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Voices from the coal face: opinions on the proposed Cumbrian coal mine

Lewis Townsend
By Lewis Townsend
15th March 2022

As time ticks on and we wait for the government to make a final decision on whether to allow a new deep coal mine in west Cumbria, we share the voices of three people who are close to the project.

If the government agrees to the proposed new coal mine near Whitehaven, in west Cumbria, the mine would be the first of this sort to open here in 30 years.

At CPRE, we believe that opening more fossil fuel plants in the face of a climate emergency is the wrong thing to do. We want to see energy produced in cleaner ways and lasting jobs in clean technologies created instead.

We’ve asked some people close to the coal mine project, including two local people, what they think about the proposed mine – and where they see the discussions going next.

Kate Willshaw: Friends of the Lake District policy officer and Cumbria resident for 24 years

The west coast of Cumbria is an amazing place, but most people who have been to the Lake District will never have ventured there and know very little about it.

It’s an area full of wild beauty with coastal cliffs, sand dunes, moorland, woods and marshland. It also has a proud industrial heritage, having been home to both coal and iron ore mining.

A man stands silhouetted against a dramatic sunset view
A man admires the dramatic views in Workington, west Cumbria | Jonny Gios / Unsplash

The ‘Red Men’ of Egremont (so called because the iron ore pigmented their skin) mined some of the highest quality iron ore in the world, whilst many of the colliers worked in pits under the Irish Sea.

The area’s industrial mining heritage goes back at least to the 1600s, and it was one of the heartlands of the British Industrial Revolution. Haig Colliery, the last coal mine operating in Cumbria closed in 1986; the area is now one of the poorest in the country.

'It's understandable that the proposal for a new coal mine has stirred so much passion.'
Kate Willshaw

It’s understandable that the proposal for a new coal mine has stirred so much passion both for and against in this area. The prospect of well-paid ‘jobs for life’ in an industry that still lives in the memory of communities as bringing prosperity to an area is a real draw.

A dramatic red brick disused mine structure
The remnants of Cumbria’s mining history are still visible, like this Egremont mine – but we want green energy for the future | Dave Wilson via Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

But this has to be balanced against the fact that worldwide, coal-powered steelmaking processes must be consigned to the past and need to be replaced with less polluting methods of manufacturing steel (which already exist).

The climate crisis is happening now, and has already brought significant damage, disruption and loss of life to Cumbria in a series of floods and storms which are only going to get worse as the atmosphere gets warmer and weather becomes fiercer and wetter.

The costs of cleaning up and repairing flood and storm damage outweigh any financial benefits that the mine will bring to Cumbria.

A pile of damaged carpet outside a guest house
Damage from floods, as in this guest house in Keswick, has been acute in Cumbria | Gavin Lynn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

That West Cumbria needs good, well-paid jobs is a given. But ‘levelling up’ via a trade as outdated and dangerous to the environment as asbestos manufacturing will fail West Cumbrians. These will not be ‘jobs for life’, as by necessity coal extraction will need to cease everywhere in the next decade if carbon reduction targets are to be met.

'These will not be 'jobs for life'.'
Kate Willshaw

This will lead to yet another bust in the boom-and-bust cycle that West Cumbria has been stuck in for years. Instead, the green tech revolution needs to be pushed and promoted in West Cumbria.

The commitments to carbon reduction made by the government mean that by necessity, we need people to work in any number of green economy trades. There’s a huge gap in the market in Cumbria for builders, fitters, electricians, and green tech installers.

West Cumbria needs to be looking to a low carbon future for its prosperity rather than looking backward to old, outdated and polluting industrial processes which are no longer relevant, appropriate or safe.

'West Cumbria needs to be looking to a low carbon future for its prosperity.'
Kate Willshaw

We owe it to future generations to have safe, secure, sustainable and above all non-polluting employment opportunities in West Cumbria.

Amy Bray: Cumbrian resident and young climate activist

Amy, a local environmentalist and conservationist (and a past Cumbria Woman of the Year), shared her views – and disappointment in the prospect of coal mining – with an ITV journalist in January 2021, and has allowed us to use her words here.

An aerial view of a harbour and small town
A dramatic view of the harbour at Whitehaven, near to where the new mine is planned, and with renewable energy from wind already being used (at the back of the image) | Dave Wilson via Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

It’s really disappointing … I feel that Cumbria is a centre for conservation and we’re really making great changes here with the way we farm, with planting trees, with engaging communities and reducing waste, so it’s really disappointing that one coal mine will destroy all of that with a climate impact of 9m tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

I think that we cannot make targets in the future and then not comply with them with our actions because after all, it’s actions that are going to lead us away from the climate crisis and into a sustainable future.

'It’s very important to bring employment into west Cumbria.'
Amy Bray

I think that we should be investing in renewable energy, in green jobs in Cumbia and around the UK.

… It’s very important to bring employment into west Cumbria, but I think that we can do that in a way that’s also compatible with transitioning towards a net-zero carbon economy.

And I think that’s really important, we can create green jobs in renewable energy, in insulating houses, in creating cycle paths, in small and sustainable businesses; there’s so much that we can do that will also help the world we live in.

Mark Robinson: campaigns officer at CPRE, the countryside charity

At CPRE, we’ve been working alongside our colleagues at Friends of the Lake District to challenge the mine for many months now. We’ve seen and heard first-hand from local people how worried they are about this massive proposed development.

Countless times we’ve had to put pressure on the government to change its mind on bad decisions. But it is possible to win, such as securing a U-turn on fracking, a campaign which again was led by an incredible group of local activists.

This time, we’ve joined Cumbrians to highlight that the government has made firm commitments to cut carbon emissions – and so signing off a new polluting coal mine now flies directly in the face of this!

We went to the massive global climate conference, COP26, with some Cumbrian campaigners, and heard the government’s stated aims to be world-leading in moving to greener energy and cutting emissions. Agreeing to the new coal mine is totally contrary to this, and we’re watching closely to see what the government does next.

And naturally, because we’re the countryside charity, we’re passionate about thriving rural communities – and that means lasting, sustainable jobs for local people. Any jobs that the coal mine would create would only last up to 30 years, and this isn’t secure enough.

'We want to see the focus on jobs that will actually help the planet.'
Mark Robinson

We want to see the focus on jobs that will actually help the planet, such as in green tech and renewable energy, and that will last the test of time and give the Whitehaven area the security and stability it needs and deserves.

We work for a countryside that looks to the future and moves forward, not back, and so we’ll keep pushing against these misplaced plans and supporting local people however we can.

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A statue showing three miners
The 'end of an era' statue marking Whitehaven's proud mining past Simon Stapley / Alamy