Chris Whiteside: Why Britain’s first new coal mine for decades should open in the ward I represent

23 Feb

Chris Whiteside MBE is County Councillor for the Egremont North & St Bees division of Cumbria County Council, and also Deputy chairman (political and campaigning) of North West England region of the Conservative party.

ConservativeHome readers will know of the controversy over proposals for Britain’s first new coal mine for decades, in Copeland, West Cumbria.

I am county councillor for the division which includes most of the application site.

Almost to a man and woman people in the vicinity are in favour, while almost all the opposition comes from people living many miles away. The most vocal opponents live on the far side of the deepest and longest lakes, and the highest mountain, in England.

Copeland

Copeland moved from the red to the blue column two years before the rest of the former “red wall” seats, but is typical of traditional communities in Northern England which voted Labour for generations but finally lost patience with that party while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

When elected to Cumbria County council, I was the first Conservative councillor in history to represent parts of my division. Voters in West Cumbria who elected Conservative councillors like me, and Conservative MPs like Trudy Harrison and “Workington Man” Mark Jenkinson, lent us their votes. We have no more automatic right to their continued support than our Labour predecessors had. Local people expect us to fight harder for them than those predecessors did.

We will.

The historical context

I was a student during the 84-85 miners’ strike. With Iain Dale, I was a ringleader of a campaign to sack a Labour student union president who misused used union resources to support the strike.

I now have more sympathy for comments made to me in 84-85 by students from traditional mining communities – like the area I now represent – than either I or those who made them would have imagined possible at the time. Particularly about affluent middle-class people from many miles away trying to take jobs from a less affluent community which they knew little about and probably couldn’t find on a map.

Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs.

The facts about the mine

The proposed mine will not produce coal to burn for energy. It is specifically restricted, in the proposal itself and planning conditions, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too.

Currently there is no economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Ironically, the same Lib-Dem MP who leads opposition to the mine also calls for more steel to be made in Britain. Only a Lib-Dem could so comprehensively face both ways at once as to call for more steel to be made here while effectively working to ensure it’s made with imported coal. Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. But the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

Council votes about the mine

Councillors have voted for the mine three times: all three votes demonstrated cross-party support among Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Independent councillors. Two votes were unanimous. At the third meeting, one councillor from each of the three parties went against but there was a four-to-one margin in favour including majorities of votes cast from each party.

It’s nonsense to suggest that councillors who voted for the mine hadn’t considered the environment, didn’t know what they were doing, or can’t be trusted to make the decision. Such comments are an attack on local democracy.

The council’s officers went through the proposals in exhaustive detail during a process which lasted literally for years. Each report to committee ran to hundreds of pages describing all the objections and every imaginable issue, including lengthy consideration of the impact on Britain’s carbon footprint. A hundred conditions were attached, including a time limit of 2049, the year before Britain’s target to go carbon neutral. Another condition limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Before voting on the plans, councillors listened to hours of presentations from officers and representations from objectors and supporters.

Most of those who attack the committee sound like the bloke in the pub who, because he’s read an account in a tabloid newspaper of a court case lasting weeks, is confident he knows better than the jury who sat through the whole thing.

The latest developments

When Robert Jenrick declined to “call in” the mine and said the decision should rest with Cumbria County Council, most people expected permission would swiftly be granted in line with the October decision. Instead the council is putting it back to committee for a fourth time.

The objection the council received to granting permission is public domain because the group responsible, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) – published it on its website.

SLACC argue the decision should be revisited because, since it was made, the advisory committee on climate change published proposals for the UK’s sixth carbon budget.

That document comprises recommendations to ministers, as those who study it will quickly find. Although anyone reading the letter from SLACC’s solicitors who didn’t know better might get the impression that it’s already legally binding, it isn’t.

Fifty Conservative parliamentarians and local government leaders, including most of the MPs representing Cumbria, the mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley, and many “Northern Research Group” MPs wrote to the Leader of Cumbria County Council on 18th February supporting the mine. Their letter made a convincing case that SLACC’s arguments misrepresent the sixth carbon budget.

Conclusion

This saga raises deeply concerning issues. It shows how vulnerable Britain’s planning system can be to high profile, articulate pressure groups even if they have negligible local support.

Anyone who has a serious objection to a proposal should be entitled to have their concerns properly investigated, once. But when similar points are brought up again and again, there comes a point when we are witnessing the attempt to frustrate a democratic decision through delay.

But delay is not the best way to decide whether planning proposals should go ahead. Delay from those who can’t win a democratic vote but use every trick in the book to obstruct what they cannot defeat is the worst of all.

The cynical politics of emissions targets and COP26. How government is poised to declare success while delivering failure.

