North East employer Banks Mining has welcomed plans by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to make a decision on its Highthorn surface mine within the next three months – and it is now urging him to act positively to ensure the UK can meet more of its continuing need for coal for a range of essential commercial, industrial and electricity generation needs by using domestic resources.

Last year the County Durham-headquartered employer successfully lodged a High Court challenge to the former Secretary of State Sajid Javid’s decision to reject its Highthorn planning application despite a government-appointed planning inspector recommending that the scheme should be allowed to go ahead.

After the High Court’s ruling, the project was returned to the desk of Mr Javid’s successor, James Brokenshire, for further consideration – and the Secretary of State has now revealed that he will announce his decision on it no later than 22 April this year.

Mr Brokenshire has also stated that he does not intend to reopen the public inquiry into the Highthorn scheme that was held in 2017, and that he already has the information required on which to base his decision.

Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, says: “Our Highthorn planning application was approved unanimously by Northumberland County Council’s planning committee way back in 2016, and the uncertainty that has been endured since then by local residents, our highly-skilled workforce, our local suppliers and our business as a whole through a series of unnecessary delays has been extremely challenging for all parties.

“There is a clear and recognised need for coal in the UK which will remain for the foreseeable future to meet a range of essential UK-based industrial, manufacturing and domestic needs, as well as for energy generation purposes as we move towards the date set by Government to phase unabated coal from the electricity generating system.

“If our country’s needs are not met using carefully-mined indigenous coal, they will instead be satisfied via imports from potentially-unstable and distant overseas markets such as Russia, the US and Colombia – and we have indeed already seen coal import volumes from Russia increase by around 70% over the last two years

“This is simply ‘off-shoring’ our environmental responsibilities and results in an inevitable increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of the coal that has to be imported.

“The greenhouse gas emissions associated with coal’s transportation to the UK from the US and Colombia are more than three times greater per tonne than the amount generated by the transportation of coal mined in North East England, while for imports from Russia, this figure rises to between five and six times greater.

“We also have no oversight of the safety and environmental standards to which imported coal has been mined, and its production does not deliver any economic benefit to our regional and national economies.”

The Highthorn scheme would see Banks Mining create at least 100 well-paid, full-time jobs on the site, invest £87m into the Northumberland economy, keep a total of £200m within the UK economy by not importing three million tonnes of coal that would otherwise come from overseas suppliers, and make supply chain contracts worth a total of £48m available to locally-based businesses.

Mark Dowdall continues: “We fully support a stable transition to a low carbon economy and are already working successfully within the framework set by Government to phase coal from the electricity generating system, but the fact remains that there will be a clear and recognised need for coal during this phase-out period.

“It surely makes far greater sense in today’s uncertain times to support skilled British jobs, which are especially needed here in North East England, enabling us to deliver regional environmental and conservation enhancements, avoid these additional greenhouse gas emissions, boost the UK’s balance of payments and provide a secure domestic supply of energy by meeting our nation’s continuing need for coal through domestic reserves instead of further increasing our reliance on imports.

“The Highthorn scheme has been examined in extreme detail by both a local authority with substantial experience of the extractive industries and an independent planning inspector, and was found to be a sound scheme that should be allowed to go ahead.

“We welcome Mr Brokenshire’s announcement that a decision will be forthcoming in the near future and very much hope he follows these recommendations that we should be allowed to take our investment and job creation plans forward.”