New planners urged to make fresh opencast site visit

PLANNERS are set to pay a new visit to a controversial proposed opencast site before making a final decision on whether to allow excavation.

PLANNERS are set to pay a new visit to a controversial proposed opencast site before making a final decision on whether to allow excavation.

UK Coal wants to dig over 2m tonnes of high-grade coal and 500,000 tonnes of fireclay from the scenic Hoods Close site near Whittonstall on the Northumberland-Durham border.

Campaigners determined to protect their rural idyll have fought the plans for over three years and now hope the new county planning committee formed since the local elections in May will take a fresh look at the case.

The previous committee made a site visit in January, but a final decision has been delayed and now Whittonstall Action group chairman Kay Fitzgibbon says: “It is vitally important that these councillors, trusted by the electorate with making such an important and far-reaching decision, come and see the proposed opencast site for themselves.”

Northumberland County Council planning officers are also recommending to Tuesday’s meeting of the new planning and environment committee that a fresh site visit be undertaken.

With an extensive seven-and-a-half-year excavation programme planned across 208 hectares of land, the small village community has launched a major offensive against the UK Coal proposals.

Ms Fitzgibbon added: “I really can’t exaggerate the strength of opposition to this surface mine. More than 550 people have taken the time to write letters of objection.

“Since there are only 38 properties in the village of Whittonstall, these letters are not from local ‘Nimbys’. People from surrounding communities, local businesses, and visitors have all written to object.

“Fifteen parish councils have written to express their concerns and opposition, as well as village trusts in County Durham.

“Three MPs support our campaign along with councillors from both Northumberland and County Durham.”

Wind farm development is also spreading in the Whittonstall and Kiln Pit Hill area and planning officers point out in their report to Tuesday’s committee that three new turbines at the Boundary Farm site have now been erected.

The cumulative effect of the wind farms together with the opencast site has been a significant issue in the dispute.

UK Coal director of surface mining, Simon Taylor, insisted the effect of the dig would be less than many people feared.

“All of our sites are worked to the highest environmental standards,” he said, “and the Hoods Close scheme would be no different. We have done our homework, there have been thousands of hours put in, and we have worked very hard at the technical aspects.”

UK Coal has offered £850,000 to Whittonstall’s village school for “a positive project” and a further £400,000 to a local community project fund.

But the company’s financial welfare has been called into question since its purchase of the land at Whittonstall, although the opencast dig would still go ahead as UK Coal retains the mining rights.

A final decision is likely to be made at County Hall by early July and Ms Fitzgibbon added: “We have to trust that the new planning and environment committee will listen to us and take note.

“If they do, then they can only agree that this application for a surface mine on open greenbelt land with its far-reaching views should be refused.”

I really can’t exaggerate the strength of opposition to this surface mine

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