Druridge Bay is once again under threat from opencast coal mining. The High Court has upheld a challenge from Banks Mining against the government’s refusal of planning permission.
This doesn’t mean though that Banks can start work. The planning application goes back to the government for a second decision. This is a setback but we’re determined to win the argument again.
Here’s the background to this disappointing news.
In March 2018 it looked like the pristine sands of Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast had been saved from the threat of dirty fossil fuel extraction.
Then Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, refused planning permission for a large new mine on climate change grounds. It was the first time a fossil-fuel planning application had been turned down on such grounds.
Announcing his decision Mr Javid said the scheme would have an “adverse effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change of very substantial significance”.
It seemed that the UK could finally be moving towards a future without coal.
But the developer of the project, County Durham-based Banks Mining sought to overturn the decision at the High Court in London.
And now the judge has upheld the challenge, meaning the application goes back to Mr Javid’s successor as Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, for an second decision.
What's so special about Druridge Bay?
Druridge Bay is a beautiful 7 mile stretch of white sand beaches on England's north-east coast. From the harbour town of Amble in the north, to Cresswell in the south, the area boasts rock pools, woodland and grassland habitats. It's a popular local walking spot, and is famous for an annual skinny-dip dawn bathing event.
Druridge Bay is also home to an abundance of species including hares, curlews, skylarks, lapwings and yellowhammers. It provides a vital over-wintering habitat to migrating birds such as greylag and pink-footed geese.
Many of these species are in serious decline. Between 1995 and 2014, UK breeding populations of skylarks have seen a 24% decline, lapwings 43% and curlews 48%, according to a British Trust of Ornithology Breeding Bird survey report.
The plans to cut a new opencast mine were first announced by Banks Mining in 2013. The company has a number of other coal projects in the north-east including Shotton surface mine, a few miles down the road, which could soon be nearing the end of its life.
In July 2016 Northumberland County Council approved the planning application for the mine, giving the go-ahead to extract at least 3 million tonnes of coal, sandstone and fireclay.
Some in the community were horrified and feared a huge impact on wildlife and the landscape. An initial group of around 8 people set up Save Druridge.
The group began to raise awareness locally about the possible health impacts of the project, and the danger it posed to the thriving Northumberland tourist industry.
"I was shocked and angry that an opencast coal mine could even be considered in such a beautiful area," says Duncan Lawrence, an active member of Save Druridge. He runs the busy Drift Café at Cresswell next to the sand dunes on Druridge Bay.
Coal's time has passed
In 2015 then Energy Secretary Amber Rudd committed the government to phasing out coal for power generation as part of the UK's obligations to tackling climate change. In early 2018 more detailed plans to phase it out completely by 2025 were announced.
Friends of the Earth is campaigning for that date to be brought forward to 2023. This is in line with advice from the Committee on Climate Change that there can be no role for conventional coal power beyond the early 2020s.
Druridge Bay represented a test case.
If proposals for such a destructive way of getting coal out of the ground were given the green light, how could the government reasonably claim to be serious about transitioning to a low-carbon economy?
The plans to open the Highthorn mine were completely at odds with the national policy to phase out coal. We were able to show clearly how fighting the local issue can have an impact on the global direction of fossil fuels.Simon Bowens Friends of the Earth north-east campaigner
Friends of the Earth teamed up with Save Druridge early in the campaign, lobbying Northumberland County Council to reject the application.
When that failed, we began a vocal campaign to pressure the Communities Secretary Mr Javid to open a public inquiry. In September 2016 we were delighted when that decision was taken.
When the inquiry opened in May 2017 Friends of the Earth submitted vital documents showing how the mine was incompatible with commitments on climate change.
Actions by our supporters were also crucial – more than 20,000 of you emailed Mr Javid asking him to reject the plans. More than 500 people emailed their councillor in Northumberland and many more sent letters. 300 people turned out for a rally on the beach.
Friends of the Earth also networked with local groups to lobby local and national politicians. This was a success, with the Conservative MP for Berwick-on-Tweed (which includes Druridge Bay) Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and Labour’s shadow energy minister Barry Gardiner, both asking Mr Javid to refuse planning permission.
In February 2018 a delegation of Friends of the Earth staff and volunteers delivered a letter signed by Chief Executive Craig Bennett to Sajid Javid. The letter urged him to listen to our supporters and protect the climate. The event was covered in local TV, press and radio.
The huge pressure on the government seems to have worked and in March 2018 Mr Javid made his announcement.
"Our community is delighted it has been recognised that the future of our local environment and the planet is much more important than a short-term gain from coal-mining," said Lynne Tate from Save Druridge at the time of the decision. Lynne co-ordinates the campaign from her home in nearby Widdrington; she makes craft items from driftwood and visits the beach nearly every day.
For me the key thing was writing to the Secretary of State. Oh, and we never gave up believing we would winDuncan Lawrence, Save Druridge
When Banks Mining challenged Mr Javid’s decision, Friends of the Earth decided to defend it, alongside the government and Save Druridge.
Our legal experts and barristers acting for us on a no-win-no-fee basis put together strong arguments why Banks Mining’s challenge was wrong. We’re disappointed that the judge didn’t agree with us but we won’t stop fighting now.
Keep fossil fuels in the ground
Since the original decision, we’ve learned from the world’s leading climate experts that it’s even more important to act fast to avoid catastrophic climate change.
To keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C and prevent dangerous climate change, we need to keep most of our coal, oil and gas in the ground.