With new energy developments from shale gas to wind farms facing strong opposition, how has England’s biggest surface coal mine overcome local objections?
By Sebastian Sahla
At the Shotton coal mine in northeast England, the Banks Group has overcome local opposition which once threatened to derail its project. Despite operating England’s biggest surface coal mine at a time when criticism of the energy industry is rife and climate-change concerns are calling the future of coal into question, Banks recently expanded its operations without controversy. Its proactive approach to community engagement and innovative environmental management may carry lessons for other companies in the UK’s energy sector.
When the Banks Group first submitted plans to open the Shotton mine near Cramlington nearly ten years ago, the company faced one of the largest opposition campaigns to a planning application in the county’s history. Amid accusations of inadequate consultation, local residents and businesses saw the mine as a threat to Cramlington’s drive to rebrand itself as the home of a modern pharmaceuticals industry, and feared noise pollution, traffic, impacts on public health. In 2006, the council rejected the company’s planning application; Banks only gained the green light to begin work after the central government overruled the council following a public inquiry the following year.
Yet recent plans for expansion of the mine have triggered no substantial opposition. Over the years, the company has moved through additional planning processes with ease. In an age of growing scepticism towards the energy industry, Banks’ experience demonstrates that companies need to go above and beyond the basics to obtain their ‘license to operate’.
One simple lesson – and a point made vigorously by the UK shale gas industry – is that in some cases local concerns decline once a project is up and running, assuming people see that the impacts they feared have not materialised. Shotton is seen to have got the basics right: local experts recognise its good practice in areas such as dust suppression, noise abatement, environmental monitoring and control of truck movements. According to many residents, the presence of the mine is hardly noticed.
Banks has gone further than this, particularly in its approach to consultation. Much of the opposition to energy developments in the UK arises from a feeling of insufficient community engagement, with some companies suspected of aiming to move through the planning process with a minimum of public exposure. Critics of Banks’ original application cited a perceived lack of consultation among their reasons for opposing the project, but today such complaints are rare. Banks’ interactions with the public are regular, formalised and far-reaching, and the company works hard to be transparent about its operations. Key to this has been community liaison committees, which bring together residents, councillors and company representatives. The committees allow for two-way communication between the company and the public, including some of the project’s greatest opponents. Even county councillor Wayne Daley, who led the original opposition to the mine, recognises that Banks is now responsive to local complaints. Regular site visits for key groups – from local businesses to the Women’s Institute – have further dispelled suspicions.
The Banks Group has also successfully used a community fund to build support – a model which in other circumstances has been interpreted as an attempt at bribery. The company’s approach of involving the liaison committees in spending decisions has helped instill a sense of public ownership and has played a significant part in securing the support of community groups.
A second area of innovation has been environmental management and restoration – a frequent cause for concern in areas affected by UK energy projects, particularly after operations end. In many regions with a history of mining, the landscape still bears the scars of unremediated damage from past extractive activity. The Banks Group points to closed sites near Cramlington, such as its Delhi mine, to give examples of successful restoration. More important in shaping local attitudes has been the concept of ‘restoration first’: the idea that residents can benefit from restored landscapes before and during, not just after, operations. Through the construction of Northumberlandia – a community park, which includes the controversial ‘Lady of the North’ landform – the company has aimed to direct the public imagination towards an immediate benefit. Northumberlandia divided the community as much as the proposals for the surface mine itself: many critics see the ‘Lady of the North’ as a misallocation of resources; others suspect ‘Slag Alice’ to be a means of cheaply dumping the mine’s overburden. For the park’s supporters, however, the landform represents a public good with a lasting impact. While some in the area are sceptical of the number of jobs at the mine itself which have gone to local people, Northumberlandia has had a significant broader economic impact. Tourism is today among the most promising growth areas for Northumberland’s economy and Northumberlandia attracted over 100,000 visitors last year alone. For many, the Lady of the North has ‘put Cramlington on the map’.
Coal and climate change
The bigger picture for the UK’s coal industry is not a happy one. Since the pit closures of the 1980s, domestic coal production has gone into steep decline and while nearly 40% of the UK’s energy continues to be generated at coal power stations, these rely largely on imports. Climate change looms heavily over the industry; as a greenhouse gas intensive fuel, coal has been hit hard by carbon taxes and its continuing role in the UK’s energy mix attracts broad criticism. According to Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, ‘the days of coal-powered electricity are numbered’. The Banks Group itself has diversified into renewable energy.
On the local level though, even opponents to Shotton do not tend to focus on the greenhouse-gas concerns around coal. Northumberland is proud of its mining heritage: as one Cramlington councillor puts it, ‘coal mining is in our blood’. And while climate change is taken seriously, livelihoods may be a more immediate concern. As many residents see it, the Northeast’s economy never recovered from the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures and resentment towards Westminster and the Conservative Party is still rife. The Northeast continues to have the highest unemployment rate of any region in the UK.
Scepticism towards renewable energy projects also shapes local discussions around coal mining. With its low population density Northumberland hosts a significant number of wind farms, which are deeply unpopular locally. Many residents fear that the visual impact of these developments could harm the county’s tourism industry, and accuse the companies and landowners involved of seeking quick returns without providing lasting benefits to the communities. For many locals the Shotton mine, which is widely seen to have worked hard on these issues, presents a less worrying alternative.