The Government has been urged to put on hold a number of opencast planning bids in the region amid uncertainty over the future of the company behind them.
Secretary of state for communities and local government Eric Pickles has been asked to impose a moratorium on planning proposals being pursued or considered by UK Coal, as the firm fights to stave off insolvency. The company is currently working on two new projects in Northumberland, one in County Durham and one at Gateshead. The call, from the Loose Anti Opencast Network (LAON), was last night welcomed by opponents of one of the schemes in Northumberland.
UK Coal last week announced plans to close two of the last three deep mines in Britain just nine months after it was rescued from administration.
The company is seeking to raise £10m in investment to secure its future.
If that fails, it has said it will turn to the government for help. In the North East, UK Coal employs more than 200 staff at opencast mines in Butterwell, near Morpeth, Potland Burn, near Ashington and Park Wall North, near Crook in Durham.
However, the company has also either submitted, or is to submit, planning applications for sites at Bradley, near Consett, County Durham; Hoods Close, near Whittonstall and Bebside, near Blyth, both Northumberland; and Marley Hill Colliery Reclamation, Sunnyside, near Gateshead.
LAON fears there is a risk that taxpayers will be left with the bill for restoring the sites should UK Coal win permission then go into liquidation, a risk it says also applies to operational projects. It argues there is no way of knowing who will operate the sites should permission be granted and that councils are ill equipped to assess the financial viability of developers.
Co-ordinator Steve Leary said: “The prudent course of action would be to limit the risk of extending the degree of environmental damage from spreading any further, by imposing this blanket planning moratorium now, until such time as any operator, who wants to apply for planning permission to open a new surface mine, can demonstrate that they have sufficient capital resources to meet the financial risks involved.”
Blyth resident Derek Leathard, who is fighting the proposed Bebside scheme, said: “I quite agree that, given their financial problems, I would suggest that in this case Northumberland County Council says ‘Look, you should not be allowed to do this’.”
UK Coal failed to respond to requests for comment.