The political fallout is continuing in Cumbria following the latest twist in the ongoing battle over plans to bring back coal mining to the county.
Late on Thursday, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published a letter that it had sent to Cumbria County Council, informing the authority the Secretary of State for Local Government, Robert Jenrick, had “called in” the controversial planning application for the construction of a coking coal mine just outside Whitehaven.
This means that Mr Jenrick will now make the decision on whether or not to approve the proposals, rather than Cumbria County Council.
Before that decision is made, a public inquiry will be held, providing those on both sides of the argument over the planned mine to set out reasons for and against the proposals for Woodhouse Colliery, which if built would extract coking coal for use in steel production.
Debate on the mine has been ongoing since plans were first submitted to the county council in 2017, by the company West Cumbria Mining.
Woodhouse Colliery has many ardent supporters and critics across Cumbria.
Supporters argue of the vital need in west Cumbria for the 500 jobs the mine would bring, and the many more jobs it could support in the wider supply chain.
Critics of the mine insist Woodhouse Colliery would represent a serious backwards step in the UK’s efforts to tackle climate change, given the greenhouse gas emissions that the use of coking coal from the mine would produce.
Scientists for Global Responsibility, one of the objectors to the proposals, estimate the total emissions resulting from the industrial use and transportation of coking coal from the West Cumbrian mine would exceed nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year, comparable to the annual emissions caused by one million people in the UK.
But those in favour of the mine maintain that the use of coking coal in the production of steel has no alternative – and emerging technologies potentially set to replace it are years away, with West Cumbria Mining predicting the replacement of coking coal in the steelmaking process at an industrial scale as not being a realistic option until 2045 at the earliest.
Woodhouse Colliery supporters also argue that the return of domestically extracted coking coal will result in reduced shipping of coking coal from distant producers in places like the US and Australia, though those against the mine insist that this is speculation.
These are just a small number of the many arguments made in favour of and against the Whitehaven mine.
The battle over the West Cumbrian mine is not as simple as “jobs versus climate”.
Supporters of the mine have arguments rooted in climate considerations. And critics of the mine argue fiercely for the need for new jobs in west Cumbria.
And these arguments are now set to be aired in public, in an inquiry that could result in the four year battle finally being settled for good.
One organisation likely to be heavily involved in the upcoming inquiry is the Cumbrian group South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC).
The group has been fighting the mine since the plans were first announced, and had Mr Jenrick’s announcement on Thursday not come, it would have been in the High Court on Monday seeking a Judicial Review.
Maggie Mason, SLACC’s spokeswoman on the group’s coal mine campaign, said the group’s intention to start legal action “certainly had an influence” on the decision to call in the proposals.
Mrs Mason said that SLACC had been in contact with both Cumbria County Council and the Secretary of State on the issue since Mr Jenrick announced in January that he did not wish to step in and make the call on the mine.
When the announcement came on Thursday, “we were delighted that is what he finally did”, she said.
“We’re very confident that a public inquiry is the right way to deal with this. Public inquiries are much less confrontational than legal challenges and judicial reviews.
“They can look at the issues sensibly and carefully, considering all the evidence.”
SLACC understands that it could be three months before the public inquiry hearings begin.
“Then it takes quite a while for the planning inspector to write his report, which recommends to the Secretary of State,” Mrs Mason said.
“People who have estimated that the final decision will be after COP26, beyond November 2021, are probably right.”
SLACC intends to apply to be a “Rule Six Party”, meaning that their legal representatives are involved in the process form the start.
But Mrs Mason’s main concern at present is that the Government provides support for jobs in West Cumbria “immediately”.
“They’ve been waiting too long,” she said, adding that the long hoped-for new nuclear power station at Moorside has also not materialised.
Mrs Mason believes the county would benefit enormously from significant investment in job creation in the renewable energy sector.
“I don’t expect this Government to use terms like ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Just Transition’, but that is what is needed,” she said.
“Cumbria as a whole needs to be enabled to make decisions on a new green future, to create a better life for everybody.”
Mrs Mason also wished to acknowledge the strength of feeling running through the county right now.
“I know there will be a lot of people upset by this decision, because they’ve been led to believe this was something they could hope for, and that it would give them good jobs,” she said.
“I do think there needs to be a lot of discussion and reconciliation and understanding of each others’ position developed across Cumbria in the next few months.”
While major Government investment to generate jobs in the low-carbon and renewable energy sectors is very much a policy supported by the Labour Party, there are many Labour members and councillors in West Cumbria who are also in favour of Woodhouse Colliery going ahead.
Vice chairman of the Copeland constituency Labour Party, Karl Connor, said he understands the “vast majority” of Labour’s elected representatives in west Cumbria are “behind” the mine.
“People here in west Cumbria are desperate for the mine to go ahead,” he said. “Our councillors locally have backed it from day one. Councillors on both sides of the political divide have backed it.”
However he said it had been “increasingly apparent the Government weren’t going to give it support”.
If the Government had been willing to support the mine, Mr Connor said, “they would have indemnified Cumbria County Council against legal action”.
“They’ve left Cumbria County Council in an impossible position,” he said. “If the council approved [the mine] and went full steam ahead, they would have been liable for any legal challenges.”
As a result, Mr Connor said, it was understandable the county council decided to return the mine to its development control and regulation committee for further consideration.
“If you’re getting legal advice to say you could be subject to a legal challenge, and you might lose, of course you’re going to be cautious. Anyone would be.”
The council, Mr Connor said, has a “fraction” of the budget that the Government has.
