Highthorn: Planning policy under spotlight today

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Planning policies, both local and national, were the focus this morning as the planning inquiry for the Highthorn opencast mine entered its fourth day.

The inquiry into The Banks Group’s controversial surface-mine scheme near Widdrington and Druridge Bay started last Wednesday, at Kingston Park in Newcastle. A decision is likely to follow in about three months’ time.

Previous days have seen company representatives give evidence on topics such as landscape and visuals, ecology and climate change, but today the focus turned to planning policy – with the interpretations of how national and local policies should be applied likely to be a fairly key argument in the final outcome.

In his evidence-in-chief, Banks’ principal development planner Stewart Provan said that the weight that should be given to Northumberland County Council’s out-of-date local minerals plan was ‘negligible’ as the policies have been ‘significantly overtaken’.

He had a similar view on the former Castle Morpeth Local Plan, although he did say that because of the landscape improvements and ecological benefits to come from the Highthorn scheme, the development ‘doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the landscape and therefore it meets the policy’.

This would mean that the key policy in assessing the application is paragraph 149 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which says: ‘Permission should not be given for the extraction of coal unless the proposal is environmentally acceptable, or can be made so by planning conditions or obligations; or if not, it provides national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh the likely impacts to justify the grant of planning permission.’

Banks’ argument is that its application meets this test. However, under cross-examination by Paul Brown QC, representing Friends of the Earth, Mr Provan accepted that just because the Castle Morpeth and local minerals plans were out of date does not mean they are ‘out of weight’.

The thrust of Mr Brown’s subsequent questioning was that the policies in these previous plans were very much in accordance with the subsequent NPPF and therefore weight could still be given to them.

Asked if ‘permission should not be given’ (from NPPF paragraph 149) equated to ‘a presumption against’, Mr Provan said it was not the same due to the criteria set out in the rest of paragraph 149. Comparing it to a local policy, Mr Provan added that the addition of the word ‘national’ (as in national, local or community benefits) is significant as it means the NPPF views coal as a ‘nationally significant mineral’.

Mr Provan was also grilled on the fact that the Highthorn site is in an area designated not for mining under a previous plan, whether there were other more suitable sites outside this area and the fact that a key priority in the local minerals plan was that coal was needed for the Alcan site, while today there are no coal users such as power stations in Northumberland.

Earlier, Mr Provan had also touched on a number of other issues in his evidence in chief, including jobs, ‘a very important part of the case’ in terms of benefits, when he said that he wanted to ‘refute the idea that these jobs are temporary or ephemeral in nature, and badly-paid. He added that the figure of 100 full-time-equivalent jobs the company had put forward was ‘the core figure we are confident the site will employ but it will be higher than that at times’.

On tourism, he said: “They (visitors) come to this area for the beach, they don’t come to the area for the site itself and, from the beach, you won’t be aware of the site.” Based on his experiences at Banks’ other sites at Shotton and Brenkley Lane, he added that ‘they don’t appear to be put off by the knowledge that a mine is there’.

Mr Provan’s cross-examination is continuing this afternoon, while witnesses still need to be called from Northumberland County Council, which is defending its decision, in July last year, to approve the scheme, before it was called in by Secretary of State Sajid Javid.

The public inquiry is being chaired by a planning inspector, who will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State, who can then choose to reject these recommendations and will have the final word on the fate of the application.

The proposals are for the extraction of three million tonnes of coal and a total of 20,000 tonnes of fireclay and sandstone over a five-year period with total operations lasting seven years, taking account of the time to set up the site and complete restoration.

Banks and its supporters point to jobs and economic benefits for the wider area as well as the restoration plans for the site following the extraction.

However, objectors said that the mine would destroy a stunning part of Northumberland. Concerns also include the impact on climate change, potential damage to tourism, the impact on wildlife and ecology, road issues and the negative effects on residential amenity, including noise, dust and air pollution.