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Highthorn mine decision imminent?

Highthorn surface mine

Ministerial letter suggests decision on Banks Mining’s proposed surface mine could be near

A LONG-awaited government decision on whether a new Northumberland surface mine can go ahead could finally be about to be made, after a letter sent to Banks Mining, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government, stated that the Government hopes to announce its decision no later than 7 April.

Banks Mining gained unanimous approval for their Highthorn planning application from Northumberland County Council in July 2016, only for the decision to subsequently be called in for review by the then Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP.

A public inquiry into the proposal was held in the summer 2017, after which the Government-appointed planning inspector said that Highthorn was ‘in the national interest’ and should be approved.

Mr Javid overruled his own inspector and refused planning permission in March 2018, but the High Court quashed the Secretary of State’s unlawful decision in the following November.

A new decision was originally expected from the Government in March last year but, despite subsequent government promises, it has not been issued, resulting in a delay of four-and-half years since the application was originally submitted in October 2015.

Now, however, a letter sent to Banks Mining on behalf of the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, the current Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government, has stated that the government hopes to announce its decision no later than 7 April.

Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, said: ‘We hope that this notification from the Government’s legal department means that a decision on our Highthorn surface mine will soon be forthcoming.

‘Given the extraordinary public health and economic challenges facing the country, both now and once the pandemic has been dealt with, and the fact that the North East is already facing unprecedented levels of business closures and employee lay-offs, it would give a real boost to the region’s economy for the Government to approve this application – the only beneficiaries of a refusal would be the coal industries of Russia, the US and Australia.

‘Around 30 million tonnes of coal have been imported into the UK since Northumberland County Council first approved the Highthorn scheme in July 2016, a figure 10 times higher than the 3 million tonnes we want to mine there.

‘The UK currently imports around 86% of the coal that it uses, even though the carbon transport costs of dragging this coal halfway around the planet are enormous. And while UK industry still needs essential minerals like coal and fireclay for things like steel and cement manufacturing and to make bricks for house building, which it will for at least the next 10–15 years, there is no environmental or economic sense whatsoever in sourcing supplies from thousands of miles away when they are readily available at home.’

The Highthorn scheme would see Banks Mining create at least 100 direct, well-paid, full-time jobs on the site, invest £87 million into the Northumberland economy, keep a total of £120 million within the UK economy by not requiring the importation of 3 million tonnes of coal from overseas, and make supply chain contracts worth a total of £48 million available to hundreds of locally based businesses.

Mr Dowdall continued: ‘At a time of national crisis, retaining ready access to the essential resources UK industry needs is more important than ever. A positive decision on Highthorn would help give some much-needed confidence around North East jobs and investment, as well as contributing to the UK’s balance of payments and delivering tangible benefits to local communities – and all at no extra cost to the Exchequer.

‘It remains hugely frustrating that much-needed northern investment and job-creation plans have been held up for almost four years – if we had been allowed to get on back in 2016 as we should have been, Highthorn would now be halfway through its lifespan.

‘While we hope that this latest letter indicates that a decision is near, previous experience with other similar letters suggests we can’t be sure that it is until a judgement actually appears, so for the sake of the regional economy, our highly skilled North East workforce and the global climate, we would strongly urge the Secretary of State to allow us to start work at Highthorn as soon as he can.’

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