Newcastle’s Labour MP Paul Farrelly has called on Energy Minister Michael Fallon and the Chief Executive of cash-strapped UK Coal to scrap plans for a controversial opencast coal mine at Great Oak in the village of Bignall End in his constituency.
Mr Farrelly said the financial plight of the company raised serious doubts about whether it would have the resources necessary to complete the restoration of the site if it were granted permission to excavate 450,000 tonnes of coal and clay reserves.
His demands followed revelations that the company had now asked the Government for a £10 million bail-out to fund the closure of two pits in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire – a move triggered by UK Coal’s worsening financial crisis.
The company recently applied to Staffordshire County Council for planning permission to excavate the 80-hectare site but its plans have provoked fierce opposition among local residents.
In a letter to the minisster Mr Farrelly said that despite its perilous financial situation the company had “ploughed on regardless” with its plans for the Great Oak site which had angered local residents.
He urged Mr Fallon “to persuade the company to withdraw the application and not to assign its interests to any parties who may be interested in its remaining surface mining operations,” adding that if the company carries on with the plan he would call for a debate in Parliament.
Mr Farrelly has also written to Kevin McCullough, Chief Executive of UK Coal, repeating his request for the company to withdraw the Great Oak application “so as to put the local community’s minds at rest regarding the future of this unwelcome application.”
Even before its latest financial difficulties emerged, however, there were strong fears among local residents that UK Coal would struggle to complete restoration of the Great Oak site when the 15-month excavations are complete.
Mr Farrelly said there was evidence that at one of its other UK sites the company had missed the deadline set by planners to start restoration works and he said there were concerns that, should planning consent be given at Great Oak, the site would never be properly restored.
The company was plunged into financial problems last year when it applied for help from the Government’s Pension Protection Fund. Its precarious state has also prompted calls by the Loose Anti-Opencast Network (LAOS) for a UK-wide moratorium on the determination of its opencast mining applications until its financial future has been resolved.
Mr Farrelly said the company’s proposals had also stirred painful memories for local residents who have grouped together as CAGOO – the Campaign Against Great Oak Opencast – and view the plans with a mixture of anger, alarm and trepidation.
The land at Great Oak adjoins the site of the infamous Diglake Disaster of 1895 in which 77 men and boys died when flood water burst through underground workings. “Local people are understandably concerned and overwhelmingly wish to see the ground at Great Oak protected in its entirety from any further disturbance,” he said.
Mr Farrelly is also seeking assurances from the County Council that any changes to the Staffordshire Local Minerals Plan – a documents used by planners to help determine mining applications - should be subject to public consultation in the event that the Great Oak site is included.