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Proposals for a new mine in the North West are making headlines locally, and the PR war on both sides of the debate is in full swing.

Posted on Fri 13th Oct, 2017 in: Issues Management by Phil Reed

Exactly 25 years ago today, the government hammered another nail into the coffin of Britain’s coal mining industry by announcing the planned closure of 31 of the remaining 50 deep mines.

The announcement by Michael Heseltine, president of the board of trade, on 13 October 1992 was seen as the last rites for deep coal mining in Britain, with cheaper gas and oil-fired power stations replacing their coal-fired predecessors, and with the country’s industrial strategy increasingly focused on cleaner forms of energy.

Around 31,000 mining jobs were lost as a result of the announcement, but this time there was little in the way of response from the National Union of Mineworkers, which fought a long and bloody (literally) battle with the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

As a cub reporter in Yorkshire, I covered the 84-85 miners’ strike, and witnessed first-hand the impact on thousands of families and how it split communities. In some cases, it didn’t just split those communities, it completely tore them apart.

Without getting into the politics of the dispute (and, let’s face it, the clash between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill was all about political ideology) it was clear that Britain’s coal industry was now living on borrowed time.

Between 1985 and the turn of the millennium, media coverage of the issue was dominated by the privatisation of the National Coal Board, the pit closure programme and the failure of privately-owned operators to make it a profitable and sustainable enterprise. Britain’s last deep mine, at Kellingley Colliery, closed in 2015.

But just when we thought the narrative around coal was all negative, a small company is seeking to revive deep coal mining in the North West.

West Cumbria Mining, run by mining engineer Mark Kirkbride, plans to open a mine close to the site of the former Haig Colliery, near Whitehaven. Haig closed in 1986 and became a museum, but even that has closed down.

The coal – which will be mined offshore and brought to the processing facilities via mine drift tunnels - would supply the UK and European steel-making coal market, which currently imports around 45 million tonnes per annum.

WCM hopes to start extracting coal in late 2019. A planning application has been submitted to Cumbria County Council and is expected to be discussed next month, while initial investigations into the mine drifts began last week.

But although the company says the mine will create 500 jobs locally, the plans have met with some local opposition, with protesters objecting to the prospect of deep mining taking place close to the Sellafield nuclear plant.

WCM has been on a two-year local charm offensive, seeking to gain support for its plans and, at the very least, reduce the level of opposition. And, from the outside, it does appear to have put together a comprehensive stakeholder engagement programme.

It has organised a number of community meetings, open days and stakeholder events and produces a monthly community newsletter to keep residents informed. It’s also created a local liaison group and hosted informal drop-in sessions in local community centres.

The company has also established a regularly-updated community Facebook page and its website outlines its environmental, transport and health and safety commitments. An opportunity for locals to pre-register interest in working at the site has received more than 1,600 applications.

But not everyone wants to see mining return to Cumbria. The local Green Party is among the opponents and there are also objections from the likes of the Coal Action Network.

WCM’s plans bears little resemblance to the mining of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it seems that 25 years on from Michael Heseltine’s announcement the subject can still attract headlines – and divide communities.

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