Members of the public have been passionately putting forward their views at the Highthorn opencast mine planning inquiry today.
A number of experts and witnesses on both sides have already appeared at the hearing into The Banks Group’s controversial surface-mine scheme near Widdrington and Druridge Bay at Kingston Park in Newcastle.
Following a recommendation by planning officers, Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee approved the scheme in July last year, but it was subsequently called in by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Widdrington Station resident Graham Henderson has worked for Banks at a number of sites and is currently stationed at its Shotton surface mine.
He said: “No-one appreciates the beach more than me, but I want people to stop claiming that it and tourism will be destroyed – because they won’t.
“Mining has been part of this community for as long as I can remember and it has left a great legacy when you look at the wildlife habitats that have been created once the sites have been restored, like the ones Banks is proposing for Highthorn.”
Long-serving Banks employee Stephen White said during his speech that at every site he has worked on, the company has restored the land after its operations and the 100 jobs that would be created are vital for the local economy.
Alnwick town councillor Martin Swinbank spoke on behalf of the Alnwick Area Friends of the Earth group, which is made up of more than 180 people who live in areas across Northumberland.
He said: “As the rest of the world moves away from coal to cheaper renewable energy, principally solar and wind, then the market for coal is shrinking, and with it the market value.
“Potentially the most acute objective danger for the residents of Northumberland is that we will not only have to suffer the effects of an active mine, but may well be left with a massive scar on our landscape.
“Should the applicant be forced out of coal due to a falling market, it may not have the means of restoring the site as it envisages.
“Clearly within the site, the whole of the ecosystem including flora, fauna and aquatic environments, are to be destroyed – totally.
“The effects of that destruction will radiate in all directions, impacting with noise, dust, light pollution, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals (from exhaust fumes) and potentially accidentally contaminated water discharges – all into an extremely sensitive area.
“A mine here would cast a dark shadow over the area for a generation. The thriving tourist industry would undoubtedly falter as the area is by-passed for other parts of the county or country.
“Uncertainty once planning permission was granted, followed by the active phase of seven years, means 10 years of disruption to the lives of thousands of local residents.”
He also put forward a personal submission to highlight his concerns over the potential for the protected Great Crested Newt species using the Hemscott Hill pond system.
Evidence of them being present in a pool 600m from the site boundary was found via eDNA analysis in 2014. The results of surveys at the Hemscott Hill ponds in May and June 2013 were negative, although he said the very cold 2012/13 winter could have been a factor.
Coun Swinbank added: “Considering the potential for disruption to the ecosystem of the Hemscott Hill pond system, disturbance to water flow, possibility of soil and sub soil washing from the site when building bunds, possibility of accidental pollution from discharge water over the operational life of the site, etc, then I believe it would be prudent to revisit these ponds and conduct at least eDNA analysis to be absolutely sure that Great Crested Newts are not present and can not be adversely affected by the development.”
The comments of Coun Shelly Willoughby, chairman of Widdrington Station and Stobswood Parish Council, included the following: “The truth of the matter is that the coastal bay, which is supposedly on the brink of destruction, will remain as it is. The site is not situated on the beach and those wishing to use the beach will still have access.
“There has also been a heavy indication by the objectors that our tourism will suffer if the site goes ahead – this too is an over-reaction.
“Tourists who visit the caravan parks at Cresswell will continue to do so, the bird watchers will still visit the ponds and subsequently the trade at the Drift Inn and ice cream shop will remain, just as it has remained whilst having the Alcan smelter, power station, Lynemouth pit and sewerage pipes running into the sea unfiltered for many years.
“Fossil fuel is no longer the king it once was, but the fact remains we still need it. Why should it be acceptable to import millions of tonnes from other countries when we have our own resources?
“In Banks, we have a company with expertise in mining, understanding of the surrounding communities and an open approach to life after opencast that benefits all.”
Fellow parish councillor Kevin Batson said: “As a local councillor, it is my duty to help businesses move into the area to supply local people with jobs as over the years our community has been decimated on the work front with the loss of our brick works, Alcan smelter, deep mining and Jus-Rol.
“The opencasts that have occurred over my lifetime in and around the Widdrington area, operated by companies such as Crouch Mining and Taylor Woodrow, have also helped local businesses and residents by passing on the financial benefits – including to local shops, the petrol station, groups such as the scouts and guides, and local football and cricket teams.”
Grant Shields runs Teviotdale Farm & Poultry along with his sister Claire. It is based at Hagg Farm, on the northern edge of Ellington, and some of the fields on land owned by the business are approximately 600m away from the application site.
He said mining operations would have a negative impact on home and business life. His concerns include the belief that the heavy goods vehicles, which would pass the entrance to the farm, would be harmful to local roads and increase the chance of accidents.
“After being told by Banks at one of its community events that the local community was generally in support of the application, I took it upon myself to gauge the response of my customers in Ellington when making deliveries,” he added.
“I must have spoken to about 150 people and only three agreed with the proposal. Those against are concerned about the impact on wildlife and climate change, as well as the increase in traffic and noise.
“It has taken 47 years to get the landscape to this point from the mining activity in the area, so it won’t be able to be restored in just seven years.”
When asked why he did not go to Widdrington to ask its residents for their views, Mr Shields said he did not have the time to do so.
Tom Bradley’s work base is in Blyth, although his job involves a fair amount of travelling as he works on environmental impact assessments for the European Commission.
Referring to a life cycle process used by businesses and organisations, he said the planning inspector and Secretary of State should take into account that even though the coal would not be burned at the site, the emissions caused as a result of the extraction would “still have significant environmental impacts”.
Jake Adkins, who lives in New Hartley, is in the second year of his apprenticeship with Banks and he said he is being trained for an interesting skilled job that would enable him and the other apprentices to receive enough in wages to buy their own car and get on the property ladder.
The 20-year-old added: “The Highthorn development gives us the opportunity to continue with a successful career in mining.”
The comments of Anne Bromley included the following: “As coal is supposed to be phased out by 2025, what is the point of opening a new mine?
“Is this not a case of cynical opportunism while the door is still open to coal exploitation.”