Highthorn: Berwick MP backs calls for another look at opencast decision

Anne-Marie Trevelyan addressing the Save Druridge picnic on the bank holiday Monday at the end of May.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan addressing the Save Druridge picnic on the bank holiday Monday at the end of May.

Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan has added her voice to calls for the Government to intervene in the decision to approve a contentious surface mine on the Northumberland coast.

The Conservative MP has written to the Communities Secretary, Greg Clark MP, asking him to ‘call in’ the decision by Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee to approve Banks Mining’s application for an opencast coal mine at Highthorn, between Widdrington Station and Druridge Bay.

As previously reported, the councillors were 'minded to approve' the scheme as a request had already been made for the Secretary of State to call in the application, which would lead to a public inquiry.

This is a drastic step and the Secretary of State usually only does so if the application in question conflicts with national policy. In this case, Mrs Trevelyan says that the application contravenes the Government’s commitment to phase out coal-based power sources by 2025, as it allows for extraction at the site until at least 2027.

However, the extraction is limited by planning conditions to last no longer than five years and the whole scheme, including restoration, will last seven years, meaning it could be completed prior to 2025 depending on the start date.

Also, the planning officer's report highlights that the Government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that when determining planning applications, local planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of mineral extraction, including to the economy. It adds that while the Government announced last year that a consultation would be launched in the spring of 2016 on when to close all unabated coal-fired power stations, this has not yet been published.

Mrs Trevelyan said: “Druridge Bay is a beautiful area of our Northumberland coast which would be put at risk by this decision. I am extremely concerned that this application has been approved, even though it is in direct conflict with our national policy on energy production and risks the commitments we have made under the Paris Agreement.

"I have previously discussed my concerns about the plans for this opencast mine at Druridge Bay with the Energy Secretary and I have asked for her support in persuading the Communities Secretary to call in this decision by the council.”

If Mr Clark agrees to call in the application, he will appoint an inspector to carry out an inquiry into the proposal. The inspector is required to take national policy into account and will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State, who makes the final ruling.

Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, said: "I am disappointed that Mrs Trevelyan has written to the Secretary of State to request a call-in of our Highthorn application which was unanimously approved by a Northumberland County Council planning committee. We also believe that her concerns regarding the duration of coal extraction can be addressed.

"The Highthorn planning application allows for a five-year extraction period, meaning it will be completed well in advance of the Government's 2025 date for phasing out energy generation from unabated coal.

"The Highthorn planning application has been developed and assessed in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework and having had such a strong mandate in favour of the project from both Northumberland County Council's planning officers and the unanimous cross party support of the highly-experienced members of its strategic planning committee, we do not believe any further consideration of it at a national level is merited.

"Throughout the lengthy community discussions we've undertaken around the Highthorn scheme, our experience has always been that, while there are naturally differing opinions, there is clear and considerable support for this project from across the region, as well as a high degree of recognition of the economic, employment, social, environmental and supply chain benefits it will bring to the area.

"Banks Mining will invest around £120million in the North-East economy through the Highthorn project and will create at least 100 jobs on the site. Contracts worth a total of £48million will be put out to tender as part of realising the project, with locally-based suppliers being used wherever possible, and around £3million will also be contributed to the public purse through business rates.

"We agree wholeheartedly that Northumberland is a very special place, which is why the protection and enhancement of Druridge Bay and the surrounding communities has been placed at the heart of our proposals, and we firmly believe that the environmental, ecological, habitat, tourism and recreational enhancements that will form part of the Highthorn scheme through the Discover Druridge initiative will have a positive, transformative effect on the area.

"We fully understand the responsibilities that will come with operating the Highthorn scheme and look forward to being able to deliver all the benefits inherent to its operation in the coming years."

Meanwhile, the decision was raised in the House of Lords on Monday by Baroness Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat Department for Energy and Climate Change spokeswoman. She asked for clarity on the Government's position on calling in the planning application as it seems contrary to their own commitments.

Northumberland Lib Dem Julie Pörksen said: "It is important for local residents and businesses alike that there is clarity on the future of the Druridge Bay plans. If this planning application is to be called in, I hope the Government will consider all points of view and include the impact on the diversity of issues including the environment, road safety, jobs and tourism along the coast from Cresswell to Amble and Warkworth."