West Cumbria Mining - my comments to the public inquiry

As the debate and discussion continues about the planning approval for Woodhouse Colliery, I thought it would be of interest to revisit my comments to the public inquiry some fourteen months ago.

The Inspector who chaired that inquiry did, of course, recommend approval for the mine.

My speech in 1991 to the public inquiry

This is what I had to say in my verbal evidence on the West Cumbria Mining proposals for a new coal mine at Woodhouse Colliery to produce metallurgical coal to make steel.


I represent the Egremont North & St Bees division on the County Council, an area which includes the locations of the proposed Rail Loading Facility and much of the underground works. I am speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the council.

I am concerned about time given the large number of speakers so I will not repeat everything in my comments previously submitted but concentrate on the main points and issues.

This is a huge and enormously complex application and the issues are not at all straightforward which is why the resolutions of the County Council’s Development Control and Regulation committee, (DC&R) in favour of the application were qualified by a wish to impose a Section 106 agreement and in total a hundred conditions. If the application is ultimately approved I would strongly support conditions and a planning agreement along very much the lines approved by the council committee – when I was speaking to the committee I asked that the implementation and any variations on the committees should come back to committee so that there could be transparency and some degree of democratic consultation in making sure they are applied as effectively as possible.  I am particularly keen to ensure that conditions are imposed and enforced to ensure the height levels of the RLF buildings would be kept to a minimum; hours of operation/noise impacts are appropriate and highway improvements implemented.

However, I believe that the benefits, including those in environmental terms, from this application greatly outweigh the disadvantages. The environmental impacts of the proposal can and should be greatly mitigated by appropriate conditions and in the words of the council’s relevant policy in the Minerals and Waste Local plan, provides national, local and community benefits which clearly outweigh the likely impacts so as to justify the grant of planning permission.

If this application is finally approved, the proposed Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs. This would enormously help the local economy at a very difficult time for people in West Cumbria following the economic devastation of the Coronavirus pandemic in an area with enormous transport and demographic challenges and where the private sector economy other than the nuclear industry is traditionally quite weak and poorly paid.

The main impact in my division would be from the Rail Loading facility on the countryside south of Whitehaven; there is a potential impact on the amenity of local residents, but that this should be seen in the context of the existing impacts of the A595, the main strategic road in the area.  Investment in improved railway capacity is preferable to using the A595 and the local highways network. The RLF is located in the lowest part of the valley and the conditions included in the DC&R resolution and those I have described could greatly reduce the impact.

There is a potential impact on local health services but I would see this as a net positive because by bringing jobs and people to the area, the application would make the local NHS, which has sometimes struggled to cover a vast and sparsely-populated area in a safe, effective and efficient way, more sustainable as money and resources followed patients.

Listening to the vast majority of discussion of this proposal in the press and social media, and even some of the objectors to the proposal today, you could be forgiven for assuming that the purpose if this mine was to mine coal to be burned in power stations for energy. That would indeed go against the government’s policy to phase out burning coal for energy, a policy I absolutely support. The application is, of course, actually for metallurgical coal to make steel, and conditions which the county council would have imposed if allowed to determine the application, and which I hope will also be imposed if the Secretary of State allows the application to proceed, can and should be used to  ensure that the output of the mine is not used in power stations but that Woodhouse Colliery must be specifically restricted, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too, and there is as yet no proven and established economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia and some from Poland. The environmental standards in some of the  mines concerned are much lower than is proposed for Woodhouse Colliery – a deep mine, while much of the coal currently in used is open cast or strip mined. And then it has to be carted a significant fraction of the way around the world. So when objectors from Mr Kennon onwards this morning refer to steel currently being made in Britain without coal from West Cumbria, it should be remembered that this steel was not made without using coal, it was made using coal much of which was mined in a far less environmentally sensitive manner than is proposed at Woodhouse Colliery – I won’t go into more detail as Mr Douglas has already described this and done so far better than I could have -and then shipped a significant proportion of the way round the world with a consequent higher carbon footprint.

Sir, my academic degrees are in Economics and I would like to say a couple of words about the economics of the mine. You have heard evidence today from objectors suggesting that opening this mine would increase the total supply of coal and might drive down the price. It would be extremely difficult for either side to prove what the net impact will be, but I would urge that both sides of the market equation, both supply and demand curves, should be considered. There seem to be a lot of people speaking today who are so very certain about everything: to paraphrase Lord Melbourne, I wish I was as certain of anything as many of them seem to be about everything. 

Could I set a precedent by humbly suggesting that none of us on either side of the debate can be as certain as everyone seems to think they are about some of these issues?

