OPENCAST: Conditions must be robust

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Although Widdrington Village Parish Council had no outright objection to the Highthorn application, we do have serious significant concerns regarding the site infrastructure, operation, public safety, and capabilities of Northumberland County Council planning authority to oversee and regulate this strategic site.

The National Planning Policy Framework states that applicants should provide for restoration and aftercare at the earliest opportunity, to be carried out to high environmental standards.

Bonds or other financial guarantees to underpin planning conditions should only be sought in exceptional circumstances.

It also states that permission should not be given for the extraction of coal unless the proposal is environmentally acceptable, or can be made so by conditions, or if it provides national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh the likely impacts.

These policies provide the ability for authorities to police operations from the date of approval of the application through to conclusion, and sometimes beyond.

Previously worked opencast sites in the Widdrington area are still waiting for restoration, despite having ceased coaling some years ago. Dates for restoration have long since expired.

Widdrington Village Parish Council’s attempts to pursue these issues as a matter of urgency with Northumberland County Council have fallen on deaf ears.

This attitude does not bode well for the future restoration of the Highthorn site, or any other. The officers’ reports for applications for those unrestored sites contained the same assurances as the Highthorn application.

The urgency and enthusiasm shown by the council for applications to be determined within targeted timescales appears to disappear when it comes to restoration.

It is also irresponsible to rely solely upon an intangible guarantee based upon the current financial status of an applicant for their commitment to restoration. One only has to consider the predicament of UK Coal.

In order to assure restoration is not compromised a hard cash financial bond should be deposited, to be returned to the applicant with accrued interest upon final restoration.

A guarantee is not worth the paper it is written on if the applicant is declared bankrupt.

I think it may come as a shock to landowners to find out they are ultimately liable to restore the sites if applicants should default. No doubt they will be monitoring the performance of their bedfellows on a daily basis.

In so far as planning conditions are concerned, the county council has a poor history of preparing conditions which accord with guidance.

For instance, in the Brackenridge Judicial Review the council accepted the court ruling by way of a consent order that conditions were defective and unenforceable. The overall result cost the council approximately £200,000.

A site currently in operation in Northumberland has conditions prepared by an officer that relate to the hours of operation and traffic movements. They state that exceptions for work outside these hours may be carried out with prior notification to the council. Emergency works may be carried out at any time, provided that the operator retrospectively notifies the council within 24 hours.

This condition is defective and unenforceable.

Unenforceable because it merely provides for the applicant to notify the council that it will not comply and gives no opportunity for the council to challenge that. The applicant could work the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, without interference.

Defective, because it does not comply with the recommendations for conditions by being ‘enforceable’ or ‘precise’.

The officer’s report on Highthorn makes extensive reference to the control of the site by conditions. The officer reinforced this during her presentation and members appeared assured that the public would be protected.

The report requested delegation of the preparation of those conditions to officers.

Given the facts above, conditions and variations to conditions for strategic sites should only be considered by committee.

Regulations permit only one advertisement to be displayed at any one time on each road frontage of the land. This condition should be vigorously enforced to prevent future precedent being set.

It has not been rigorously enforced previously. One only needs to look at the site entrances to the A1 improvement sites to the north of Morpeth, and also to the windfarm sites in Widdrington.

Despite representations to the council these sites still display several advertisements. A complaint in relation to the signs at the A1 in April has still not received a formal response.

With regards to the proposed working hours, the parish council considers 15 hours per day to be excessive and out of step with previous practice. The working day should be restricted to 12 hours.

In any event, the condition is inadequate. It fails to be precise. It must be more robust.

The parish council, in conjunction with local residents, has gained extensive knowledge of opencast operations, accumulated over the last 70 odd years.

Theoretical reports relating to traffic movements and site access are no substitute for practical experience.

The parish council considers the site access is in a dangerous position. The A1068 is dangerous and prone to speeding traffic. Safety must be uppermost.

The site entrance should be moved to be in line with the junction between the A1068 and Mile Road, with a roundabout, and the existing footpath from Ellington roundabout to Hagg Farm extended to Houndalee roundabout.

The location of the maintenance workshops is much too close to residential property and should be moved. This site is big enough to accommodate those buildings in a more remote location.

The parish council noted the requirement for a substantial car park to be created for the workforce. Concerns are raised with regard to whether or not those facilities will also be utilised by members of the workforce residing in caravans. Residential use of caravans on this site should not be permitted in the interests of safety and hygiene.

James Grant,

Widdrington Village Parish Council member