Blagdon estate has hosted parts of two surface coal mines, at Brenkley and Shotton, for several years. We are proud to have done so mainly because of the jobs provided and the income to the local economy. But environmentally, too, these projects have been very positive. Managed by the Banks Group, the landscapes around these mines are surprisingly rich in wildlife, such as hares, lapwings, skylarks and wild flowers, including bee orchids in 2018. After restoration, the land has become a patchwork of good wildlife habitats thanks to sensitive restoration. They helped us to win the Bledisloe award for estate management from the Royal Agricultural Society of England.
I have always been careful to declare my interest in coal mining whenever relevant. I am keen to persuade fellow Northumbrians that surface coal mining elsewhere in the county, where I do not have an interest, can be good for the economy and the environment, and has a positive impact on emissions, because it substitutes for imported coal. I therefore recently wrote to James Brokenshire, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, in support of the scheme to open a new surface mine at Highthorn in Northumberland. This is what I said:
“I am writing to you about a decision on a planning matter in Northumberland that I believe is vital for the county and the nation. As you will know, the Banks Group applied for planning permission to mine coal at Highthorn; this was approved by Northumberland county council; the government called it in and appointed an inspector, who ruled in favour of the scheme. You predecessor then rejected the inspector’s recommendation, but the court has now overturned his decision.
I hope you will quickly approve the scheme. My reasons are as follows:
1. I know the Banks Group well having worked with them on my own land over more than 30 years, mining coal and restoring a listed park around my house. They did this very well indeed, winning awards for the work, which has provided new habitats for wildlife, a unique visitor attraction visited by 100,000 people a year (Northumberlandia) as well as vital income for the Treasury and good jobs for Northumbrians.
2. I have no stake or interest in the Highthorn scheme of any kind, but as with our scheme it would provide work (both within the mine and also the local supply chain) in an area of high unemployment, as well as good tax revenue for the nation, and vital indigenous affordable energy.
3. The scheme would not be environmentally damaging, but the reverse, since it would enable a restoration scheme to be carried out that would provide imaginative new habitats, greatly improved landscapes and much needed community funding for local projects.
4. Britain continues to need coal, not just for electricity generation up till 2025, but for steel making and many other industrial processes indefinitely. Shockingly, 37% of the coal we needed during the first nine months of 2018 came from Russia, a country we dare not rely on. Fundamentally we are offshoring our responsibilities to countries with lower environmental controls, and therefore increasing global greenhouse gas emissions through transportation.
5. The Banks Group and its executives are huge local contributors to good causes in the North-east, supporting communities, charities and facilities all across the region through development funds as well as private donations. The region cannot afford to lose this because of a very small group of protesters coordinated by large, well-funded southern-based professional environmental extremists.
6. The argument that Britain must leave its coal in the ground in favour of imports to save on carbon dioxide emissions makes no sense. Whether Highthorn goes ahead will not affect how much coal is burned in the UK.”