25 Jan

Dissenters can go figure.  Yes, China is still stacking up new coal plants.  But it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables.  Meanwhile, America was pouring record amounts into them – even under Donald Trump.

Those on the right who don’t believe in man-made climate change can protest as loudly as they like about this shift in the zeitgeist.  Their own capitalist system is turning its back on them.

BP’s plan to increase its renewables twenty-fold, cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent, and not to enter new countries to explore for either is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg.

Slumps, black swans and wars could slow the pace of change.  But the direction of travel is unmissable.  Fossil fuels are out – at least as traditionally used – and renewables are in.  The rejectionists might as well seek to shout down a hurricane.

In many ways, this is all to the good.  Energy security demands decreasing our reliance on, say, Russian coal.  Emissions reduction suggests not looking to our own for a replacement.

We have no quarrel with “the science”: as Roger Scruton pointed out, “the greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half”. But giving the shift to renewables a thumbs-up in principle is not necessarily the same as doing so in practice – that’s to say, when a plan is on the table.

The Government has a series of targets for reducing emissions.  Two of the best-known are the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, and the zero emissions 2050 target, rushed in by Theresa May as a legacy policy.

We want to look at these targets, and the pace of change which they suggest, through three lenses: those of people, politics and Parliament. First, people.  Our columnist James Frayne writes on this site that he “has probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue”.

He finds a class and age divergence among support for environmental policies.  They’re important to everyone, more so to younger, urban voters – and in different ways.

To many of those people, Greta Thurnberg is a hero.  Lots of those older, provincial ones have never heard of her.  Their concerns are concrete, not abstract: “excessive use of plastics, the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.”

Yes, there’s an overlap.  But how will they react when or if governments tax their hybrid cars, bar the coal they use for their fires, hike their electricity bills, export their jobs and ban them from eating meat?

Cambridge University is blazing a trail for that last policy – a reminder that urban, younger people are concentrated in Planet Remain, and provincial, older ones in Leave Country.  Welcome to the latest version of culture wars.

Now, it’s true that voter protest so far has been muted.  Which brings us to our second p: politics.  Britain’s democracy is geared up to a five-year election cycle.

It is built into the very stuff of Parliament, therefore, for MPs to fixate on the date of the next election (due in this case to be May 2 2024) – and often to look no further.

To make a complex story simple, green technologies mean subsidies, subsidies mean jobs, and MPs want those jobs for their constituents.  Who can blame them?

Hence the rush of articles on this site, more numerous by our count than on any other subject, from backbench MPs making the case for green technologies that will mean “green jobs” in their seats.

What about the bills?  They will mostly arrive on the doortsteps of taxpayers, consumers and business in the medium-run, if not the long-run.  And “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes put it.

So, third, to Parliament.  We quoted Scruton earlier on the known factor of the greenhouse effect.  But withheld until now the context of the quote.

The greenhouse effect “implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm”, he added, before briefly citing one of those other things: “fluctuations in solar energy”, he added.

There is more detail in his book Green Philosophy, but one would have thought that this position (the greenhouse effect is a cause of global warming – even the main cause, but not the only cause), would be shared by some on the Conservative benches.

Even if not, one would certainly have imagined that, by now, a band of Tory MPs would be pointing out that the bills for this green programme will come in sooner or later – at which point, a choice may open up between mulcting the taxpayer or losing those jobs.

Perhaps we are not reading Hansard closely enough, but we can find no evidence that such a group exists.  That suggests a new dimension to change in the Commons.

It’s often said that modern MPs are increasingly rebellious (not least by this site).  But they are so in a particular kind of way.  More stand ready to put the interests of their constituents ahead of the blandishments of the whips.

But the Commons seems to be producing fewer Andrew Tyries – the awkward, angular former Treasury Select Committee Chairman, now a peer, who campaigned against climate change orthodoxy, for all his establishment status.

At any rate, climate change sceptics outside Parliament warn of terrible things to come – higher electricity bills, for example.  We take the point, but query the scale – because we suspect that rebellion will finally come when the proverbial hits the fan.

To put it plainly, try telling Robert Halfon that his Harlow constituents must pay higher fuel duty to help meet some government target.  He will revolt.  As will all those other backbenchers who have no ideological or constituency stake in the push for zero emissions.

Maybe government will manage the transition, after all.  But with COP26 coming down the tracks, and with a mass of coporates, lobbyists and cheerleaders clinging to its wagons and rooftop, this is a good moment to take stock.

Reducing emissions and securing supply are only two of a quartet of main policy objectives, the other two being keeping the lights on and keeping prices low.  Remember: the Tory manifesto promised to lower energy bills for those in social housing.

