Campaigners are hailing the end of opencast coal mining in Britain after a long battle to see off the final applications for new mines in former coal heartlands.
The Banks Group’s decision not to appeal against the rejection of a proposed scheme on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne means England joins Scotland in apparently reaching the end of the road for surface coalmining.
No opencast mines are extracting coal in either country – compared with the nine operating in England alone a decade ago producing nearly 3m tonnes – while two remaining sites in Wales will gradually wind up operations.
Opencast or surface mining is a quarrying technique in which coal seams relatively near the land’s surface (normally under 100 metres in depth) are exposed by the excavation of overlying rock, which is stored nearby as a pit is created. The practice, which is less capital- and labour-intensive than deep mining, began in Britain during the 1940s. As with deep mines, the number of such projects has been declining steadily since the 1960s. Despite this, over the last decade several million tonnes of coal have continued to be extracted each year in the UK through opencast.
But it looks as if opencast mining may have had its day. Plans for a new surface mine at Dewley Hill, near the former colliery village of Throckley, were thrown out by Newcastle city councillors in December. The mine would have extracted 800,000 tonnes of coal and 400,000 tonnes of fire clay at a greenbelt site seven miles west of the city.
The local authority’s unanimous decision, which Banks called “outrageous”, has put a stop to the firm’s ambitions to resurrect coal in the region. It followed two other planning defeats in 2020 at an existing scheme in County Durham and the firm’s most prized target, at Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast.
Banks had planned to appeal against decision. Gavin Styles, its executive director, said the project was intended to be “a short-term site helping the UK steel, industrial, brick manufacturing and heritage sectors displace higher greenhouse gas-emitting imports, while alternate [sic] low-carbon technology advanced”. But the company has since decided not to appeal.
Styles said: “For all our operations, whether minerals extraction or renewable energy generation, our high environmental operating standards are agreed through considerate consultation with local communities, planning authorities and regulatory bodies. Through our landscaping and restoration work, we provide a long-term legacy of improved habitats and increased biodiversity.”
The tide appears to have turned for this style of mining. “From Staffordshire to Northumberland applications for opencast coalmines have been rejected following strong campaigns by local people, some lasting decades,” said Anne Harris, of the campaign group Coal Action Network.
Since 2008, her organisation has worked with communities in Britain to oppose 33 opencast coal applications, with 23 prevented in that time.
For many residents turned activists, these campaigns have been gruelling. “It’s been a full-scale job for many of us who would not have previously identified as campaigners,” said Jos Forester-Melville, who spearheaded local opposition to the plans at Dewley Hill.
Chris and Alyson Austin, who live within 300 metres of the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine in south Wales, have supported residents battling coal applications in the north-east, and spoke at the public inquiry into the Druridge Bay dispute.
The couple said they were “over the moon” that people-powered campaigns had shifted governments’ positions on digging up new coal. But the past 15 years, since the Ffos-y-Fran project was pushed through, have cast a shadow on their former coalfield area.
“The community suffers dramatically from the fallout,” Chris said. “The dust, the noise, the hours they keep, the transport issues that they’ve got with the coal. It’s been awful living next to this thing.”
Alyson added: “We will celebrate hard when we know no other community will have to suffer the way we’ve suffered.”
Coal has also left a charged political legacy that has reintensified as the northern “red wall” has become an increasingly important electoral battleground in recent years.
Newly elected Conservatives in the region have sought to champion coal, with the North West Durham MP, Richard Holden, leading calls in parliament for new British mines and Ian Levy, of the Blyth Valley constituency, backing Banks’s opencast proposals. This has placed them at odds with neighbouring colleagues such as Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who has opposed opencast in her area but supports controversial plans for a new deep mine in west Cumbria.
“These MPs, whose party destroyed the mining communities, are crying out for coal now it’s no longer being dug up,” said Ian Lavery, the MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland and a former Labour party chair. “I was a miner and I’ve seen first-hand the heavy price paid by people in these areas because of the route Conservative governments have taken towards the UK’s net zero targets.
“Coal created jobs in many communities up and down the country, fuelled the Industrial Revolution and enhanced many lives. Climate change needs to be taken extremely seriously and ultimately that’s why we’re seeing the end of domestic coal production – but it needs to be replaced with something substantial, which hasn’t yet been delivered.”