Protesters staged a protest against the proposed coal mine in Kendal. Image courtesy of Henry Adams.

Community fight against coal in Cumbria 

Continued efforts from local groups and campaigners mean the battle over a proposed deep coal mine in West Cumbria is far from over. Friends of the Earth and 38 Degrees explore the twists and turns of the campaign, and what it means for local jobs.
  Published:  23 Sep 2020    |      Last updated:  11 Aug 2021    |      5 minute read

In August 2021, UN climate scientists issued their starkest climate warning yet: we’re on the brink of causing irreversible damage to ourselves and our planet if global action isn’t taken to reduce emissions immediately.

You’d think, with such a bleak forecast, that polluting industries like coal would be consigned to history. And yet the argument that coal is needed for the steel manufacturing industry means the coal story isn’t over yet.

It’s important to note that the coal extracted from the Whitehaven mine would be used to make steel rather than being burnt to generate electricity.

Clearly we will carry on needing steel to make things like wind turbines and other key green infrastructure, but there are ways of making it without using coal.

The Climate Change Committee has said that coal use in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035 by the use of hydrogen and electric arc furnaces.

Research into and investment in such technology should be part of the UK government's green industrial revolution.

On 2 October 2020, Cumbria County Council decided to approve West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery – a mining operation off the picturesque St Bees’ coast and a processing plant near Whitehaven.

The UK government decided not to "call in" the decision – allowing the new coal mine to go ahead. But in February 2021, following widespread criticism from campaigners and local groups, Cumbria Council decided to reconsider its decision citing "new information" on the government's carbon budgets.

St Bees Coast, Cumbria
Credit: Image by Darren Frazer from Pixabay

The mine was first proposed in February 2018 and since the beginning, Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole have been campaigning against it.

More jobs from a green economy

"When there are green alternatives to coal such as wind turbines, why are people looking backwards? Why are they embracing hazardous, dirty industries? They don’t need to.” So asks Gillian Kelly from Cumbria. And she's got a very good point.

According to a report by local organisation Cumbria Action for Sustainability, investing in green solutions could create 9,000 green jobs in Cumbria in the next 15 years, across sectors like renewable energy, insulation and waste management.

4,500 of those jobs would be in West Cumbria alone, compared to just 500 jobs West Cumbria Mining estimates the coal mine would provide.

How do young people feel about green jobs in Cumbria?

After taking part in climate strikes in February 2019, young campaigner Isabella Bridgman got to know environmentally-minded people in her local area, and together they formed the Climate Emergency West Cumbria group. One of her areas of interest is engaging with young people.

We hear it time and time again, young people are out future. So, what do they think about green jobs in Cumbria? Local campaigners Isabella and Matilda Bridgman worked alongside Friends of the Earth to find out more.

Isabella tells us: “For me and many young people who call Cumbria home there are many things to love about the place we come from – the landscape, the community, the culture. For all of these reasons, I would like to remain in Cumbria for as long as I can. But jobs, especially sustainable jobs, are currently in short supply. I will most likely have to leave Cumbria to access the job I want to do. Yet many young people would choose to stay here, working with our communities or our land, if the jobs were available.”

After surveying 673 young people in Cumbria, Isabella reported that there is a clear appetite among young people to gain more understanding of green jobs opportunities. Areas of interest included renewable energy, and agriculture, forestry and land management. Also, young people have high aspirations for future earnings, raising the question of whether these aspirations can be met locally.

Currently, as it stands, green opportunities don't really exist in Cumbria. Isabella reminds us that "young people need to be given chances to learn about the opportunities and apprenticeships available to them."

Local campaigners

Isabella’s work with young people isn’t the only local campaigning she's done in Cumbria. She has since played a big role in protesting a project that could create over 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

Cumbrian coal mine protest
Climate activists protest West Cumbria Mining's coal mine project off the St Bees coast.
Credit: Image courtesy of Henry Adams

When the mining company submitted its revised planning application, she organised a lobby targeting members of the council’s Development and Control Committee and encouraged her community to respond to the public consultation.

Along with other local groups such as West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth, Keep Cumbria Coal in the Hole, and South Lakes Action on Climate Change, Climate Emergency West Cumbria made sure the council knew exactly how the public felt before the October decision.

“We asked people to submit comments and objections to the council prior to them meeting to review the decision”, she said.

Thanks to the work of Isabella and other groups, more than 1,000 responses were submitted to the council. The backlash against the mine forced the council to push back the date of discussion around the application.

Fossil fuel jobs

For some, the coal mine makes sense. The coal extracted would be used to make steel, rather than being burnt in power plants, and West Cumbria Coal says the mine would create jobs. Gaile, who lives 300 metres from the site in Whitehaven, agrees. She tells us that the mine is being seen by local people as “an absolute gift”.

However, this ignores a host of other problems. The mine will generate an extraordinary volume of greenhouse gas emissions over its 50-year lifespan, long after the UK’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Then there's the issue of future coal demand. The Climate Change Committee has confirmed that the UK steel-making industry could stop using coal by as early as 2035. That’s only halfway through the mine’s projected timeline. The EU, a key export market, is moving away from using coal for steel even quicker.

A photo of opening coastline. A clear sky with rocks, sea and hillside are visible

The project also blocks the way to a green transition from climate-wrecking fossil fuels to renewable energy. For Isabella, the promise of these new jobs comes at too high a cost. “It's really important that we have jobs,” she noted, “but they are being brought in a way that is not at all carbon neutral and not at all beneficial for our environment, especially during a time when it seems public opinion is shifting to being more environmentally conscious, more environmentally aware.”

She wants a secure future for those in her area, not jobs in a polluting industry that may soon be rendered obsolete. In that respect, the Woodhouse Colliery site itself provides a warning to the short-sighted. For more than 60 years it housed the Marchon chemical works before it closed down in 2005, leaving many jobless. In a few decades, coal will be but a smudge in time, but many in the Whitehaven area could be abandoned by an industry that no longer exists.

A green and fair Cumbria

“If you want to have a just and green future, then we need to make sure that social justice is achieved,” Isabella said. “That’s why we need to provide jobs that are sustainable and green.”

Gillian stresses the importance of taking a stand against coal. “These decisions are being made globally. Somebody has to make the right decision. The only right decision here is to say no to this mine”.

Gaile agrees: "We’re facing a climate crisis. We have to make real changes and decisions. Not just as West Cumbria, England, but around the world".

Cumbria County Council initially approved the new mine, but this led to local and national opposition, forcing a Public Inquiry called by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick. The inquiry ended on 1 October 2021. Now, we wait for the inspector to submit his report so that the Communities Secretary Michael Gove can make a decision – we expect this decision during the spring of 2022.

Following the 2020 victory of Druridge Bay campaigners over plans for a new coal mine in Northumberland, West Cumbrian campaigners are hopeful that their battle may also soon be rewarded.