One objector was right to say that we cannot assume that every ton of coal will be offset by coal no longer mined anywhere else. While I agree with that, I respectfully suggest that it would be equally rash to assume there will be no reduction at all anywhere else, or even that we can be certain of the direction of the net change. 

If, as opponents of the mine have suggested, opening this mine might drive the world price of coal down, then the strong possibility exists that this might make other more marginal sources of coal supply less viable. As opponents of the mine themselves have pointed out, other coal mines are closing. If there is any net increase in supply of coal it is likely to be less than the output of WCM and could very well – there is no certainty on either side - involve the closure of other mines more harmful to the environment such as those as Mr Douglas described.

It was also suggested this morning that this mine might tend to push down the price of coal, which is true, and that this might have a downward effect on the price of steel, and that is possible. It was then inferred that that might have a negative effect on opportunities for investment in new types of steel making; with the greatest respect to Mr Ashton and others that is not a safe inference, and could well be the opposite of the actual effect. Where the price of a major input to an industrial process falls, the producers in that industry will, other things being equal, be able to drop their prices, or take a higher profit margin, or most probably a mixture of both.  If the latter, that would give them more opportunity, not less, to invest in new and possibly cleaner technology.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. It would be a mistake to base UK steel policy on the assumption that greener alternatives to coal will become available while ruling out the possibility that one of the greener ways to produce steel which becomes possible through technological advance may be better carbon capture which will still use coal but without polluting the atmosphere. Whatever happens in the longer term, the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

We heard today from North Cumbria CND and one of two other speakers about an unspecified possible impact of the West Cumbria Mining proposal on the Plutonium containment facility at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, six kilometers away at the nearest point. And by the way, there is not currently an active power station on the site, Calder Hall closed many years ago. The Plutonium containment facility at Sellafield is one of the most, if not the most, strongly constructed and resilient buildings on earth, making Fort Knox look like a child’s piggy bank by comparison. Within that facility the plutonium is stored in containers called “kettles” – the design and testing process for these included crashing a train into one at full speed and it was barely scratched. 

The plutonium containment facility took no damage whatsoever when within recent memory four huge cooling towers actually on the site were demolished by literally blowing them up with explosives. There are already plenty of historic mine workings in the area which are nearer to Sellafield than the proposed Woodhouse Colliery. The idea that one more set of mine workings six kilometers away could possibly be a threat to the plutonium facility is, notwithstanding my earlier comments about certainty, not remotely reasonable.

Sir, finally I want to say something, as an individual councillor and not on behalf of the county council, about the decisions of the  DC&R committee.

I want to make one thing crystal clear before I make these final remarks, that however much I may disagree with the decisions taken by an officer in 2021 about the planning application, nothing I am about to say is intended to suggest in any way that any of the actions taken by anyone at the county council in relation to this planning application were in any way illegal, improper, or ultra vires under the law or the existing constitution, standing orders and scheme of delegation.

Sir, as counsel for the council told you yesterday, the decision to take a neutral position was taken by an officer of the council at Assistant Director level.

During the original consideration of the West Cumbria Mining applications, the council’s officers investigated every aspect of them, including environmental and climate change issues, in the most painstaking detail, and then put the application to DC&R three times. On each of those three occasions the members of the committee listened to hours of presentations and representations and read literally hundreds of pages of reports. After each round of this exhaustive process, the committee voted on the application: they took a view, three times, in favour of the proposal. The first two votes were unanimous. The third time the mine was supported by a four-to-one margin – and although there is not and should not be any party whip on a planning application, it is perhaps worth pointing out that this was a cross-party vote with councillors of each political persuasion both for and against and a majority of councillors of each political persuasion supporting the proposed mine.

A duly appointed, representative and trained committee of elected members of the county council, acting within its powers, after due process and extremely exhaustive discussion and also acting in full accordance with the professional advice at the time, voted three times in support of the mine. There has not been any subsequent opportunity since the third of those votes nearly a year ago, for elected members to take a view.

Sir, I urge you to recommend to the Secretary of State to support the application with a S106 or appropriate planning agreement and strong conditions.”


Chris Whiteside said…
I have declined to accept a proposed comment which was expressed with gratuitous rudeness to people at Cumbria County Council and the Cumberland shadow authority which will take over from it on 31st March.

I am not quite clear whether the insult was aimed at officers or councillors but the responsibility for enforcing conditions rests with officers, who are not in a position to answer back.

If the person who submitted the comment, or anyone else with an interest in the issue would like to write a comment expressed with common courtesy and addressing the issues with enforcing planning conditions, I will publish it.

If you are not willing to express your views with the most basic courtesy, please by all means put them on your own blog or social media, but they won't be published here.

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