Objectors to a controversial surface-mine proposal will be staging a demonstration ahead of tonight's fully-booked public meeting, which is being held to discuss the plan.
Opponents to Banks Mining's Highthorn application - for operations to take place on land to the south east of Widdrington and near to Druridge Bay - are critical of the venue for this evening's forum. The meeting is being held at Widdrington Station Community Centre, Grange Road, Widdrington Station (NE61 5LZ), from 6pm to 8pm, and those against the scheme have said that the location is too small.
All 200 places for the session - organised by Northumberland County Council - were snapped up last week and objectors will be protesting against the choice of the building, saying that its small size has stopped more opponents from packing into the meeting to have their say and to give their views about the plan.
Jacqui White, from Linton Colliery, will be taking part in the demonstration. She said: "We think there are quite a few people who have not been able to get to the meeting tonight because the venue is too small. We believe that there hasn't been enough effort from the council to find a bigger venue. There have been consultation sessions about the plan, but this is the first open public meeting where people can put objections forward. We had hoped that when so many people had registered to attend, the council would have moved the meeting to the bigger venue, but they haven't done this."
However, the county council has defended its choice of location. A spokeswoman said: "The purpose of this public meeting is to provide local residents and other interested parties with an opportunity to ask questions about the application, and to express their views. The council has an agreed protocol on how these public meetings are arranged, and this states that they should be in the locality in which the development is proposed. We chose this community centre as it is close to the application site, and is one of the largest venues in the area. We are hopeful that the 200-plus people who are attending will be representative of the range of views on the application – and these will be fed into the planning process. The public meeting is only one of the ways in which people can have their say on the planning application.”
Confirmation of people's places were being issued to all those who have registered and the county council has said that those who turn up tonight without having pre-registered will only be admitted if spaces become available.
The public meeting is intended to provide officers and councillors with the opportunity to hear first-hand issues of local concern which may be relevant to consideration of the planning application. It is also to provide the local community with information about the planning application and the planning process. Officers from the county council will give a short presentation about the proposal, the planning process and the consultation responses so far. The meeting will then be opened to questions from the public, which will be answered by representatives of the Banks Group and the council. Feedback from the public meeting will be considered as part of the planning application.
Banks' surface-mine plans include subsequent restoration to agricultural and ecological uses. Banks wants to mine around three million tonnes of coal during the project and says that the time between the proposed start of the work at the Highthorn site in 2016, through to the completion of restoration, would be no more than seven years. The Durham-based firm says the development would create at least 50 new jobs, while 50 existing roles would be transferred from its current surface-mine sites elsewhere in the county. The company says improvements delivered throughout Highthorn’s lifetime include new cyclepaths, bridleways and footpaths and new wildlife and wetland habitats.
The scheme has split opinion in and around the community - and further afield. Those in favour say the scheme would lead to local jobs, apprenticeships and community funding. But opponents aren’t convinced. Objectors says that the mine would have a detrimental effect on economic activity, will be a threat to wildlife and that open-cast mining threatens the wide Druridge hinterland with noise, dust and light pollution.