Stone supply threatens Cotswolds' chocolate-box charm

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The distinctive appearance of Cotswold stone has contributed to the charm of West Country life for centuries.

But now a shortage of the Jurassic limestone is causing headaches for conservation officers eager to preserve chocolate-box villages from the worst excesses of modern building.

As the 15 quarries in the Cotswolds work flat out to meet demand, the larger, more efficient quarries of France are stepping in to bridge the gap in supplies.

Woodchester Manor, a grade-one listed building near Stroud, is being restored with stone from Burgundy because of the shortages.

Yet the problem has also forced Cotswold district council to water down its policy of encouraging the use of natural materials. Country landowners claim they cannot afford the British stone which is expensive because of labour-intensive quarrying.

Tony Jones, the council's head of planning, said natural stone slates for roofing were in particularly short supply. The authority has had talks with quarry operators in a bid to re-open some old sites and encourage new production. "We wanted to encourage the use of more natural stone, but there was quite a lobby from people like the Country Landowners Association about the cost so we've slightly relaxed our policy.

"There are situations where we will accept reconstructed material. But it's a vicious circle. If we allow reconstructed materials, demand for natural stone goes down and production ceases."

Cotswold stone was important in preserving the heritage of the area including traditional stonecraft, he added.

"Cotswold stone is part of the local tradition and local character of the area which is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. The harmonious use of natural materials is part of what tourists come to see."

The Brockhill quarry of the Cotswold Stone Quarries company near Bourton- on-the-Water is the last remaining producer of Cotswold slate in the area.

A spokesman said demand was exceeding supply at present and builders were having to wait up to eight weeks for delivery. The council is helping the company to find new sites for quarrying to ease the problem.

"All the quarries are pretty busy," he said.The stone from France was a softer stone but still good quality and cheaper than Cotswold stone because the French had larger, more modern quarries.

"The stone industry in Britain is so ancient and inefficient, France has jumped on the bandwagon. But Cotswold district council have to strike a compromise between getting stone available and letting people dig up the landscape."