Villagers accuse parish of deserting them in opencast design debate

ANGRY villagers have accused councillors of failing to represent them by refusing to take part in an opencast design forum.

Residents in Widdrington Station and Stobswood questioned why no members of the parish council had attended the group, which has been set up by Banks Mining to help formulate its plans for a surface mine off Mile Road.

The company says the forum will give locals the chance to air their concerns and suggest ways of working the mine to limit its impact on the community.

Councillors have previously stated that contributing to the forum may be seen as pre-empting any decision on a future planning application for the scheme.

However, at this month’s parish meeting, resident Lesley Tollett said: “I attended the Ferneybeds opencast design forum that Banks has put together regarding an application for the end of Mile Road.

“There was great dismay that the parish council hadn’t attended.

“It is my understanding from dealing with the county council for many years that your discretion is only fettered if you are a county councillor who sits on the planning committee.”

Coun Shelly Willoughby said that members stayed away to avoid getting into discussions about the level of potential community benefit funds coming from any development as the issue will be subject to formal negotiation if an application is submitted.

But Mrs Tollett said: “Surely, you could have left the room at that point, but you could have sat in and listened to everything else, such as where the entrance would be and how heavy the trucks are going to be.

“The least the parish council could do is listen.”

Former councillor Jacqueline Bexfield suggested that the council could appoint a specific representative to the forum to get around the issue, but the proposal was rejected.

Parish Chairman Joe Sennett said: “The discretion rules are very fine and you can interpret them very differently.

“We are not on the planning committee, but the planning application will come here for our comments.

“I reserve the right for me to declare an interest when I wish to declare.

“That is what I have done and will continue to do until the application goes in. I will then get the information from Banks first hand and then make a decision.

“We are talking pie in the sky until we have seen the application, read it, digested it and given our opinion on it.”

However, villager Jacek Juszczyk said: “As a resident of this village you represent me and I would have expected that you, as my councillors, would have been at this meeting.

“There was no discussion of how much money was going to go in, there were no negotiations, all it was was information gathering.

“It seems to be your right not to bother to represent me. This is what you have done.”

A representative from Banks is due to attend the next parish council meeting in June.

Meanwhile, Parish Clerk Richard Smith has been asked to set up a session with Northumberland County Council’s legal advisors to provide guidance on a range of issues for councillors.