ROBERT HARDMAN: The eco-zealots who want to send a colliery town’s dream up in smoke
For better or worse, we have become a nation of Nimbys. ‘Not In My Back Yard’ is now the default response to any proposal for building anything bigger than a shed.
Suggest a few houses on the edge of a village and locals will be up in arms. Announce plans for a new supermarket, and a militant residents’ action group will be up and running by teatime (unless it is a Waitrose). As for a wind turbine, well, that is a declaration of war.
Except in this one rugged corner of the kingdom, however. I am standing in Britain’s only Nimby-free zone.
The people of Whitehaven, and the surrounding borough of Copeland, do not just live contentedly alongside the largest nuclear site in Europe, Sellafield. They also find themselves next to the proposed location of Britain’s first new deep coal mine this century. And I do not hear a bat squeak of protest from them.
For better or worse, we have become a nation of Nimbys. ‘Not In My Back Yard’ is now the default response to any proposal for building anything bigger than a shed. Pictured: Haig Colliery in Whitehaven, Cumbria in the 1960s
This will be no modest operation here on the west Cumbrian coast. The plans are for a whopper, with shafts running four miles out into the Irish Sea, a quarter of a mile beneath the waves. The site will employ more than 500 people and produce millions of tons of coal, which will travel along its own railway to link up with the main network.
The proposed colliery is due to be built on open land right in front of a new housing development. So what do local people have to say?
‘We’re all for it. Everyone wants this mine,’ says Steve Nicholson, a Sellafield union leader whose home will actually overlook the colliery if it takes shape. ‘The only people against it are those who are not from round here.’
Mining is in the local DNA. Coal is to Whitehaven as brewing is to Burton. What residents object to is being painted as a bunch of desperate throwbacks to the days of pit ponies, canaries and emaciated children in baskets being lowered into the sulphurous gloom.
The hefty old pithead machinery still looms above the town and the sea but it is a monument (and once part of a museum) to an old pit that finally closed in 1986. The new one, Woodhouse Colliery, will be a low-lying, futuristic facility on the overgrown site of a former chemical works a mile away.
Except in this one rugged corner of the kingdom, however. I am standing in Britain’s only Nimby-free zone. Pictured: Computer graphic of the proposed mine at the site
Whitehaven is not sitting on any old coal. It straddles seams of top-quality metallurgical ‘coking’ coal essential to steel production.
No amount of Extinction Rebellion stunts can alter the fact that the world still needs steel. We need it to make hospitals and schools and, yes, eco-friendly solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars.
To make all that steel, we need metallurgical coal. And, at present, steelworks in the UK and Europe must buy that coal from the U.S.
So a company called West Cumbria Mining has applied to do the same job much closer to home — saving the cost and emissions incurred by importing millions of tons across the Atlantic. In doing so, it will breathe new life into this part of the UK.
There will be no Victorian cages clanking down into the bowels of the earth. These miners (including Britain’s first female colliers) will be driven to the automated coalface in electric 4x4s. With projected salaries of about £50,000-£60,000, it’s no surprise that 1,500 people have already pre-registered for a job. Everyone’s itching to get down t’pit.
The people of Whitehaven, and the surrounding borough of Copeland, do not just live contentedly alongside the largest nuclear site in Europe, Sellafield. Pictured: Miners at the Haig Colliery in the 1960s
‘I put my name down as soon as I heard,’ says Neil Messenger, 57, who worked in the old colliery until it closed, spent 25 years as a fireman, and now wants to get mining again.
‘You can’t beat that camaraderie. No job like it.’
Unfortunately for Neil, his family and everyone else, however, their plans have now been derailed by a combination of council jobsworths, environmental activists and a cabal of knee-jerk Westminster coal-haters — with Labour, of all people, leading the charge.
If it’s not strange enough to be in a town built on coal and rugby league that is now run by Tories, it’s even odder to find that the people fighting hardest to close the local pit (before it even opens) are the heirs to Keir Hardie and Arthur Scargill.
Local Labour county councillor Emma Williamson, who backs the colliery, is sad to admit to me that she finds herself a ‘rebel’ for defending miners in an old mining town.
Robert Hardman (pictured): The proposed colliery is due to be built on open land right in front of a new housing development. So what do local people have to say?
The Labour argument is that the coal mine will increase Britain’s carbon emissions and must, therefore, be stopped at all costs.
To which the people of Whitehaven point out that those emissions are going to happen anyway, since we still need steel. So do we want to pay American miners and pretend to be virtuous planet-saving good guys? Or do we want to pay our own?
Adding fuel (literally) to the fire is the fact that Britain is preparing to host this year’s UN COP26 global climate change summit. Boris Johnson’s Government wants the world to sign up to big cuts in carbon emissions. How can we possibly do that, many argue, if we are simultaneously opening a new coal mine?
It is this which has stalled seven years of planning here in Whitehaven. ‘No new mine in history has been scrutinised as carefully as this one,’ says Mark Kirkbride, the Teeside-born geologist who runs West Cumbria Mining. Cumbria County Council’s development committee has overwhelmingly approved the plans three times.
However, with the summit approaching, opponents have been piling pressure on both the council and the Government to intervene. In January, Lord Deben, the former Tory minister John Gummer who chairs the UK’s advisory Climate Change Committee, urged the Government to scrap the mine scheme.
Last month Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Ed Miliband, appeared on telly saying: ‘We can’t be opening new coal mines.’
Almost immediately, the Labour leader of Cumbria County Council took the hint, ignored all past decisions by his development committee and told members to think again. At which point, Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick finally ‘called in’ the plan, urged on by Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
It will now be the subject of yet another public inquiry in September, just weeks before the summit starts.
