9 years ago I lead the battle to defeat proposals for opencast mining at Skons Park near Whickham. The site overlooked the historic Gibside Estate and was on a prominent location in the Derwent Valley. The campaign was a success. The plans were rejected by Gateshead Council's planning committee and the applicant was all set to mount an appeal but withdrew at the last moment. Thousands of people signed the petition I wrote. That included nearly 2000 of my constituents in Whickham South and Sunniside - a quarter of the electorate. Across the other two Whickham wards, over 1000 signed. Thousands more signatures were collected by the National Trust, owners of Gibside. Signatures were also collected in Burnopfield, just across the boundary in County Durham.
I warned at the time that, despite winning the battle, we had to remain vigilant. The countryside here is peppered with small seams of coal near the surface. The only way to mine them is through opencasting. Sure enough, we are now getting new opencast applications. We have just defeated one, at Birklands, just outside my ward. A second, at Marley Hill, in my ward, is due to be decided soon.
If this application goes ahead, it will affect the whole area as the coal will need to be transported through local villages and along heavily congested roads. The Lib Dems have taken the lead in campaigning against this application (though Cllr Chris Ord and Cllr John McClurey are not taking part in the campaign or discussions about it as they are members of the planning committee.) What has been noticeable is that Labour are happily fence sitting on this. Indeed, their election leaflet in Whickham South and Sunniside and in Dunston Hill and Whickham East talk about the advantages if the plans go ahead. I've not seen their Whickham North election leaflet yet but my guess is that it will say the same thing. Labour sit on the fence and leave key local issues to the Lib Dems to tackle - that in itself is becoming quite an election issue across all three of the Whickham wards and in Lobley Hill and Bensham.
To ensure people are kept up to date with what's happening, I am in the middle of preparing a letter to go to those who signed the Skon's Park petition in 2005/6 who are still on the electoral register. Across the three wards, this still amounts to a substantial number of people. The letters for Whickham North and Dunston Hill and Whickham East wards are now ready. The ones for my ward are currently at the mailmerge stage.
Given that certain local Labour members are avid readers of this blog, my message to you is get off the fence, follow our lead and join us in defeating this opencast plan.