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Government finally intervenes over controversial Cumbrian coal mine plan

Illustration of proposed coal mine in Cumbria / Source: West Cumbria Mining

As the row over the proposal to build the first deep coal mine in the UK in 30 years – in Whitehaven, Cumbria – rumbles on, it looks increasingly likely that the outcome will be in accord with the wishes of the green community. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) contacted Cumbria Council on March 11th stating that MHCLG secretary Robert Jenrick was “calling in” the planning application submitted by West Cumbria Mining (WCM) to the local authorities.

This is effectively a reversal of Jenrick’s decision in January “not to interfere with the decision-making process of local councils on planning matters”. The newly-released correspondence cites the reason for the volte-face as “further developments since [Jenrick’s] original decision”. The “further developments” would appear to be the advice provided by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to Jenrick in late January.

The CCC – advisers to the government on climate change – was unequivocal about:

  • the increased carbon emissions should the mine be allowed to go ahead;

  • how the UK’s role as hosts of COP26, November’s UN climate summit, could be compromised.

This criticism was echoed by a wide range of individuals and groups -

  • James Hansen – former scientific head of NASA – urged the Prime Minister to review the MHCLG’s hands-off approach;

  • Professor Sir Robert Watson – the eminent environmental scientist – described governmental failure to block the mine as “absolutely ridiculous”;

  • Sir David King – former UK chief scientific adviser – said it was a “big mistake”.;

  • Further afield, Mohamed Adow – director of Power Shift Africa and winner of the Climate Breakthrough Award – said it was a “bizarre and shocking decision”;

  • Even the government’s own appointee as president of COP26 – Alok Sharma – was said to be furious with the reluctance of his cabinet colleagues to intervene.

The planning application was originally submitted to Cumbria Council in May 2017. It has been approved on three occasions and then stymied as the MHCLG considering “calling in” the application. When Jenrick waived the opportunity to do so in January, there was a further twist when Cumbria Council themselves announced in February that they were, again, reviewing the plan.

WCM reacted with dismay to the latest developments although in a statement issued on March 5th, a hint of resignation is detectable about what now seems to be the inevitable outcome.

One of WCM’s persistent arguments is that their plans mitigate the amount of potential environmental threat in addition to creating about 500 jobs for the area. This line of thinking was given some perspective in a report published on March 12th by climate change charity Cumbria Action for Sustainability. In The potential for green jobs in Cumbria, it is argued that 9,000 new green jobs could be created in Cumbria between 2022 and 2037 during a transition from a high-carbon to a low or no-carbon region.

About two-thirds of these would be in the renewable energy sector – mostly onshore wind and solar power – with another 2,000 jobs resulting from retrofitting existing buildings. Poignantly, the report estimates that 4,500 of the jobs would be in West Cumbria.


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