Highthorn: Imminent inquiry attracts protests

Protest group Northumberlandia Speaks at the well-known landmark.
Protest group Northumberlandia Speaks at the well-known landmark.
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Protesters from various organisations are lining up in opposition to the proposed Highthorn opencast mine ahead of the start of the planning inquiry tomorrow.

As previously reported, the inquiry into The Banks Group’s controversial surface-mine scheme near Widdrington and Druridge Bay begins at 10am tomorrow, at Kingston Park in Newcastle. A decision will likely follow about three months later.

Pitch Wilson, who will be attending the Highthorn planning inquiry.

Pitch Wilson, who will be attending the Highthorn planning inquiry.

Ahead of the hearing, scheduled to last 11 days, one group protested at Northumberlandia – which was constructed by the Banks Group as part of its Shotton surface-mine project, while the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is sending a veteran campaigner to his 40th public inquiry fighting opencast mining in the North East in the past 50 years.

Meanwhile, the Save Druridge group, which has been fighting the plans for 18 months, has organised a rally outside the inquiry, at the home of Newcastle Falcons, for tomorrow at 1pm.

To mark the start of the inquiry, a group calling itself Northumberlandia Speaks headed to the landmark, where campaigners used a banner reading End Coal Now to suggest the views of the Lady of the North. They also created an image of a wind turbine in her clenched right hand.

Rob Noyes, a spokesman for the group, said: “Northumberlandia is sold as a landscape for the community to enjoy and yet The Banks Group wants to deprive the Druridge Bay community of the landscape they already enjoy. I’m sure that if the landscape could, it would speak out. And it would say End Coal Now.”

Jeannie Kielty, community relations manager at The Banks Group.

Jeannie Kielty, community relations manager at The Banks Group.

Joining them in opposition is 87-year-old Pitch Wilson, who is being sent to the inquiry by CPRE and will be giving evidence at the latest in a long line of inquiries into opencast mining that he has attended.

Pitch said: “We’re hopeful that we can win this inquiry and save an area of quite outstanding natural beauty from being blighted.

“The idea of opencast mining in the Derwent Valley and across Durham is almost a dead issue now and we’d like to make it the same in Northumberland.

“It would be ironic to see one of the last opencast sites in England being worked in one of its most renowned and beautiful areas and we have to demonstrate how bad and how damaging this proposal would be.

“The popularity of this coastline is obvious and an opencast mine within the clean and peaceful environs is an unacceptable intrusion.”

Jeannie Kielty, community relations manager at The Banks Group, said: “Our Highthorn planning application received the unanimous support of an experienced, cross-party Northumberland County Council planning committee and we are looking forward to making what is a very compelling case to both the planning inspector and the Secretary of State for this decision to be ratified.

“The simple fact remains that the UK still needs and is still using coal for a number of purposes and, at a time of great economic uncertainty, the importance of securing investment in North-East England, creating high-quality jobs which enable many dozens of local people to put food on their families’ tables and opening up opportunities for regional suppliers to win substantial contracts could not be any clearer.

“The Banks Group is already one of Northumberland’s largest private-sector employers and the Highthorn scheme would see us 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 three million tonnes of coal that would otherwise come from overseas suppliers and make supply-chain contracts worth a total of £48million available to locally-based businesses.

“As a North-East employer with more than 40 years’ experience in the region, we know and wholeheartedly agree that Druridge Bay is a very special place. Protecting and enhancing the area and the surrounding communities is at the centre of our Highthorn proposals and, as we have stressed all along, any mining operations would take place several hundred yards away from the beach.

“Many of Northumberland’s best-loved environmental assets only exist due to previous surface-mining activity in the area and the comprehensive Discover Druridge and Restoration First initiatives we developed as part of the Highthorn planning application will enable us to make significant local infrastructure enhancements that will provide major long-term benefits to wildlife, visitors, local people and businesses.

“We also have more than four decades’ experience of operating and restoring surface mines in a safe, efficient and responsible way, and we are fully committed to maintaining this track record at Highthorn.

“The Government’s own projections state that coal will continue to be an important part of the UK’s energy mix for at least the proposed duration of operations at Highthorn and substantial amounts are also essential for a wide variety of important UK industrial processes, such as the manufacturing of cement and steel.

“It makes far greater sense to support skilled North-East jobs, to deliver regional environmental and conservation enhancements, to avoid the carbon emissions caused by importing the coal supplies that the UK still needs and to provide a secure domestic supply of energy by meeting our continuing need for coal through indigenous reserves, rather than relying on imports of coal and gas from potentially-unstable overseas markets that are thousands of miles away.

“We are keen to move forward with our investment and job creation plans as quickly as we can and hope the outcome of the inquiry will enable us to do so.”