Fury as mine approved

ANTI-opencast protesters claimed they had been let down by the Government last night after a massive new mine near a Northumberland town was given the green light.

Northumberlandia

ANTI-opencast protesters claimed they had been let down by the Government last night after a massive new mine near a Northumberland town was given the green light.

Controversial plans by The Banks Group to dig 3.4 million tonnes of coal from 750 acres of countryside at Shotton near Cramlington were approved by communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears – 16 months after being thrown out by county councillors.

The decision means that the Northumberlandia earth sculpture – a 300m-long figure of a naked, reclining female – will also go ahead as part of the mining scheme.

The bid was opposed by 2,500 residents, the Support Cramlington Residents Against Mining (Scram) protest group, the North-East Assembly and Blyth Valley Council, who claimed it would spoil the local environment and deal a major blow to the economy of Cramlington.

It was also opposed by the North-East Industry Cluster and several Cramlington pharmaceutical companies, amid fears that dust from the workings will impact on their clean-air production processes.

In addition, the Shotton site lies in an official ‘constraint area’ where Northumberland County Council policy says there is a strong presumption against opencast mining for regeneration and landscape reasons.

Despite the strength of opposition, Ms Blears has accepted the recommendation of her Planning Inspector, Simon Gibbs, and allowed an appeal by The Banks Group against last year’s refusal of permission.

She has concluded that the benefits of the eight-year project outweigh the planning objections and that it will be environmentally acceptable, add to the local and regional economy, provide a local supply of coal and enhance the local landscape in the long-term.

Ms Blears said there was no objective or rational basis for business investors to lose confidence in Cramlington as a pharmaceutical base as a result of the opencast mine.

Last night, Cramlington Independent councillor and Scram member Panos Papaioannou said: “We feel we have put up a very good fight but, unfortunately, the Government has again let us down. This site will cause real disruption for Cramlington.

“I only hope that we don’t lose any of the pharmaceutical factories as a result of this decision.”

Cramlington Conservative councillor Wayne Daley, who helped set up Scram, said: “I am absolutely appalled by this decision because public opinion is totally against this application.

“It has been taken out of the hands of democratically elected councillors and effectively decided by a mandarin in London.”

Chris Gowland, quality director with Cramlington firm Aesica Pharmaceuticals, said: “We objected to this scheme, so clearly we are disappointed with the appeal decision.

“We will now have to discuss its possible implications for the company.”

Gordon Halliday, a senior official in the county council planning department, said: “We are, of course, disappointed that the appeal has ruled against the committee’s recommendations. We will be examining the decision letter and inspector’s report in detail before deciding what to do next.”

The Banks Group says the mine will pump £150m into the local economy and, through Northumberlandia, create an iconic landmark to rival the Angel of the North. It claimed it would provide a vital supply of coal for the 670-job Alcan complex at Lynemouth.

Andrew Sugden, membership and policy director with the North-East Chamber of Commerce, said: “This decision provides much-needed energy security for some of the region’s most significant employers.

“It is important that the environmental concerns of neighbouring businesses are recognised... we are confident that they will be.”

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Northumberlandia

ONE of the most contentious elements of the Shotton scheme has been the plan to create Northumberlandia – a 300m-long, 30m-high landform sculpture which would form the centrepiece of 40 acres of public parkland.

The Banks Group, which commissioned renowned artist Charles Jencks to design the giant, naked, reclining female figure, claims it will be a unique architectural sculpture of national importance to rival the Angel of the North.

Northumberlandia has been described as a ‘celebration of the earth’s natural power and the human ability to re-shape landscape in a dramatic form’. Visible from passing aircraft, it will be constructed from two million tonnes of soil and clay excavated during the mining operations.

Northumberlandia would be created as work on the opencast progressed, with the finished artwork and surrounding park only completed at the end of the mining process.

Consultants commissioned by Banks said the figure could attract 200,000 visitors and generate £1m in tourism revenue a year.

However, local residents have greeted the plan with derision, describing Northumberlandia as ‘tosh’ and claiming it is an attempt to dress up a mining scheme which would otherwise prove unacceptable.

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Timeline

December 2004: Protests begin immediately after the Banks Group reveals a plan to dig 5m tonnes of coal over 10 years from 850 acres of green belt land sandwiched between the A1 road and Cramlington’s industrial estates.

December 2004: Pharmaceutical companies in the town voice concerns over the potential impact of dust and blasting from the massive mine on their clean-air manufacturing processes.

April 2005: Local people set up protest group Support Cramlington Residents Against Mining – SCRAM – to send a clear message to the applicants.

July 2005: Northumberland County Council’s area committee for Blyth Valley recommends that the scheme should be thrown out.

November 2005: Consultants commissioned by Banks claim the Northumberlandia sculpture could attract 200,000 visitors and generate £1m in tourist spending a year.

February 2006: Banks scales down its Shotton plans in the face of opposition, including cutting the timescale from 10 years to seven and reducing the working area by 105 acres.

May 2006: Bosses at Alcan give their backing to the Shotton mine, claiming the coal supply is important to their 670-job Lynemouth operation.

July 2006: County councillors vote 8-5 to refuse planning permission amid claims that opencasting will harm the local landscape and economic regeneration efforts in the area.

February 2007: Six-week public inquiry begins in Morpeth to hear Banks’ appeal against the refusal of permission.

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