Honister slate mine owner faces £28,000 legal bill

Date: Friday 19th August 2011

THE firm behind a leading Lake District tourist attraction was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay costs of £13,190 and a victim surcharge of £15 after admitting damaging an area of Honister Crag, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, in Borrowdale.

Honister Slate Mine could also be forced to close an extension to its Via Ferrata, a climbing system using fixed cables attached to a rock face route once used by Victorian miners, and a zip wire across Bull Gill, although the Via Ferrata classic route will remain open.

The prosecution was brought by Natural England as the Honister Crag SSSI is one of the most important nature conservation sites in the country, protected by national and European wildlife law.

Natural England says the area contains an extensive range of cliffs and screes, home to some of the finest examples of species-rich upland ledge vegetation in the country.

Mr. Jacob Rickett, prosecuting on behalf of Natural England, told magistrates at Workington on Thursday that there was no issue with the use of the Via Ferrata classic route.

However, the extension route and zip wire had been constructed without planning permission and without consent from Natural England. The pursuit of these activities by paying members of the public caused significant damage to the vegetation through trampling.

He also asked the magistrates to impose a restoration order on the area, requiring the removal of all cables to allow it to recover and the planting of grass seeds.

Mr. Stephen Tromans QC, defending Honister Slate Mine, said the company had tried to negotiate with Natural England to seek an alternative route for the attraction to reduce further damage but its suggestions had not been accepted.

Honister Slate Mine was a small family business which had been run by one man, Mark Weir, until he died in a helicopter crash in March. The company employed 30 local people and a further seven guides on the Via Ferrata route.

Mr. Tromas said the damage caused to the SSSI was not extensive and a specialist botanist, who had studied Honister Crag, said it affected less than one per cent. of the whole area.

BREACH

“We accept the company should have sought consent from Natural England before the extension went ahead and that is a breach of law,” he added.

The firm opposed the restoration order to remove the infrastructure as it thought there might be a way of modifying the route to prevent any further damage.

Presiding magistrate Sue Cosham said the Bench accepted there was no intention to destroy vegetation, but the company knowingly went ahead with construction for financial gain without the necessary permissions.

The magistrates stopped short of imposing a restoration order. Mrs. Cosham said: “A restoration order is disproportionate and unreasonable. We believe this situation could, and should, be resolved by sensible discussions between Natural England, Lake District National Park Authority and Honister Slate Mine.”

Following the case, Martin Findlow, site regulation adviser for Natural England, said: “We are happy and willing to offer advice and guidance on this issue. We are committed to work with Honister Slate Mine to offer suitable advice to resolve the problem it has.”

However, Mr. Findlow stressed that the use of the Via Ferrata extension and zip wire were unauthorised and should cease.

Mr. Weir’s partner, Jan Wilkinson, said her understanding of the ruling was that the company could continue using the extension until 7th November, which was her intention.

Janette Ward, Natural England’s regulation director, said: “We are always disappointed at having to bring prosecutions, as it means that some of England’s most important wildlife has been damaged.

“We hope that the affected area will now be able to recover as far as possible and look forward to working closely with Honister Slate Mine to find ways in which tourist activities can take place within the SSSI without damaging it.”