A public inquiry is to be held into plans for the UK’s first new deep coalmine in decades after the communities secretary “called in” the decision on the project, taking it out of the hands of local government.
Facing a legal challenge, Robert Jenrick reversed his decision not to intervene in the dispute, having previously said it was a local matter. In his decision, he cited new climate change advice and rising controversy over the plans, following vocal criticism from government scientific advisers and leading scientists.
The case has a recent precedent: a similar call-in decision was made in 2019 by Jenrick’s predecessor, James Brokenshire, over plans for an opencast mine at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. Jenrick finally rejected the scheme last autumn, 18 months after Brokenshire’s decision.
Cumbria county council will sit alongside the firm bringing the application, West Cumbria Mining, and local campaign group South Lakeland Against Climate Change as the main bodies submitting evidence to the public inquiry.
Although “landscape considerations” took precedence over climate concerns in the Druridge Bay inquiry, campaigners say they are hopeful that the government’s climate commitments will be central to the Cumbria inquiry. The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s statutory advisers, urged a 78% cut in the UK’s carbon emissions by 2035 in order to meet the government’s legally binding target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Supporters of the mine argue that extracting coking coal in west Cumbria will reduce domestic industry’s reliance on imported coal, thus cutting carbon emissions that they say the UK “outsources” to other countries at present.
But campaigners say the 2.7m tonnes of coking coal that would be extracted each year from beneath the Irish Sea will greatly exceed the projected domestic demand for the resource, with just 360,000 tonnes – about 15% of the total – expected to be supplied to UK-based firms.
In a letter to the county council announcing the decision, the Department of Communities, Housing and Local Government advised that Jenrick “particularly wishes to be informed about” how the mining plans would square with the government’s climate change commitments, along with policy on the sustainable use of minerals and sustainable development in the area.
Jenrick will be entitled not to follow the planning inspector’s recommendation once it is made. Egter, campaigners say he may leave himself open to legal challenge if he is considered to have ignored the inspector’s findings.
The inquiry is set to take place in early summer and is expected to last about two weeks. Its conclusions, and a subsequent government decision, may not be forthcoming until next year.
Environmental campaigners hope the decision’s proximity to the Cop26 UN climate summit, which the UK is hosting in November, may sway the government’s decision, with intensive lobbying expected from both camps.
Anne Harris, of Coal Action Network, said Jenrick’s failure to take a clear climate stance in the Druridge Bay case has led to complications in approaching the Cumbrian scheme.
“In the Druridge decision, following a public inquiry in 2017, the secretary of state dodged the question of whether extracting more coal leads to more coal being consumed, and thus greater amounts of greenhouse gases being released," sy het gese.
“This time he cannot avoid taking a position on this issue. The future of our planet depends on politicians and companies acting to dramatically limit the release of gases which cause climate change.
“If Jenrick had been strong in taking a stance against the Druridge application on climate change grounds, it is possible that this application in Cumbria would never have been approved.”
Intussen, the former government climate change representative, John Ashton, said the wording of Jenrick’s call-in letter this week was “a disgrace: a farrago of false trails, obfuscation, and low-grade thinking and drafting … In any case, this welcome decision is about crude climate politics and nothing else.”
Pressure on the UK on the global stage may also have affected the decision, hy het gesê, with many taking the view that the UK should be setting a good example internationally as hosts of the crucial Cop26 climate conference.
“I imagine they will be telling … northern Tories to bide their time and press their case after [Cop26 in] Glasgow. I suspect that [US climate envoy] John Kerry on his visit the other day told Johnson to start getting his act together.”