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Whitehaven Coal Mine: Plan Continues to Divide Opinion




By Rowan Bridge

What's the history of mining in the area?

Haig Colliery opened in 1916 and provided employment to generations of men in Whitehaven.

"It's the bedrock that's built the town to be perfectly honest," said Gerard Richardson, the deputy lord lieutenant of Cumbria, amateur historian, and advocate for the new mine.

"And on top of that the various mining disasters have left blood in the soil, families' blood. My old grandda' was killed in the last mining disaster.

"So people have got it ingrained in their history. And personal, it's not just town history."

Haig closed in 1986 with the loss of 3,500 jobs.

Gerard Richardson inside his wine shopIMAGE SOURCE,GERARD RICHARDSON
Image caption,
Gerard Richardson says mining and the town are closely linked

Dave Craddock worked at the mine and said closure was devastating.

"The heart went out of the town," he said.

"You could see a lot of people were, 'what are we going to do now?'.

"I lost my purpose. I walked away from mining and built myself another career with the Royal Mail, but it wasn't the same, just wasn't the same."

What's being proposed?

West Cumbria Mining now wants to build a deep shaft coal mine to dig out coking coal. It would be used to fire blast furnaces that make steel.

The government's advisory Climate Change Committee says 85% of the coal produced is likely to be exported. 

Its backers say the mine will create 500 direct jobs and another 1,500 in the supply chain and local economy. Under the plans the mine would be able to operate until 2049.

The empty Burtons in Whitehaven
Image caption,
The empty Burtons store features a plaque to a more prosperous era

Could the mine rejuvenate the area?

In the centre of Whitehaven there's an empty branch of the men's clothing chain Burtons.

High above the street level is an ornate plaque which reads Montague Burton Tailors of Taste. It's a throwback to a bygone, more prosperous era.

It now has ads flyposted to its windows and unopened mail posted through the front door.

I met Mike Starkie, the elected mayor for Copeland, which includes Whitehaven, outside the store.

He was keen to point out the investment there has been into the area, but I asked him what it's like seeing the empty Burton's building.


"It's heart-breaking," he said. "We need to reinvent the town. It needs a lot of investment into it.

"Companies like West Cumbria Mining coming here will help expediate that journey because it will bring far more money and prosperity into the area."

Image caption,
Green councillor Jill Perry says she would like to see investment in green infrastructure instead

Or would it have an 'indefensible' environmental impact?

Green campaigners say the mine is a backward step, given the government's intention to be net carbon neutral by 2050.

The government's own climate adviser Lord Deben described the proposal as "indefensible".

Green Party councillor Jill Perry said: "Mines should be consigned to history really.

"I think there's nostalgia among the Whitehaven population - in fact for the whole of west Cumbria - for the history of mining, the camaraderie of being down the mine.

"And I think with all nostalgia you remember the good bits and forget the bad bits, so it's a difficult sell to say 'no - you can't have these 500 jobs'."

Instead, she said there should be investment in green infrastructure and employment - a scheme to insulate people's homes, more money for public transport.

She said such moves would directly provide as many jobs as the mine, and help reduce the impacts of climate change.

Image caption,
A final decision on the mine may not come until next year

Is the mine actually going ahead?

The mine has been given planning permission, only to have it withdrawn repeatedly over the last few years.

In December last year it looked like a final decision had been made. The government minister Michael Gove approved the proposals after a planning inquiry recommended giving it the go ahead.

South Lakes Action on Climate Change and Friends of the Earth (FOE) then called for the High Court to quash government approval for the mine.

Last month, that legal challenge was rejected. But Friends of the Earth said it was contin