Open Cast, Closed Mind
Bill Hartley identifies an unholy alliance
Last month a public enquiry convened at Kingston Park the home of Newcastle Rugby Club. Some time ago Northumberland County Council granted planning permission for Banks Mining to start work on a new open cast site near Druridge Bay, where they wish to extract three million tons of coal. This decision was over-ruled by central government, hence the enquiry.
Open cast mining used to be the poor relation in coal extraction. These days it’s the only kind of coal mining left in Britain. In the view of some, this business is the equivalent of handing out smallpox infected blankets to the natives. Visit the web site of those opposed to the Druridge Bay project and it would seem as if the four horsemen of the apocalypse are about to descend on the district. Incidentally Druridge Bay itself isn’t affected by the project; more of this shortly. The Banks company has been long established in the north of England and Scotland. It sponsors apprenticeships and provides much needed jobs in areas where deep mining has disappeared. The company also points to its record of successfully restoring over 110 surface coal mines and managing its sites sensitively. None of which does it any good in the eyes of the type of person who sees coal extraction as the moral equivalent of animal cruelty.
All of this is rather ironic considering Northumberland’s long history in the coal trade. Small towns near to the project site, such as Ashington and Bedlington, were greatly extended in the nineteenth century due to the working of coal and the smelting of iron. Right up to the eighties these were industrial settlements before the final demise of deep mining. Easington Colliery was the last to go in 1993. A memory of their mining heritage is aired each year when banners are taken down from working men’s clubs, dusted off and paraded through the streets of Durham. Such places have never really recovered from the loss of the industry. Their bleak locations were perhaps tolerable when decent money was coming in courtesy of the coal board. Now the original streets of terraced houses have been augmented by a few rows of bungalows and executive style housing, as builders have sought to create dormitory suburbs within easy reach of Newcastle. Miners survive in the work of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ whose pictures are regularly given exhibition space by state funded galleries. The legacy of deep mining is gradually being reduced to an officially sanctioned folk memory.
The site that Banks wishes to develop is near to the coast and the beach is impressive. Mile after mile of empty uninterrupted sand, often publicised by the Northumbria tourist people. There is of course a reason for the emptiness. Living up here requires a certain hardiness because the climate is frequently awful. A visitor cannot hope to insult the locals about their weather. They have heard it all before and simply laugh it off. Moving inland to look at the site which is causing all the fuss one cannot help but be struck by the contrast. The beach does look very good but inland lies an area of flat scruffy fields of no particular interest, at least to the neutral observer. Listening to those who object to Banks’ plans, it would seem as if this rapacious mining company is intent on destroying a Garden of Eden populated by the wildlife of the Serengeti. The fact is that whilst Northumberland has some superb scenery it isn’t to be found inland from the beach, hence the attachment to the far more appealing Druridge Bay.
The protestors are a mixture of affluent retirees and the self appointed ‘Friends of the Earth’. This combination augmented by the wittily named ‘Frack Off’ last appeared at Kirby Misterton in North Yorkshire, to protest about the fracking operation. Now their fellow travellers have emerged to wave placards and serenade the planning inspectors at Kingston Park. They have even arranged an auction to raise funds. The main item up for sale believe it or not, is a sports car. These days no company involved in resource exploitation would be foolish enough to proceed to the planning stage without an environmental impact assessment and proposals to make good the site after the work is done. At Kirby Misterton the site seems no bigger than a few tennis courts. Undeterred by this the protestors (who never bother themselves with hard science) claim that there is a risk of ‘emissions’. But before anyone starts to worry about children asphyxiated on their way to school, read the work of Professor Peter Styles who believes that there are greater emissions from a dairy farm than a fracking site.
An alliance of the affluent in their wax jackets, who don’t fancy any form of mining rearing its ugly head again in Northumberland, has teamed itself with Friends of the Earth, who treat resource exploitation as heresy. The latter wear the beatific smiles of religious pilgrims. ‘Three million tons from a dead planet’ was one of their slogans when a protest at Kingston Park was televised recently. Banks’ response is that whilst the country continues to need coal for power generation then they will extract it. The problem that Friends of the Earth and their comrades in Frack Off have, is that both coal and shale gas are intermediate technologies, there to bridge the gap until nuclear and renewables can take full responsibility for power generation. Banks also make the obvious point about the economic and strategic advantages of domestic extraction, neither of which makes any impression on the eco fanatics and their new allies. They have had some success. Down the road at Drax power station in North Yorkshire they burn the products of North American forests; reduced to pellets, shipped across the Atlantic and trucked up from Liverpool, rather than local coal brought a few miles by barge as it used to be. Go figure as the Americans would say.
Banks Mining makes one final point. The blighted communities of Ashington and Bedlington lost their economic base back in the eighties. Jobs are needed and Banks explains that development of the site will safeguard one hundred of them. The protesters at Kingston Park clearly have little sympathy with the need to provide employment for working class people.
BILL HARTLEY is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service. He writes from Yorkshire