Plans for the country’s first deep coalmine in more than 30 years have led to local divisions in Cumbria, even as it becomes an international issue over the country’s climate change commitments.
James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost voices on climate, this week took the unusual step of sending Boris Johnson a strongly worded letter warning that if the mine was allowed to proceed it would lead to “ignominy and humiliation” for the UK.
The plans for the mine, Hansen argued, show a “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people”. He hoped the prime minister would take this chance to help the UK change the world’s climate trajectory by showing the “acumen and gumption” to be a global leader on environmental issues.
Work is due to begin on the mine as early as this year, after the county council gave the green light to the £165m Woodhouse Colliery scheme, and housing secretary Robert Jenrick waved through the plans. The mine will dig up coking coal for steel production from beneath the Irish Sea, and will, it is calculated, emit 8.4m tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.
The promise of up to 500 new jobs is persuasive for a region – west Cumbria has seen years of redundancies and high unemployment rates after the closure of the Marchon chemical works, the decommissioning of the Sellafield nuclear facility, and the scrapping of plans for another nuclear site.
“There are huge levels of deprivation here,” former GMB union leader John Kane says, citing several wards in the area, including the one he represents, Kells, and the Woodhouse estate, as among the most deprived in England. “We have a proud history of mining in this area, going back centuries – so it’s natural people in Copeland would want to see it return.”
Local support for the project has been spearheaded by the Conservative MP for Copeland, Trudy Harrison, who won the seat from Labour in a historic byelection and retained it in 2019. The case for coal in the area and other parts of the north of England has also been made by the new “red wall” Tory MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson.
Borough mayor Mike Starkie points out that the mining company behind the mine has promised that 80% of the jobs created by the Woodhouse project will be reserved for locals.
But there is also strong local opposition to the mine and at least two legal challenges in the pipeline – one on climate change grounds and the other part of a campaign brought by local objectors who fear that drilling could trigger subsidence near areas with high concentrations of radioactive material in the sea bed, the result of years of nuclear waste disposal.
“When you’re inland in Cumbria and you’re in one of the towns that are next to a river, you can see the danger of flooding from the rivers as a result of climate change,” says retired council officer, Maggie Mason, who has helped mount part of the opposition campaign.
The mine may scupper the ambitions of several local groups to make Cumbria the UK’s first carbon-neutral county by 2037, a target set with the national park’s support, which hopes to lead the way on eco-tourism.
Local resident Martin Kendall, 58, who works as an A&E receptionist at the West Cumberland hospital, will see the development reach his doorstep. His house, only a couple of miles from the planned mining site, would overlook the train-loading facility that would accompany the project in the heart of the Pow Beck valley.
“I think what they did was amazing,” he says of the area’s mining heritage. “But digging up coal in 2021 is madness.”
To make his opposition clear, Kendall has taken to running through the town wearing a “Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole” T-shirt and dotting banners with anti-mine slogans across Whitehaven.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron – Cumbria’s only non-Conservative MP – believes the mine would be “a complete disaster for our children’s futures”.
The local divisions echo the rows playing out at a national level, with the government’s climate change chief Alok Sharma said to be furious at the decision to let the mine proceed. The Times quoted a civil servant as saying Sharma was “apoplectic … There was just disbelief that a decision like this could have been made”.
In response to Hansen’s letter, No 10 said: “The UK continues to lead the fight against climate change, cutting emissions by more than any major economy so far – at the fastest rate – and putting the prime minister’s bold 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution by 2030 into action. We have already committed to ending the use of coal for electricity by 2025 and ending direct government support for the fossil fuel energy sector overseas.”
Local schoolgirl Isabella Bridgman, 16, has led a number of climate strikes by the young in west Cumbria since 2019. “Older generations understandably prioritise the need for jobs,” she said. “But there is clearly a need for longer-term investment in this part of Cumbria – for something that looks beyond fossil fuels.”