“Had they been keen on it going ahead, they would have stepped forward and offered some way of indemnifying the county council from being sued, and it could have gone ahead,” he said.
“But as usual, the rhetoric we get from the local Conservative members about levelling up and backing jobs in west Cumbria, the national party just doesn’t follow through on it.”
Mr Connor added that he felt the enthusiasm displayed in West Cumbria for the mine was indicative of a “real problem” in the area.
“When you look at Copeland being somewhere that’s quite prepared to have a coal mine, Copeland being one of the very few communities in the country that will volunteer to store nuclear waste in an underground store on a permanent basis, I think it shows how far we’ve been left behind by the Government,” he said.
“People are so desperate for jobs and investment in the area that they will take these things that other places would say ‘I’m not sure if we want that’.
“We’ve got nothing else. So we say ‘OK, we’ll have it.”
While there are many in the Labour Party across West Cumbria heavily in favour of the mine, there have been a number of high-profile interventions in recent months from Labour Party at the national level criticising the plans, and by extension the Government for not having intervened.
One particularly high profile intervention came from Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and former Labour Party leader, Ed Milliband.
His criticism of the mine plans on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show came just days before Cumbria County Council announced it was to review the proposals for the mine once again.
Mr Connor described the Labour Party as “split” on the issue – and also said he felt the same was true of the Conservative Party.
“Locally there’s one feeling, nationally there’s another feeling.”
Mr Connor said “it would have been great” if the Labour Party had been consulted at a local level prior to Mr Milliband’s highly public criticism of Woodhouse Colliery.
“Ed Milliband and his office certainly didn’t get in touch with anyone in Copeland Labour and ask us for our views before he went on the Andrew Marr Show,” Mr Connor said.
“One of the things that’s changed since Kier Starmer became the Labour leader is that as local parties, we don’t get consulted in the same way that we would have done under Corbyn. We’d get phone calls as a Constituency Labour Party from the leader’s office, asking us what we think about this or that.
“If there was going to be any talks about nuclear, when Rebecca Long-Bailey was the Shadow BEIS Secretary, we’d get a phone call asking what we thought about this.
“Since Starmer took over, they’ve taken that democracy side out of the way they run the party.”
Despite the criticism expressed by Labour Party Westminster voices towards the mine, however, Mr Connor is insistent that it will have had no influence on the county council’s Labour Party leader, Stewart Young.
This accusation was made passionately last month by Copeland’s Conservative mayor, Mike Starkie, who accused Mr Young and the county council of having “bottled it”, bowing to political pressure from the Labour Party nationally.
“I think it’s an insult to Stewart to suggest that he would have been forced down one avenue,” Mr Connor said.
“I think the same detractors who have had a go at Stewart, or who have tried to blame Cumbria county councillors, are the same people who, if it went to court and they ended up with a big bill, they would have criticised them for that.”
In response to Thursday’s announcement that the mine decision had been called in, Stewart Young described it as “astonishing”.
He said that if the final decision from the Secretary of State is to reject the plans for the mine, “and we don’t get those jobs in West Cumbria, I think it’s incumbent on the Government to provide alternative sources of investment and employment”.
“They keep talking about support our areas. I want to actually see them turn those words into action.”
Mr Young noted the change in tone from Mr Jenrick on Thursday from January, when he declared Woodhouse Colliery a “local issue”. “He’s now saying this is part of a much wider national, and indeed international, issue,” he said.
“I think the intervention of John Kerry on Monday was obviously very influential in all this,” Mr Young suggested, referring to the US Presidential Special Envoy’s declaration on Monday that the “market had decided” that “coal is not the future”, in response to a direct question on the west Cumbria coal mine.
“But people in West Cumbria shouldn’t pay the price for all that,” Mr Young said.
Also keen to note the reversal in position was Workington’s Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson, a fierce supporter of the mine and an equally fierce critic of Cumbria County Council’s approach to the issue.
His disappointment in the announcement of a public inquiry, he said, “cannot be understated”.
“This represents a complete reversal of the position taken just eight weeks ago [by Government], and a capitulation to climate alarmists.
“Make no mistake – had the county council issued the planning permission as it was about to, after the third approval of the application, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Mr Jenkinson said that this week’s development represents a risk, both to “significant private sector investment” in Cumbria and to the “Government’s ‘levelling-up agenda”.
“The application would have created 500 well-paid jobs, a further 2,000 in the supply chain and significant further benefits to the local economy.
“I look forward to a public inquiry, where we can have a grown-up discussion around the importance of coking coal to steelmaking and of how Lord Deben’s sixth carbon budget fully expects ongoing use of coking coal in steelmaking, away from sensationalist tweets and headlines.”
Neighbouring Conservative MP for Copeland, Trudy Harrison, said she remained “determined to secure Woodhouse Colliery and along with senior leaders across west Cumbria my focus is preparing for the planning inspectorate process, demonstrating our environmental and UK industrial arguments.
“Clearly when West Cumbria Mining issued their intent to pursue legal action against Cumbria County Council for unacceptable delays they were crystal clear who they feel is ultimately to blame,” she added.
“My community has demonstrated their disappointment today, this should send a strong message that we have not given up on WCM and we hope they don’t give up on us. It is now for the planning inspectorate to make a final decision and I’ll put everything I have into that process.”
With a public inquiry now on the way, the many, varied and conflicting arguments both both and against the mine will have an unusually high profile platform to be dissected.
Whichever way the decision eventually goes, the debate is set to continue for some time.