The antis have been joined by a grand alliance of international schmoozers, led by former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, America’s envoy to the talks.
‘Coal is not the future,’ he pronounced on the BBC when Newsnight asked him about Cumbria the other day. ‘All over the world, coal plants are closing.’
Yet his own country produces 600 million tons per year, while Cumbria is proposing to extract just 0.5 per cent of that amount. ‘Isn’t it odd,’ observes West Cumbria Mining’s Mark Kirkbride, ‘that someone from a country with huge mining interests is saying the UK should not open a new mine?’
Besides, the interview is misleading. Mr Kerry was talking about coal production in general (most coal is burned to generate electricity, something Britain has stopped doing altogether). The BBC did not point out to him that Cumbria’s coal is only for making steel.
‘No investment firm is going to invest in a new coal plant,’ declared the omniscient Mr Kerry, clearly unaware that West Cumbria Mining’s investors have already sunk £36 million into this one.
Pictured: Core examples of Metallurgical coal which is to be mined
It all adds to the sense of far-away know-alls scuppering a scheme that seems entirely logical here in Cumbria. A few also feel that southern bien pensants want to punish the area for being ardently pro-Brexit.
That’s the view on the streets of Whitehaven, where I can find no one who is opposed to the scheme. Not a single one.
‘We’re in a pandemic and you’ve got a chance of 500 jobs?’ says paramedic Brandon Berry, 24. ‘What are we waiting for?’ I see no signs against the mine, no posters, not even graffiti.
There has been the odd demonstration, but not by locals. A few months back, a handful of Extinction Rebellion protesters from elsewhere turned up at the county council offices, posed for the cameras then drove home.
Many Cumbrians are opposed to the mine, but they hail from the tourist-dependent Beatrix Potter/Lake District part of the county, and not its industrial perimeter.
‘This town understands energy and is not afraid of it,’ says Mike Starkie, the executive mayor of Copeland and, as it happens, a Conservative. ‘People need to stop looking at metallurgical coal as a thing of the past. This whole project is driven by the latest technology.’
Mr Starkie explains that the colliery will not just produce 500 direct jobs but bring at least another 1,500 supply-chain jobs to a local workforce with some formidable brains. With Sellafield up the road, he points out, one in five workers round here is a graduate.
Whitehaven’s main shopping street is now a run-down via dolorosa of empty spaces, but there are encouraging signs, too.
The former bus station is about to reopen as a Google-style hub for ‘tech, digital, media, and creative start-ups’ with a 100-seat restaurant attached.
It has a full list of tenants and owner, BEC, the local regeneration firm, has plans for a new hotel and training centre overlooking the handsome Georgian harbour.
It’s why the locals resent being patronised by southern eco-zealots who think that coal mining belongs in an L.S. Lowry painting and who can’t be bothered to study the specifics of this case. ‘People around here are more technically literate than almost anywhere else I know,’ says local borough councillor Steven Morgan. He is no naive sentimentalist. He is actually a retired U.S. navy rear admiral and Vietnam veteran who served in nuclear submarines before running major infrastructure projects at Sellafield, Heathrow and for the Ministry of Defence.
Whitehaven bus station is the last place I would expect to be discussing energy policy with an American admiral — but then this town does have the distinction of being the only place in Britain ever invaded by the U.S. (in an abortive raid in 1778).
Rear Admiral Morgan, 72, tells me he would still be a Liberal Democrat were it not for the party’s opposition to the mine. Instead, he sits on Copeland council as an independent.
‘This country needs a steel industry and that steel industry needs coking as part of a mixed bag of energy sources,’ he says.
In his view, the only reason that the mine has been blocked is ‘because this summit means that Boris Johnson has a hypocrisy problem’. He is confident that once the summit is over, the Government will give the mine a green light anyway.
After all, with more than enough coal for UK steel plants, this mine will also export to Europe.
Who would have imagined, just a few years ago, that a proud northern town like Whitehaven would have a Tory mayor and MP?
Trudy Harrison has won here three times on the trot and is parliamentary private secretary to Boris Johnson. She is passionately pro-mine. ‘We need steel for just about all manufacturing — anyone saying we don’t is in cloud cuckoo land,’ she told her local paper.
Neighbouring Workington is a former steel town, where the revolutionary Bessemer steel process was pioneered and made most of the world’s railway tracks.
When analysts tried to explain the collapse of Labour’s so-called northern ‘Red Wall’ at the last election, many pointed to ‘Workington Man’ (and Woman). As one senior Tory argued, London-based eco-zealots are doing their best to turn it into ‘Woke-ington’.
The town’s Tory MP, Mark Jenkinson, says that many there are desperate for the jobs which the mine will generate.
He pooh-poohs environmentalists’ talk of giving people unspecified ‘green jobs’ and of using hydrogen for steel-making.
‘The hydrogen technology simply isn’t there yet,’ says a man who actually worked at the town’s British Steel plant. ‘So what are steelworks going to burn instead? Tyres? Wood?’
The one Cumbrian MP opposed to the mine is the county’s only non-Tory MP, Tim Farron.
The former Lib Dem leader accepts there is an issue with U.S. coal imports, but says the UK must do all it can to push the steel industry away from coal. ‘Making it easier for them to carry on using coal is like giving the alcoholic another drink,’ he argues.
In short, this boils down to a simple question: should we pay our own people to get their hands dirty or pay another country to do the work? Do we choose pragmatism or piety?
In Whitehaven, they don’t want virtuous self-flagellation. They want jobs.
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