‘Better late than never’: Jenrick u-turns over controversial coal mine

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick has called in the planning application for Britain’s first new deep coal mine in decades after immense pressure from environmentalists and political figures both in opposition and within his own party.

The government said yesterday that it would hold a public inquiry to examine whether the mine should go ahead, having previously repeatedly stated that planning decisions should be made at a local level “wherever possible” and that the application was “a matter for Cumbria County Council to decide”. 

Planning permission for the metallurgical coal mine off the coast near Whitehaven was granted by the council in October 2020, sparking fierce criticism from environmental campaigners.

However, last month the council announced it would reconsider its decision to approve the development in light of recommendations from the government’s climate change advisers.

This gave Jenrick a second chance to intervene by calling in the application. 

In a letter to Cumbria County Council, sent on behalf of Jenrick yesterday, the secretary of state said he was calling in the decision because “controversy about the application has increased”. 

He said the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations for the sixth carbon budget had been published since he was advised on this decision and that he recognised that “proponents and opponents take different positions on that matter, and considers that this should be explored during a public inquiry”.

Defending his decisions not to call in the decision originally, Jenrick said the government “places a strong emphasis on localism and decentralisation, and the general approach of the secretary of state is, therefore, not to interfere with the decision-making process of democratically elected local councils on planning matters”.

READ MORE: Is the approval of a new UK coal mine ‘absolutely ridiculous’?

READ MORE: 5 things you need to know about the Whitehaven coal mine

Ministers had been warned the proposal was damaging the UK's reputation in the run up to COP26.

Earlier this year, COP26 president Alok Sharma, who quit as business secretary to devote himself full-time to the presidency of the COP26 summit, was reportedly “apoplectic” and “furious” that Jenrick refused to intervene.

Labour said that “after months of pressure, ministers have finally been forced to act”.

The developers of the mine - West Cumbria Mining - had argued it would save millions of tonnes of CO2 over by reducing the need to ship metallurgical coal from abroad but this assumption has since been debunked. 

Concerns have also been raised over the high sulphur content of the coal, which may make it unsuitable for steel production.

West Cumbria Mining, which last week announced it was taking legal action against Cumbria Council, had argued that the mine would create 500 jobs.

However, a report released today from local organisation Cumbria Action for Sustainability found that around 9,000 jobs could be created during a 15-year ‘transition period’ towards the county reaching net-zero.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said: "The truth is that this mine is terrible for our fight against climate change, won’t help our steel industry and won’t create secure jobs.

"The saga of this mine is a symptom of a government that isn’t serious about its climate ambitions and refuses to invest at scale in a green future to provide the jobs that workers have a right to expect.”

Greenpeace UK's chief scientist, Doug Parr, said the decision was “fantastic news and definitely better late than never”. 

“The government may have just about saved its blushes, so long as the mine is canned. But with plans still to expand airports and a green homes programme left in ruins, there’s a long way to go before Boris Johnson can truly have the full credibility required of a man hosting vital climate talks later this year,” he said.