OPENCAST: Acute choices to be made

Harry and Mia have different visions of the future. Those visions have just come into collision in Kingston Park, Newcastle. Only one can survive.

Thursday, 15th June 2017, 9:06 am
Updated Monday, 19th June 2017, 11:46 am

Harry Banks is 76. For 40 years, his company Banks Mining has been digging coal from opencast pits, mainly in North East England.

Now it wants to gouge three million tonnes more from under boggy meadows just behind Druridge Bay in Northumberland, at the tip of the majestic coastline that stretches north towards Holy Island.

At a public inquiry now under way at Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club, the Planning Inspector must decide whether this should be allowed.

Nowhere are the choices facing our country more acute than in the North East.

Nowhere was the de-industrialisation of post-war Britain more brutal. Nowhere has yesterday left behind so many questions about tomorrow.

The people here have big, hospitable hearts: To visit feels like coming home. They are heirs to an industrial legacy whose contribution to our national story was immense. How can they now rebuild a sense of promise and shared purpose?

For Harry, scrabbling to dig more coal while there is coal to be dug and willing buyers, is clearly part of the answer, whatever the cost to communities, landscapes, wildlife and habitats, and to the reputation of the region and our country.

Mia Finlayson is 19. She has a different answer.

Mia grew up in Cramlington, nearby Druridge Bay was the seaside. It was fresh air, family picnics, dogs plunging into the North Sea surf. It was where Mia fell in love with nature and with the place where she feels blessed to have been born.

Mia does not just want to enjoy the fruits of renewal in the North East. She wants to be part of that renewal.

That’s why, when she could have followed her peers southwards, she enrolled at Durham University to study geography. She hopes this will equip her to help the North East build respectfully on its past without being trapped by it.

When the last deep pits of Northumberland closed their gates, those who then ruled our country turned their backs on families and communities suddenly bereft of livelihoods, breadwinners, and hope. That remains a matter of national shame.

But the age of coal is over.

For Mia, the North East has treasure far more precious than any coal still under its soil.

For Mia the real treasure of her region is the talent of its people, its breathtaking beauty, its tempestuous history as one of the great crucibles of Britain, the bounty of its farmland, the wonder it inspires in those who visit, and not least its great tradition of civil and marine engineering now harnessed to a clean energy transformation that our country must urgently complete.

Like most of her contemporaries, Mia wants Britain to remain a leader in the response to climate change. A country that is opening new coal mines undermines that response and cannot lead it.

Banks Mining makes the startling assertion that coal is a “crucial bridge” to the low carbon economy.

For Mia, such a claim is a slap in the face to young people everywhere. They will, after all, have to live with rather more of the consequences of climate change than Harry’s generation.

At the public inquiry, Banks Mining will no doubt argue that its mine will bring prosperity. But it will employ, at most, a few dozen people and the jobs will last no longer than the seven-year lifetime of the mine.

Across the North East, as everywhere else in Britain, the low carbon economy is already creating more jobs, more enduring jobs and better skilled jobs than the dying coal economy ever can.

But if the mine goes ahead, the harm it does will outweigh any fleeting reward for those able to profit from it.

No community could withstand without disruption the inevitable assault from noise, dust and pollution, including hundreds of truck movements daily along the single busy access road. And who wants to spend their summer holiday next to an opencast coal mine?

It may seem frivolous to draw attention to the destiny of a strip of coast and countryside far away from the centre of Government, in which one member of our House of Lords has disgracefully called the “desolate” North East.

But behind all the struggles that define our public life today, from leaving the European Union to caring for our parents, lies a single question — how can we reclaim a politics in which we can all once again have trust, a politics that offers Mia’s generation the opportunity to build the future they choose, not one chosen for them without their consent and against their interest?

That question hangs over Druridge Bay, just as it hangs over every community in Britain. How we answer it will determine whether our fractured nation truly can come back together again.

The choice for each of us is are you with Harry or with Mia? With yesterday or tomorrow? With the entitlement to keep digging or the opportunity to build?

I’m with Mia. Like her, I hope the Planning Inspector will now remove one obstacle to the future she is reaching for by saying “no” to Harry Banks.

John Ashton CBE

Ex-Special Representative for Climate Change at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office