A major economic boost or an environmental ‘monstrosity’ – the debate has been raging for three years but now a decision is due next week.
Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee will decide if Banks Mining’s proposed Highthorn surface mine, on land south-east of Widdrington, should get the go-ahead at its Tuesday meeting.
And the scheme, on a 325-hectare site between Druridge Bay and Widdrington Station, has been recommended for approval.
The 85-page report from the planning officer concludes: ‘It is considered that the national and local benefits that the proposal would provide clearly outweigh the harm to the local landscape and visual amenity and so the proposed development would accord with national policy.
‘It is therefore recommended that planning permission is granted.’
Ever since the proposals were unveiled in July 2013, there has been plenty of strong emotions on both sides of the debate.
Concerns from objectors include the impact on climate change, potential damage to tourism, the impact on wildlife and ecology, road issues and negative effects on residential amenity, including noise, dust and air pollution.
But on the other side, the company and its supporters point to jobs and economic benefits for the wider area as well as the restoration plans for the site following the five years of extraction of coal, sandstone and fireclay.
Jeannie Kielty, development relations coordinator at The Banks Group, said that the firm is very pleased with the planning officers’ recommendation and hopes that the committee members will be minded to support this view.
“If the Highthorn scheme goes ahead, around £120million would be invested by Banks Mining in the North-East economy, with at least 100 jobs being created at the site,” she added.
“Contracts worth a total of £48million would be put out to tender as part of realising the project, with Banks committing to using locally-based suppliers wherever possible, and around £3million would also be contributed to the public purse through business rates.
“The protection and enhancement of Druridge Bay and the surrounding communities is at the heart of our Highthorn proposals and the environmental, ecological, habitat, tourism and recreational enhancements that would form part of the Highthorn scheme through the Discover Druridge initiative would have a positive long-term impact on local communities and the wider area.
“We have worked in Northumberland for more than three decades and are already one of the county’s largest private-sector employers, a position which we aim to continue to maintain through the Highthorn scheme.”
However, the Save Druridge campaign has highlighted that more than 10,000 people have now objected to the scheme.
Following an appeal by conservationist Bill Oddie to Friends of the Earth supporters, 8,000 people have now written to object, in addition to the 2,600 already gathered by Save Druridge and other local groups since the application was first lodged last October. Objections now dwarf letters of support by more than 10 to one.
Save Druridge member and local resident, Jonathan Rodger, said: “Ten years ago, this planning application would have gone through like all the others in the surrounding area, however, this country has now woken up to the harm fossil fuel does.
“Northumberland is no longer a dirty, industrial county; it now thrives on tourism, in fact, the county received the prestigious British Travel Award’s Silver award in 2015.
“People love to come to this area which is renowned for its mature nature reserves, including a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It’s a wild coast that is rugged, beautiful and unspoilt.
“Having a coal mine a few hundred feet away can only do more harm than good on a number of levels.
“This campaign has drawn massive support from across the North East and beyond.
“It is plain that the public overwhelmingly opposes the destruction of Druridge Bay by opencast mining. We hope these voices will not go unheeded by the planners when they make their decision.”
The planning officer’s nine-part conclusion to the report to committee members does recognise that there would be negative impacts, but it is suggested in these cases that the mitigation is adequate or that the harm is outweighed by the benefits.
Plus, the report goes on to explain that the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) states that ‘great weight should be given to minerals extraction’, which ‘is a national benefit that carries significant weight’, adding that there are other proposals which ‘would bring significant ecological benefits to the wider Druridge Bay area as well as supporting wider tourism objectives’.
The meeting takes place at 2pm on Tuesday in the Council Chamber at County Hall.
Members of the public who have submitted comments on the application can ask to speak at the meeting and should register with the council’s democratic services on 01670 622614 as soon as possible and no later than noon on Monday.
There is a total of five minutes for objectors and five minutes for supporters, which will need to be shared if there is more than one speaker.
Some views from our readers
Here’s a selection of views as our readers react to the latest news on Highthorn.
Sheila Kinsey: I’m not a ‘tree hugger’ but live near this proposed site and I am disgusted that this should be given any consideration at all!!!
Donna Darling: Let the mining commence, and the children of Northumberland continue to be nourished from the benefits of the industry for a few more years to come.
Richard N Beccy Weaver: We live in Hampshire and visit Northumberland every year for the past 12 years. We have fallen in love with this very area and can’t believe any honest councillor would vote on such an atrocity on an area of outstanding national beauty. Truly a disgrace, abuse of power and a blot on Northumberland’s natural beauty.
Tina Palmer Was Bryan: This industry has put a roof over my head and fed my family it gave my husband a job from leaving school and my two sons also gained employment, disruption if any is to a minimum and the land is put back and are usually popular visiting places for them that cause all the fuss about not wanting opencast!!
Davida Harrold: Just wondering why that people that holiday here should think that their opinion matters on this... You say you love the area, not as much as the locals do... This area is so good down to the fact of the land restoration which is only down to the opencast. Our fathers, husbands and sons worked this land and later restored it to what it is now Druridge Bay, Ladyburn Lake and your wild bird reserve is the after affects of opencast minings. Druridge Bay is an area of outstanding beauty down to the fact of the restoration of opencast mining.