The mine has been approved, but will it ever open? This question refers to the recent decision of Michael Gove to approve the opening of the UK’s first new deep coal mine in over 30 years. The coal would be from the seams that were used for UK steel making in the past; the last Cumbrian coal mine closed in 1986.
West Cumbria mine
Support for the new mine was both loud and unrelenting with some proponents stubbornly refusing to accept that anyone other than ‘local people’ were entitled to a viewpoint on this mine, which, ironically, is far from being locally owned.
But I live in the Workington area and would like to challenge the perception, amongst some, that those opposing the mine are ‘outsiders’. Opposition to the development, from both Cumbrians and the global community, focussed on scientifically proven facts and the UK’s obligations to international agreements in terms of climate change.
In the end, political considerations seem to have trumped the environmental imperative with those political noises cynically harnessing the issue of jobs.
One of the mine’s most vociferous proponents is the current MP for the Workington constituency, Mark Jenkinson. Now Conservative, but formerly a UKIP candidate, Jenkinson was elected to what was previously a safe Labour seat in 2019 shortly after the Whitehaven coal mine project was first approved by Cumbria County Council.
Jenkinson subsequently campaigned vigorously for the mine to be approved and was supported by other so called ‘red wall’ Conservative MPs who alleged that Labour is “turning its back on northern communities” by opposing the development at Whitehaven.
Astonishingly, Mr Jenkinson has also been joined in his campaigning endeavours by Conservative MPs who are members of the Conservative Environment Network. The formerly independent but now Conservative Mayor of Copeland, the local borough council, Mike Starkie is another keen supporter whose musings on protesters extend to insults when he says “why give these wasters publicity“?
It does seem that the divisive perception that environmental campaigners are wealthy and ‘not from round here is being actively encouraged.
The media presentation has focused on economic deprivation as the main driver for local support and there is no denying that, given the area’s poverty, the much vaunted promise of an economic revival is alluring.
Discussion of the actual environmental impact of a new mine, the status of West Cumbria Mining’s ultimate ownership, and criticism of the company by the Tax Justice Network are barely mentioned.
A further problem for the mine project is that Gove has approved the construction of only the part of the mine which doesn’t contain coking coal. The seams of coking coal lie under the Irish sea and permission to work those seams must come from the Marine Maritime Organisation.
What is the local support?
Pancho Lewis a researcher at Lancaster University’s environment centre, has engaged in an ongoing project to document local attitudes towards industry. His work is focussed on trying to understand why support for the mine exists in Whitehaven.
Lewis tells the reader that, in Whitehaven, news of Gove’s approval was “met with relief”. However, he goes on to say that “many of the community’s pro-mine voices are retired or otherwise comfortable”. He details how he has found support for the mine to be strongest amongst groups of older people who can recall memories of when Whitehaven was a ‘thriving industrial hub’. This contrasts sharply with the simplified message put out by the national media.
The past gives context
Not only were there dozens of pits open along the coastal strip, but further inland mining communities proliferated. Railway lines snaked across the landscape providing visible threads connecting communities as the trains gathered ore and coal to take to Whitehaven, from where it was shipped to destinations across the world.
Christopher Donaldson, lecturer in cultural history at Lancaster University, recalls that in 1727 author Daniel Defoe claimed Whitehaven ranked second only to Newcastle for the “shipping off of coals”. One man proudly explained to Lewis that Workington steel, produced by burning coal dug up from Whitehaven, could be “found across the world”.
The Marchon works, a chemical factory which closed in 2005, employed thousands. The still heavily polluted site is where the Woodhouse Colliery, as it would be known, would be situated and access to the offshore coal seams would be via existing Anhydrite mine portals.
I live in a former mining village in West Cumbria and there is no denying that the sense of community seems to have diminished. There used to be multiple pubs, a shop and a post office in our village but now there is just a post office van which arrives once a week and stays for an hour. The railway station in the village closed before Beeching even started sharpening his axe.
As someone who has taught in local secondary schools, where students that I worked with opposed the mine on environmental grounds, I read Lewis’s summary findings with interest.
On Saturday 10 December, a protest against the mine was held at the proposed colliery site. Anti-mine protesters and a small group of mine supporters were present. The protest started predictably enough with songs and speeches by those opposed and some muted shouts and jeers from those in favour.
Slowly the tide began to turn when those who had arrived to celebrate the decision began to listen intently to the speakers detailing exactly why there was so much opposition to the mine and how a far more beneficial outcome would be achieved if there was inward investment in green jobs. Labour, in the form of Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, has said “A Labour government will leave no stone unturned in seeking to prevent the opening of this climate-destroying coal mine, and instead ensure we deliver the green jobs that people in Cumbria deserve”.
A few of us walked over to speak with those who were there in support of the mine and something remarkable happened; we began to agree that there was far more that unites us than divides us. We all want the same things for the area; well paid jobs, with a unionised workforce and excellent terms and conditions.
We want our young people to have job security in their local area and not feel that they have to either work at Sellafield, the largest local employer, or leave the area in order to pursue a well-remunerated career and avoid the ‘McJob’ scenarios.
We agreed that in the past there has been complete complacency in terms of future proofing employment.
The problem with the alternative solution is obvious; how long must we wait for these much heralded but elusive green jobs?
To give one example a ‘shovel ready’ vertical farm project just outside Workington at Lillyhall has failed to materialise. The funding which Mark Jenkinson claims to have secured through his “tireless lobbying” has been reallocated. The applicant for this project was Conservative controlled Allerdale Borough Council and the funding was withdrawn because it failed to present a full business case during months of negotiations.
In all, this represents a loss to the area of the £5.5mn government funds and some £48.8mn of private investment.
By the way, we also need training and climate change education and unless these green jobs, training and education materialise before the next election those who champion the Cayman-Islands-tax-haven-financed mine with its pretence at localism will be in full voice yet again.
Division is not new
In 2016 the people of this area voted for Brexit. As we all know, Brexit proved to be divisive and even now, almost seven years later, many people still identify themselves by how they voted in June 2016.
The decision over the Whitehaven coal mine is similarly divisive – or at least that’s how it seems. It is still not a foregone conclusion that the mine will go ahead. The question ‘will it ever open?’ will now ensure that the divisive nature of this project remains alive.
Where do we go from here?
How about encouraging those companies currently burnishing their green credentials to come here, to West Cumbria? Cumbria Action for Sustainability commissioned the research and analysis behind a document entitled The potential for green jobs in Cumbria.
These jobs include employment in the renewable energy sector, in sectors concerning buildings and heat, in transport and in the recycling, re-use and repair of waste. A just transition to a green employment pathway has the potential to both bring 21st century employment prospects to this area and unite us as a community. Maybe, too, with the demise of the large-scale industries and the rise of massive new housing estates more efforts should be made at parish council level to drive a new sense of ‘belonging’ within communities. As a recently co-opted parish councillor myself, I have just made a personal note that I need to get on with this task.