Sadly, I have to report that last night, Gateshead Council's planning committee approved UK Coal's application to opencast a site to the south of Marley Hill, in my ward of Whickham South and Sunniside. I have been battling this application for over two years and last night I spoke on behalf of residents opposed to the plans. I was joined by former Labour Councillor Pitch Wilson (speaking on behalf of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England) and two residents. Speaking in favour of the application was a representative of Tanfield Railway. UK Coal spoke to support their plans as well.
There is one more hurdle UK Coal have to cross before they can go ahead. Part of the site is in Co Durham so the County Council needs to grant approval. This will take place later this month.
Much was made by UK Coal of their offer to clear up contaminated land on the site. The area also includes the site of the former Marley Hill Colliery which closed in 1984. The contamination comes from a chemical plant that operated in the 1920s. The area of contamination however is just one and a half percent of the land area of the application. Most of the site is countryside. The area of the demolished colliery has regenerated itself naturally. Much of it is now covered with trees which will now be lost. The level of contamination was also questioned. It has never been closed off to the public and no warning signs were ever placed there to tell people to stay away. And whilst removal of contamination is welcome, it has to be balanced against the loss of woodland and agricultural land across a much larger area. Furthermore, UK Coal have made a virtue out of a necessity - they need to remove the contaminated soil anyway to get access to the coal.
If UK Coal successfully navigate the final hurdle of Durham's planning committee, they will work the site for four and a half years. One million tonnes of coal and 100,000 tonnes of fireclay will be sent down the A692 through local villages to the A1, at the same time as the improvements to the A1 will be taking place.
Attention now switches to Durham County Council but I'm not holding my breath - the key battle was always going to be fought in Gateshead where most of the site lies.