Government rejects controversial opencast mine plan on Northumberland coast

Campaigners are ‘ecstatic’ after the Government rejected a controversial Highthorn opencast mine on the Northumberland coast for a second time.

By Ben O'Connell
Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 9:15 pm
The proposed site of the opencast mine.
The proposed site of the opencast mine.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has tonight (Tuesday, September 8) published his decision on Banks Mining’s application for the Highthorn surface mine between Widdrington and Druridge Bay.

The news has been met with joy by the Save Druridge campaigners, the Green Party and Friends of the Earth.

It is now more than four years since the application was approved by Northumberland County Council, having been submitted in October 2015.

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

After being called in, it was subsequently recommended for approval by the Planning Inspectorate, but the then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid opted to turn it down in March 2018.

Banks then lodged a High Court challenge on the grounds that there were serious errors in the legal basis on which Mr Javid made his decision, disregarding the recommendation of the Government-appointed inspector following a 14-day inquiry in June 2017.

After a two-day hearing in October 2018, the Honourable Mr Justice Ouseley handed down a decision which found in favour of Banks Mining, describing the reasoning behind Mr Javid’s decision to reject the inspector’s findings as ‘significantly inadequate’.

Paragraph 211 in the latest version of the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework states: ‘Planning permission should not be granted for the extraction of coal unless: a) the proposal is environmentally acceptable, or can be made so by planning conditions or obligations; or b) if it is not environmentally acceptable, then it provides national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh its likely impacts (taking all relevant matters into account, including any residual environmental impact).’

A map of the proposed Highthorn site.

In the latest decision, Mr Jenrick concludes that ‘the substantial extent of the landscape harm means that the proposal is still not environmentally acceptable, nor can it be made so by planning conditions or obligations’.

He also concludes that ‘the proposed development is not likely to provide national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh its likely impacts’, as while he ‘gives moderate weight to the economic benefits which will flow from the proposal, moderate weight to the biodiversity benefits and no more than moderate weight to the need for coal’, he also ‘affords considerable weight to the harm to the character and appearance of the area’ and ‘attributes great weight to the harm to heritage assets’.

The 17-page decision letter does mention ‘the circumstances in which the validity of the Secretary of State’s decision may be challenged’ through an application to the High Court within six weeks, however.

On its Facebook page, the campaign group Save Druridge simply said: ‘Just heard. We have WON. No coal will be dug up from Druridge Bay.’

Lynne Gargett, from the group, said: “Save Druridge is ecstatic at the eventual outcome of the application by Banks Mining to opencast coal at Druridge Bay. We started our fight back in 2013 and we are pleased it has now come to a close and Druridge Bay and the surrounding area will remain as it is beautiful and tranquil.

“The Secretary of State has stated the proposed development is NOT likely to provide national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh its likely impacts. It therefore fails the test required of the Planning Policy Framework.

“We do not need this coal. All Banks Mining was doing was contributing to a national and international climate emergency.

“We would like to thank the hundreds and thousands of supporters of our cause. Special thanks to Alnwick Friends of the Earth and The Green Party both locally and nationally. We also wish to thank everyone who contributed to our legal costs and those who regularly helped with events and fund-raising. We could not have done this without you. Thank you so much.”

A statement from The Green Party in the Berwick constituency said that it ‘wholeheartedly welcomes the Government’s decision’.

It adds: ‘The campaign against this proposal has taken five years of persistence and hard work by local residents, led by the Save Druridge Group and supported by people from across the country.

“Northumberland was the cradle of coal mining in the UK, and is rightly proud of the role its communities played in the industrial revolution and of the strength and resilience of those communities. Having been at the forefront of one industrial revolution, this decision means that Northumberland can now be at the forefront of the next one, and lead the way into a post-carbon future.

“Druridge Bay was at the centre of failed attempts to build a nuclear power station in the 1980s, and plans for sand extraction pits in the 1990s. With the rejection of this latest attempt at exploitation, the public has a right to expect that nature will now be allowed to thrive.

“The scale of the structural and financial task required to stabilise the climate and avoid catastrophe is both immense, and international. The response to the current Covid-19 crisis has shown that isolationist and populist policies do not work in the face of a global crisis but, with proper leadership, the public are equal to such huge challenges. This is one step in the right direction, and we applaud it.”

The decision has also been welcomed by Friends of the Earth, with climate campaigner Tony Bosworth saying: “The rejection of planning permission for a destructive opencast coal mine at Druridge Bay is fantastic news for our environment, and a tremendous victory for local campaigners.

“With the world staring at catastrophic climate change, this is the right decision.

“Coal mines must be consigned to the history books if we are going to avoid climate breakdown.

“Let’s leave coal in the ground where it belongs, and invest in energy saving and renewable power to build the safe, clean and fairer future we so urgently need.

“It’s time for Banks Mining to walk away from Druridge Bay and further legal challenges, and abandon plans for any more new mines.”

Banks’ case for the Highthorn scheme is that it would create at least 100 well-paid, full-time jobs on the site, invest £87million into the Northumberland economy, keep a total of £120million within the UK economy by not importing coal that would otherwise come from overseas suppliers, and make supply-chain contracts worth a total of £48million available to locally-based businesses.

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