Controversial Northumberland mine scheme to be decided by Secretary of State

Map of the proposed site boundary for Highthorn.
Map of the proposed site boundary for Highthorn.

A controversial scheme to build a surface mine in Northumberland will now be decided by the Secretary of State, after he decided to call in the plan.

Banks Mining’s hotly-contested proposal had enraged protestors – including celebrity conservationist Bill Oddie – who fought hard against the bid.

Protestors against Highthorn opencast at Druridge Bay demonstrating at Morpeth County Hall. 
Picture by Jane Coltman

Protestors against Highthorn opencast at Druridge Bay demonstrating at Morpeth County Hall. Picture by Jane Coltman

But at the start of July, members of Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee voted to follow the planning officers’ recommendation and approve the Highthorn surface mine scheme for a 325-hectare site between Druridge Bay and Widdrington Station.

At the time, members were ‘minded to approve’ the plan as a request had been made for the Secretary of State to ‘call in’ the application. And today, it has been announced that Sajid Javid MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has done exactly this.

It means that there will now be a public inquiry chaired by a planning inspector, who will make a recommendation to Mr Javid. He can then choose to reject these recommendations if he wishes and is set to have the final word on the fate of the scheme.

Banks has said that it is very disappointed with the decision to call in the plan, while objectors have welcomed the news.

The scheme is for the extraction of three million tonnes of coal and a total of 20,000 tonnes of fireclay and sandstone over a five-year period with total operations lasting seven years, taking account of the time to set up the site and complete restoration.

Banks Mining and its supporters point to jobs and economic benefits for the wider area as well as the restoration plans for the site following the extraction of coal, sandstone and fireclay.

However, objectors said that the mine would destroy a stunning part of Northumberland. Concerns also include the impact on climate change, potential damage to tourism, the impact on wildlife and ecology, road issues and the negative effects on residential amenity, including noise, dust and air pollution.

Reacting to the news, Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, said: “Having had our Highthorn planning application unanimously approved by a Northumberland County Council planning committee which contained representatives of all the main political parties, and having also had considerable support for our plans from across local communities, we are naturally very disappointed that the Secretary of State has now seen fit to call in this democratically-made local decision.

“The Highthorn planning application was developed and assessed in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework, and having had such a strong mandate in favour of the project, we still believe that further consideration of it at a national level is not merited.

“The decision to hold a public inquiry will unnecessarily delay Banks Mining’s plans to invest around £120million in the North East economy through the Highthorn project, to create at least 100 jobs on the site and to make related contracts worth a total of £48million available to locally-based suppliers, and it will also place considerable extra demands on the public purse at a time when it is already under significant pressure.

“While we have been part of the wider drive to increase the amount of energy generated by indigenous renewable means, the fact remains that, at least in the medium term, coal will continue to be an important part of the UK’s energy mix, and the Highthorn planning application allows for a five-year extraction period, meaning it will be completed well in advance of the government’s 2025 date for phasing out energy generation from unabated coal.

“It makes far greater sense to support North East jobs, to deliver regional environmental and conservation enhancements and to provide a secure domestic supply of energy by meeting our continuing need for coal through indigenous reserves, rather than relying as we predominantly do today on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets that are thousands of miles distant.

“Throughout the lengthy community discussions we’ve undertaken around the Highthorn scheme, our experience has always been that, while there are naturally differing opinions, there is clear and considerable support for this project from across the region, as well as a high degree of recognition of the economic, employment, social, environmental and supply chain benefits it will bring to the area.

“We agree wholeheartedly that Northumberland is a very special place, which is why the protection and enhancement of Druridge Bay and the surrounding communities has been placed at the heart of our proposals, and we firmly believe that the environmental, ecological, habitat, tourism and recreational enhancements that will form part of the Highthorn scheme through the Discover Druridge initiative will have a positive, transformative effect on the area.”

However, thousands of people objected to the scheme and a spokesman for the Save Druridge campaign group is delighted that the application has been called in.

He said: “I think this is excellent news. It should never have really got this far in the first place. It is an indication of how much this area is loved and we anxiously await the Secretary of State’s decision. Hopefully common sense will prevail.”

Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole added: “Hopefully this means that Ministers have realised that digging up yet more coal is completely contradictory with the Paris climate deal, and that planning rules must be changed to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

“Thousands of people objected to the ill-conceived opencast coal mine at Druridge Bay because it would be hugely damaging for the local area, threaten tourism and undermine efforts to tackle climate change.

“The Government must look at the evidence, back local people and reject this short-sighted proposal. It’s time to stop extracting and burning coal.”

Reacting to the news, Northumberland County Councillor for Druridge Bay, Coun Scott Dickinson, said: “Planning isn’t a political game and the scheme received unanimous support from the planning committee, which went through the proper process. Now that it has been called in, that committee and the officers will have to demonstrate why it was approved.

“I am disappointed that local democracy has been called in and will be decided on a national level, but there was a good number of people who weren’t in support of the scheme. If this is the process which confirms that the council made the right decision, then that’s the way it must be.”

Coun Gordon Castle, who was one of the members on the planning committee to approve the scheme, said: “Given what was in front of us and given what was at stake, there was no reason that I could find to object to the scheme. Every committee member said that it should proceed – it is about jobs and the restoration programme. I think the ways that Banks would screen the mine from the public would be acceptable and for that reason I do not believe that it would have a direct or significant impact.”