Two more years for opencast site

PLANNERS who lost their fight against an eight-year opencast coal site in green belt have agreed to extend its life by two years.

The Shotton site, near Cramlington and Stannington, which was approved by then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, will include the giant landform sculpture Northumberlandia.

On Tuesday, County Planning and Environment Committee members agreed to let HJ Banks extract an extra two million tonnes of coal and 375,000 tonnes of fireclay.

Officers said that though this would increase the impact on the landscape for people nearby, the principle of opencasting there had been established by the Secretary of State and there would be benefits from the latest scheme.

The company promises environmental improvements, public footpaths and up to £70,000 – half the cost – for a junction improvement at Blagdon Lane.

The site has brought 144 full-time jobs, one-third of them new. The Northumberlandia park was initially estimated to cost £1million but is now expected to be £2.5million. Since coaling began, Banks has spent £114,000 on community projects.

Nearest neighbour Aesica Pharmaceuticals, a few hundred feet away, expressed concern about dust and said it had needed to change its filters early, but did not object to the application.

Only Coun Jeff Gobin voted against granting permission. He said work had started that day on the Blagdon Lane junction, the entire cost of which would fall on the council if it threw out the opencast plan.

He said it was now routine for coal companies to win approval for a site and immediately seek permission to take more from it. “It’s not fair on the people of this county – it’s not fair at all.”

He was told Banks had been frank at the public inquiry into the original site about wanting to take coal from this corner too. If it was left to be exploited as a standalone site in the future, work would last seven years rather than two.

Plannning officer Sue Birnie said the main drawbacks were loss of part of the Fusiliers plantation, the raising of the overburden mound by up to 40 per cent and two extra years of site operations.

They were outweighed by benefits including enhanced areas for wildlife in the north and south of the site, conservation headlands along field boundaries and 74 acres for ground-nesting birds. Footpaths would be reinstated and permissive paths added for 25 years by permission of landowner Viscount Ridley.

Coun Paul Kelly said: “With this site and this landowner we are not getting the benefits to the public in the long term that we are getting on other sites – that is enhanced public rights of way as of right.”

This was a token as permissive paths could be closed when the agreement ended. “I find that in this case offensive. There is a hint of feudalism here, where our liege lord is giving us a favour rather than giving us something as of right.”