An application by Banks Mining, to open a new coal mine in Northumberland, has been rejected by the government after four years of wrangling.
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Government, Robert Jenrick, has once again overruled his own inspector, who recommended that the application be approved, and planning permission granted, subject to conditions. Ignoring this advice, the Secretary of State has refused panning permission.
His predecessor, Sajid Javid, did the same in 2018, but the High Court quashed the Secretary of State’s unlawful decision in the following November, stating that there were serious errors in the legal basis on which Mr Javid had made his decision.
Now, the current Secretary of State has concluded a planning battle begun almost five years ago by once again refusing learned advice and rejecting the application.
The decision is a blow to Britain’s heritage railways, many of which claim they may be forced to reduce or even cease operation as a result.
Heritage railways – as well as traction engines, steam boats and ships, and historic static steam engines – all need coal to function. The kind of coal they need is different to that used by industry or power stations but can be sourced from the same mines.
England’s last mine producing washed bituminous lump coal – as used for heritage steam – ceased extraction in August 2020. That spelled the end of washed steam railway coal from coal mining in England. The planning application which has just been refused was for a new open cast mine at Highthorn, Northumberland. Promising three million tonnes of coal over several years, the mine would have assured continuity of a coal supply for heritage steam.
On behalf of its members, the Heritage Railway Association has been lobbying government for clarity on the future of coal for heritage steam. The government has been encouraging, stating it has no wish to see the end of heritage steam in the UK. But while it has clearly understood the huge problem facing a key player in the UK’s leisure, tourism and heritage sector, it has yet to offer a solution.
“It makes no sense,” said Steve Oates, the Heritage Railway Association’s CEO. “The UK needs five million tonnes of coal every year, for steel and cement production. The decision to end coal production in the UK is driven by CO₂ reduction targets. But the CO₂ generated by importing coal from countries like Russia and the USA produces ten times more emissions than producing it domestically.”
While importing coal may be a practical, if not environmentally friendly, solution for the nation’s coal and steel industries, the solution presents huge challenges for heritage railways. “Steam engines need washed lump coal,” says Oates. “It’s different to the more finely-grained coal the steel and cement industries need.”
Britain’s heritage railways use just 26,000 tonnes of coal a year. “Such coal can be imported,’ said Oates, ‘But it will come at prices most railways simply won’t be able to afford.”
Gavin Styles, executive director at Banks Mining, says: “We are extremely disappointed that, more than four years after an independent planning inspector recommended that the Highthorn scheme should go ahead, the Secretary of State has once again chosen to go against this expert advice.
“At a time when our region and country is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, this decision effectively hands the much-needed and valued jobs of our North East workforce to Russian miners, who will be delighted to meet British industry’s continuing need for coal whilst simultaneously significantly increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.
“This decision won’t solve the problem, but will instead make it worse.”