Opponents and supporters have say on surface-mine plan at emotional public meeting

The meeting was fully booked. Due to the passionate nature of the event, police were in attendance, just in case anything got out of hand.
The meeting was fully booked. Due to the passionate nature of the event, police were in attendance, just in case anything got out of hand.

Objectors and supporters spoke passionately at a fully-booked public meeting last night, which was held to discuss a controversial surface-mine plan in Northumberland.

The forum, which was organised by Northumberland County Council, attracted a capacity audience at Widdrington Station Community Centre. The session, which at times became heated, was held to provide more information about Banks Mining's Highthorn proposal, for a surface mine to the south-east of Widdrington and close to Druridge Bay. It also gave members of the public the chance to ask questions and quiz Banks representatives about the application, which was submitted to the county council towards the end of last year. What was clear from the meeting, was the strength of feeling on both sides. On numerous occasions, people speaking against the scheme received cheers and applause from objectors. By the same measure, supporters who gave their views were praised in identical fashion by those in favour of the plan.

A map of the proposed site boundary.

A map of the proposed site boundary.

Concerns from the objectors were numerous, from the impact on climate change, to the potential damage to tourism. One opponent said the mine would be 'a monstrosity', while another vented: "People come to Northumberland because of its beauty, for its coast and its countryside, yet here we are looking at an organisation which is here to milk the land. It is a commercial enterprise, making money at the expense of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country." Other concerns raised included the potential impact on ecology and wildlife, including pink-footed geese, and the increase in traffic along the A1068 coastal road, with Banks stating that there would be a maximum of 300 HGV movements to and from the site on a daily basis. Objectors are concerned that this will damage the road surface and pose a safety risk to other highway users. Opponents also questioned the economic rationale behind the application and believe it will impact on residential amenity, including noise, dust and air pollution.

At last night's meeting, Jeannie Kielty, development relations coordinator for Banks, admitted that the scheme was a contentious issue, but said that it will bring many benefits. The company states that there will be an employment, skills development and training fund, which forms part of the project's overall community benefits package, as well as an initiative aimed at creating an enhanced tourism offering and new wildlife habitats in and around the Druridge area. Banks states that improvements to be delivered throughout the lifetime of the Highthorn site include around eight kilometres of new cyclepaths, bridleways and footpaths, and more than 100 hectares of new wildlife and wetland habitats. The company says that at least 50 new jobs will be created, as well as 50 existing positions being transferred from the company's current surface-mine sites in Northumberland.

Last night, it appeared that employment is one of the main reasons why supporters want the scheme to go ahead. Speaking passionately in favour of the application, Coun Shelly Willoughby, chairman of Widdrington Station and Stobswood Parish Council, said: "Are we not in danger of saying 'it is not the fact that it is an open-cast mine, but it is fact that we don't want it here?' The scheme for Ferneybeds surface mine (granted permission in 2013) is across the road from where Highthorn will be, yet nobody raised an eyebrow, let alone an objection. So why is it becoming such an issue for Highthorn? We have made sure that the mine will not be on the beach at Druridge Bay, it is in a field further back. Let the lads have their jobs!"

Banks' proposed timescale for Highthorn is up to seven years - from initial soil removal to final completed restoration - followed by an aftercare period. Speaking in favour of the scheme, one Amble resident said: "Do you think Hauxley Nature Reserve would have happened without open casting? Do you think Druridge Country Park would have happened without open casting? We have had all this open casting around Amble and Widdrington, but it hasn't decimated the tourist route! Would we have had all this without open casting?"

Banks intends to mine three-million tonnes of coal and a combined 20,000 tonnes of fireclay and sandstone over a five-year period. The operational site will be 250 hectares. Explaining the economic rationale behind the scheme, Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at Banks, said: "You need to burn coal in this country to keep the lights on. Our preference from a green point of view and also an economic point of view is that if coal is mined here we are supporting local jobs and the local community, rather than importing it from overseas, often from unsettled areas and areas that don't enjoy the same environmental standards as we do."

The meeting heard that if the scheme is approved by the county council's planning committee, it will then have go to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who will decide whether or not to call it in. So far, the county council has received more than 2,000 comments, with 1,486 objections and 882 in support. There have not yet been any objections from statutory consultees, subject to conditions and/or points of clarification, but the RSPB, National Trust and Northumberland Wildlife Trust have objected.

Prior to the meeting, a number of objectors staged a protest criticising the size of the venue, which they said was too small.