The organisation responsible for licensing coal mining operations across the UK has given its support to proposals for a new surface mine in Northumberland.
The Coal Authority, which is an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, has written to Northumberland County Council to express its 'support and encouragement' for the Highthorn surface mine that Banks Mining is looking to operate to the south east of the village of Widdrington.
The Authority's letter highlights the way in which Banks Mining "is seeking to work coal in environmentally and socially acceptable ways to meet the market requirements", how the scheme "will contribute to the Government’s policy framework for a diverse and secure energy supply" and how it "incorporates the principles of sustainable development".
And it also references the fact that "rather than diverting investment away from an area, surface mining of coal has often created inward investment."
It says Banks Mining has designed the Highthorn scheme to bring a wide range of economic, employment and social benefits to local communities, with at least 50 new jobs being created at the new site and a further 50 existing jobs transferring from the company's current surface mine sites in Northumberland.
A spokesperson for The Coal Authority, said: "The Authority is a statutory consultee on all UK mining activities, and has a duty to respond to planning applications and development plans in order to protect the public and the environment in mining areas.
"The role of surface mining is critical to the continued supply of good quality coal for the market in the UK, and both the Coal Authority and electricity generators believe that the coal supply in the UK should contain a significant proportion of indigenous production.
"Coal supplied from the UK offers security against the volatility of international coal prices, freight rates, exchange rates and a reliance on port capacity, and it should be recognised that the importation of coal from many thousands of miles away has its own environmental footprint."
As well as details of an employment, skills development and training fund which form part of the project's overall community benefits package, the recently-submitted Highthorn planning application also includes details of a major initiative which will aim to create an enhanced tourism offering and new wildlife habitats in and around the Druridge area. The Discover Druridge project will see a coordinated approach involving local people, tourism and conservation bodies that will help deliver a tourism offer which will sustain the Druridge Bay area for years to come and give the area the infrastructure required for managing the increasing numbers of visitors that the scheme hopes to draw in.
If the scheme goes ahead, it will also mean an end to the removal of up to 62,000 tonnes of sand from the beach and dunes at Druridge Bay after Banks Mining reached an agreement with the owner of a long-standing mineral planning permission which allows for this to be done in response to local requests that it be stopped.
But the plans have been controversial, with objections coming from various sources, including three charities - Northumberland Wildlife Trust (NWT), The National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - and local protest organisation, Save Druridge Group.
Jeannie Kielty, development relations coordinator at The Banks Group, said: "The Coal Authority has assessed our proposals within the context of the government's National Planning Policy Framework, which sets extremely challenging standards for surface coal mining, and to now receive such unequivocal support from The Authority is testament to the quality and detail of the work that has gone into creating them.
"The Highthorn proposal provides a well thought-out masterplan for delivering a high quality scheme that is worked sensitively and to the highest environmental standards, and which also providespositive, long-lasting benefits to communities in the Druridge Bay area through a comprehensive raft of wholly deliverable supporting measures.
"Coal is still a central part of the UK's energy mix, with around 30% of the electricity that we all use to power our homes, businesses, schools and hospitals being produced through coal, but over 85% of this coal coming from overseas.
"It makes far greater sense to support local jobs in Northumberland, to deliver environmental and conservation enhancements and to provide a secure supply of energy for the UK by mining our own indigenous coal reserves through carefully-planned and sensitively operated schemes such as Highthorn rather than relying on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets."
Northumberland County Council is expected to make a decision on the Highthorn planning application in 2016. For further information on the scheme, visit www.banksgroup.co.uk/highthorn