Minister urged to drop new coal-mining plans in Northumberland
A wild stretch of Northumberland beach has become the ultimate testing ground of the Government's much-vaunted commitment to phase out coal by 2025, according to campaigners.
On Friday, James Brokenshire, the Minister for communities and local Government, will start examining whether to allow a local coal mining company, Banks Group, to extract three million tonnes of coal from 250 hectares of land behind the sand dunes of Druridge Bay, in a project that will extend beyond the Government’s own deadline for the end of coal.
His predecessor, Sajid Javid, threw out the plans last year, citing among other environmental reasons the “substantial” adverse effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
But the high court overruled Javid’s decision in November, and the ultimate say now lies with Brokenshire.
Campaigners demand that he follow his predecessor’s example and stop the Highthorn open-cast mine on the section of coast between Amble and Cresswell, making good on international promises to phase out coal.
All sides have submitted their case to Brokenshire, who will begin his deliberations on Friday.
Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth said the case for stopping our dependence on fossil fuels had only grown stronger. “James Brokenshire must take heed of the science and again reject this destructive proposal. Coalmust be confined to history, where it now belongs, and we must prioritise investment in renewable energy.”
But Banks, buoyed by the high court decision, believes its mine can go ahead even while the Government is pursuing a coal phase-out. It promises 100 much-needed jobs and restoration of the landscape, saying the surface mine is a “unique opportunity to bring substantial investment to the Druridge Bay area and improve the lives of its people and wildlife for many years to come”. It promises no mining activity within 500 metres of the beach.
The company is forging the last stand for coal as the only firm attempting to start new surface mines in the UK, and Druridge Bay represents the greatest of its ambitions. It went ahead with another open-cast project at Dipton in the Derwent Valley, after attempts by campaigners to get Brokenshire to stop it failed.
“We would … urge Mr Brokenshire to give us permission to progress work at Highthorn as soon as possible, and thereby enable us to extend a track record of investing and creating jobs in Northumberland that stretches back four decades,” Banks said in a statement.
From the Drift Cafe overlooking the beach, Duncan Lawrence and others from Save Druridge Bay have built their opposition to the mine over the last four years. They focus on environmental concerns about the mine’s impact on protected wildlife, such as wintering pink-footed geese and yellow wagtails, as well as its impact on the tourist industry, with the pit visible from nearby roads and the beach dunes.
“Part of the reason I settled in Northumberland over 20 years ago was because of its tranquility and the natural beauty of the landscape,” said Lawrence.
“I think that’s why so many people choose to visit the area now. This open-cast will damage one of the area’s greatest assets and hamper a more sustainable emerging local economy for the short-term benefit of the fossil fuels industry, which we should be moving away from.”
Neil Taylor, a former miner who worked at Ellington Colliery, which closed in 2005 and was the last remaining deep mine in the north-east, also argues that the area has “had its fill of coal”.
But not all share this view. Northumberland county council stands by its decision in 2016 to grant planning permission and in supporting the open-cast mine, the Labour leader of the council, Grant Davey, is at odds with his own party leadership.
Barry Gardiner, the shadow secretary for international trade, said the mine should be rejected if Britain is to fulfil its pledge to phase out coal. “Approving a new open-cast coal mine would make a mockery of that promise. It would leave the UK’s international reputation on climate change in tatters, and raise serious questions about the suitability of this Government’s bid to host 2020’s UN climate negotiations,” he said.
As well as opening a rift between local and national Labour politicians, the project has caused bitter community infighting.
Ex-miner Barry Kent, who also worked at Ellington, believes the environmental card has been overplayed.
“Restoration is far more strictly controlled than it was in years gone by, and who can deny the amenity and wildlife habitat that is now Druridge Bay Country Park – which is itself a former open-cast site,” he said.
Anne Harris of Coal Action Network, which is fighting Banks’s plans across the north-east, said approving the mine would make a mockery of the Government’s climate change commitment. “If James Brokenshire approves this scheme at Highthorn, then he’s showing the Government has no intention of meaningfully following through on the 2025 coal phase-out,” she said.
“It would mean the concerns and opposition of people in the area are being ignored for a coal company that’s trying to grab resources and run.”
Sandra Laville and Tommy Greene
This article first appeared on the Guardian
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