the aggregate must be 'commercially exploited'. This is defined widely so that it does not require the aggregate to be used commercially or even exploited. Aggregate falls within this requirement when it is:
So, aggregates levy will normally apply to infrastructure projects involving either the removal of aggregate from a project site, or its use in construction on the site.
There is no general exemption from the levy when aggregate is extracted in the course of an infrastructure project. However, a number of exemptions may apply to infrastructure projects in limited circumstances.
Aggregates levy can only be charged once. This means that any aggregate on which aggregates levy has already been paid does not incur further aggregates levy charges for each additional time it is 'exploited'.
There are some exemptions from aggregates levy.
Aggregate which is returned to the ground in the same form as when it was won, and in the same place, is not subject to the levy.
The government confirmed in a consultation response in 2021 that it would go ahead with a proposal to limit this exclusion so that it only applies where aggregate is returned to the land at the site where it was won for a purpose connected to the winning of the aggregate. This will mean that using unmixed aggregate from a quarry to construct bunds and haul roads at that quarry will not attract the levy as these are purposes connected to the winning of the aggregate. However, using unmixed aggregate from a ‘borrow pit’ to construct roads, railways and other infrastructure will not be exempt from the levy, as this does not involve using the aggregate for a purpose connected to the winning of aggregate.
Aggregates levy will normally apply to infrastructure projects involving either the removal of aggregate from a project site, or its use in construction on the site
Aggregate disposed of as landfill waste is not subject to aggregates levy, as it is instead subject to landfill tax. This exception does not apply however, where the aggregate is used for the purposes of constructing any part of the landfill site as it will not be true waste.
Anything that consists completely of the following substances is exempt:
There are strict conditions for the various exemptions and they produce some anomalous results. For example, waste from dredging a river is exempt but waste from dredging a lake is not. This can mean that not all aggregate extracted as part of an infrastructure project will be exempt and not all types of project qualify for exemption.
The government announced in November 2021 that it would consider further a suggestion for a general and flexible exemption for aggregate incidentally extracted as part of a construction project.
There is also an exemption for aggregate which consists at least 50% of the following:
The intended products of any of the following 'exempt processes’ that are applied to aggregate are not liable:
There are also reliefs from aggregates levy for aggregate which is
For more details of aggregates levy and the exemptions see HMRC's guide AGL1.
Aggregates levy needs to be considered carefully on infrastructure projects as it can apply in unexpected situations.
Questions arise as to who is primarily liable to HMRC and so needs to be registered for the levy. This can affect some of the exemptions but also can determine where the risk for the tax applying lies. As contracts often do not provide for contractors to be able to reclaim the cost of aggregates liability from employers, whether the contractor or employer is primarily liable to HMRC can make a big difference. For example, in the absence of an exemption, a project involving the removal of one million tonnes of aggregate will add a £2m aggregates levy charge to the project cost, which may wipe out a contractor's margins.
There are considerable tensions over the scope and application of aggregates levy between the aggregates industry and those undertaking infrastructure projects. Infrastructure companies and utility companies want to keep down the cost of their projects and therefore want to minimise their exposure to aggregates levy. On the other hand, those in the aggregates industry are keen to ensure that construction companies do not get a competitive advantage by being able to use their own aggregate free of the levy instead of purchasing aggregate from a third party which would be subject to the levy.
The tax is intended to operate as an incentive to promote recycled aggregate by increasing the cost of first used aggregate. The British Aggregates Association (BAA) has disputed the effectiveness of the tax for this purpose.
Aggregates levy was challenged by the BAA on its introduction but this challenge was unsuccessful and at the time the European Commission decided that the system of aggregates levy was compatible with EU law. However, in 2012 the Commission annulled its decision not to bring objections against aggregates levy and began an enquiry into whether some of the exemptions result in a competitive advantage to some businesses over others. This investigation resulted in a suspension of some of the exemptions.
In March 2015 the European Commission decided that all of the exemptions bar one for shale were acceptable. The suspended exemptions were reinstated on 1 August 2015 with effect from the date the exemptions were suspended. The Commission said the exemption for shale constituted state aid and the UK government was required to claw back the benefit of it. A new exemption for using shale for a purpose other than construction purposes was added.
The BAA ended its litigation against aggregates levy in 2019. The government announced it would be conducting a comprehensive review of aggregates levy in 2019. The report into this review was published in July 2020, concluding that the levy continues to play a role in achieving the government’s wider environmental and mineral planning objectives. However, following concerns raised about abuse of the exemptions, the government agreed to consult on the tax treatment of aggregate removed during construction works.
In November 2021 the government announced a narrowing of the exemption for aggregate returned to the land where it was won so that it would not apply to borrow pits used in construction projects. It also announced that it would consider a suggestion for a general and flexible exemption for aggregate incidentally extracted as part of a construction project.
The legislation is already in place for aggregates levy to be devolved to the Scottish parliament from a date to be set. The Scottish government is currently designing its own replacement tax and will agree a date to commence devolution with the UK government.
Devolution to Wales is being kept under review with the intention to devolve, subject to the agreement of both governments and cross-border impacts being worked through in full.
There are no proposals to devolve the levy to Northern Ireland.