How can these objectives be squared?  Finding an answer doesn’t require a drive-by shooting of green policies.  In some cases, we need more. For example, Rachel Wolf and others have made a strong case for a carbon tax, which is robust regardless of targets.

Nor are these wrong in themselves.  For example, it would make sense to have a timetable for the take-up of Flood Performance Certificates – documents that set out the severity of flood risk for homes, and steps that could be taken to mitigate it.

And there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (“we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target”) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them).

But the landscape ahead looks to be one of conflicting policy objectives, punts in new technologies that won’t always come off, pressure on consumers, business and taxpayers, jobs that won’t always be sustaintable – and further damage to the standing of politics.

In which case, a small boy ought to halt the wheezing emperor of government policy, and point out not that he has no clothes, but that he is overdressed amidst this warming weather.  And would move more lightly were he to cast off the 2050 target.

ConservativeHome will run a mini-series on climate change policy tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.

Mark Jenkinson: The case for coal

21 Sep

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

Earlier this week saw the publication of a decision by the Secretary of State to reject the application by Banks Mining for an opencast coal mine on the Northumberland coast, to which environmental campaigners have reacted with glee – with Friends of the Earth saying “Coal mines must be consigned to the history books if we are going to avoid climate breakdown”. It is this statement that I think is particularly damaging to our shared aim on net-zero by 2050.

It is worth remembering that the Highthorn development was a huge opencast on a site without previous activity, and that the planning inspector that gave the original permission made the point that the proposal would have an adverse impact on landscape character of substantial significance. Slight changes to the weight given to other elements by the Secretary of State tipped the sensitive planning balance. This decision should not be lead us to assumptions on other proposals, such as West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery in Copeland next door to my Workington constituency.

While we have rightly committed to eliminating thermal coal from our electricity production, coking (or metallurgical) coal is an entirely different matter. It is important that we understand the difference. The UK and Europe import 16.4Mt of coking coal every year, with the CO₂ emissions from its transport five to seven times higher than if it was produced closer to the point of use.

Economic growth and demand in growth for steel are undeniably linked. Our plan for growth will necessarily bring a demand for steel, and we should place much heavier weight on the use of UK produced steel. The low-carbon energy technologies that we will rely on in the future – without exception – are underpinned by steel. That steel production requires coking coal for the foreseeable future. Any increase in UK steel consumption without domestic production of that steel and its process components will result in increases in our offshored and domestic carbon footprints.

Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) are often portrayed as the green saviour of steel production, but aside from the obvious questions around the high energy requirements and where that electricity will come from, EAFs are still not fossil-free – requiring the addition of coking coal, albeit in much reduced quantities.

The primary feedstock for EAF is recycled steel, and while crude figures suggest that the UK is almost self-sufficient in scrap steel, the EU and World markets are not. This fails to take account of the fact that the scrap steel has be of exactly the right composition to make the requisite end product, so most EAF produced steels are a mixture of scrap steel and Direct Reduced Iron (DRI). Nitrogen produced in the EAF process remains a significant problem, as it makes for brittle steel.

The DRI process itself is still heavily reliant on thermal coal or natural gas, while trials such as those in Sweden to use hydrogen continue. Some point to the intention of HYBRIT to have a commercial plant running by 2026 as the way forward, but again without even touching on feasibility in the short to near term of replacing plants with such energy intensive replacements, they fail to realise that the HYBRIT process is for production of DRI – the problems in the EAF process, and the necessary use of coking coal remain.

It is absolutely right that we scale up our investment into hydrogen production, storage and usage as a fossil fuel replacement. But we have to be honest with ourselves that it is unlikely to be the panacea for the road to net-zero by 2050. In the same way that wind, solar and marine energy production will feasibly replace our fossil fuel production but not our reliance on nuclear for baseload, hydrogen will replace some of our fossil fuel reliance but not all. These two subjects – electricity availability and hydrogen production – are intrinsically linked by the energy intensive nature of the latter.

We must seize the narrative around net-zero, and be honest about what that means for the people in our constituencies. Counter-intuitively, part of the route to net-zero is to bring back some of our carbon footprint that we’ve offshored by importing from countries that often have dubious environmental protections. Growing our economy, and revitalising our UK manufacturing base will necessarily bring carbon emissions. But we must work harder and smarter here in the UK to reduce our reliance and to reduce the impact.

The recent Measuring up for levelling up report from Onward, which led to the creation of a Levelling-Up Taskforce of which I’m a member, shows the stark reality that average GVA per capita has grown faster in London than anywhere else post-deindustrialisation, while in constituencies like mine in Workington it has slipped back or remained stagnant.

We have a significant opportunity to level up across our constituencies if we can rejuvenate our UK manufacturing base, but we won’t do that by looking at policy-making through a lens that appears more focused on absolute zero, than it does net-zero