Against the backdrop of the Prime Minister announcing that petrol and diesel vehicles will be phased out by the end of the decade, there are communities in the North of England fighting against the planning permissions of new open-cast coal mines.
The pandemic has made all of our lives more difficult and most of us do well just to survive the days, but spare a thought for the people who have to find the strength and courage to oppose a mining company with all of its resources just to safeguard the health of their families as well.
In September, we heard the good news that the Government had finally decided to turn down planning permission for another proposed open-cast coal mine adjacent to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the UK, Druridge Bay. As a member of the group that campaigned for this decision for over seven years, I know first-hand how much effort and commitment it takes for a group of people to come together to protect what they value.
We were fortunate that Druridge Bay is a beautiful part of our country and many people have visited and enjoyed the natural beauty that it offers. It is also near to RSPB sanctuaries where rare birds can be seen, and our campaign was supported by the conservationist Bill Oddie, who was the guest speaker at one of our events.
The latest site for which a planning permission has been submitted is not a tourist destination, and it isn’t somewhere people will recognise so easily. However, it is valued by the local community as somewhere they can leave the hustle and bustle of their village and enjoy the countryside in all of its glory.
The group campaigning against the open-cast coal mine, Defend Dewley Hill, expects a decision from Newcastle City Council within the next month, and early indications suggest that it will do what all local councils do and give the mine the go-ahead. It mustn’t go unnoticed that allowing the open-cast coal mine to be dug will increase local traffic, as large trucks will constantly be arriving and leaving the site. Mine operations will increase the amount of particulates in the air, increasing the chances that local people will suffer from respiratory illnesses. The irony could not be more complete that just as we protect the most vulnerable in our society by observing a second lockdown, a mining company wants to increase the chances of more people developing similar illnesses so that it can increase its profits.
Just like anything in life, we learn our lessons and try to do things better next time, and so, with support from other groups that have opposed open-cast coal mines in recent years, Defend Dewley Hill has decided to begin its crowdfunding campaign, so that as soon as the council rules against it, the group is able to challenge the decision in the courts and, if possible, get the Government to intervene, as they have already made strong commitments to phase out coal by 2025.
Last year, after enormous pressure from local groups, including Extinction Rebellion and Newcastle Green Party, on 3 April Newcastle City Council finally declared a climate emergency, making a commitment to work towards becoming carbon neutral by 2030. If it now gives the open-cast at Dewley Hill the go-ahead, it will be as many of us suspected all along that the climate emergency was just words to get local groups off the Council’s back and really it has few or no aspirations to move away from business-as-usual.
The Newcastle Green Party worked tirelessly to insert a clause in the council’s Development Allocation Plan, which stated mineral extraction had to be proved to be climate neutral. However, these efforts were rejected. The plan – without this amendment – was adopted in June this year.
Tay Pitman, Newcastle Green Party Climate Action Officer, explained: "In April 2019, I presented a petition with over 2,500 signatures to Newcastle City Council, calling upon it to declare a climate emergency. It then committed to Newcastle becoming net zero by 2030. In March this year, Council Leader Nick Forbes stated that 'the time for mining in this city is over'. Fossil fuel combustion significantly contributes to climate change, so it's crucial that their use is phased out as quickly as possible. So far, the Council has been saying the right things. But will its actions align with its promises?
"We know that economic growth is at the heart of the Council's policies. Over the next 12 years, 21,000 new homes will be built, many of which will be in the west of the city. Our green spaces around Newcastle are already under threat from new housing developments, so to lose over 50 hectares to an open-cast coal mine is horrifying. Habitats are already stressed and Newcastle has lost its claim of being the last urban area in England with a red squirrel population.
"Allowing the creation of an open-cast coal mine in Newcastle is completely at odds with its declaration of a climate emergency. I sincerely hope that the lure of a growing local economy and the promise of jobs isn't favoured over its commitment to the climate emergency and that Banks' application is turned down. Coal is our history, not our future."
Rakesh Prashara is the Equality and Diversity Officer for the Newcastle Greens