PLANS to extract an extra two million tonnes of coal from the Shotton opencast mine, near Cramlington, have been given the go-ahead.
Banks Mining, part of County Durham’s Banks Group, will now be able to continue extracting coal from the site, on the Blagdon Estate to the west of Cramlington, for a further two years.
Northumberland County Council’s planning committee agreed to extend the lifespan of the surface mine at their meeting last week.
Extraction will now finish on site in 2016 – eight years after it began – with full restoration of the land to be completed by 2018.
County planners originally opposed plans for the mine because it was in green belt land but were overruled on appeal by then communities secretary Hazel Blears.
The site will include the giant earth sculpture Northumberlandia, the biggest of its kind in the world.
As well as coal, Banks will extract an extra 375,000 tonnes of fire clay.
Planning officers said that though the extra two years would increase the impact on the landscape, the principle of opencast working there had been established by Mrs Blears in 2007, and there would be benefits for the region’s economy.
The company promises environmental improvements, public footpaths and a payment of up to £70,000 – half the expected bill – towards the cost of improving a junction in Blagdon Lane.
The site created 144 full-time jobs, a third of them new.
The Northumberlandia park was initially estimated to cost £1m but it is now expected to have a price-tag nearer £2.5m.
Since the site opened, Banks has spent £114,000 on community projects nearby, the meeting heard.
Its nearest neighbour, Aesica Pharmaceuticals, expressed concern about dust, saying it had needed to change its filters early, but did not object to the application.
Only Coun Jeff Gobin voted against granting permission.
He pointed out that work had started that day on the Blagdon Lane junction, and the council would have to foot the entire bill if it rejected Banks Mining’s application for an extension.
Coun Gobin said it was now routine for coal companies to secure approval for a site, then almost immediately seek permission to extract more from it.
“It’s not fair on the people of this county. It’s not fair at all,” he said.
He was told, however, that Banks had been frank at the public inquiry into its plans for the original site about wanting to take coal from the corner in question too.
He was also told that if that land was left to be exploited as a stand-alone site in the future, extraction work would be expected to last seven years rather than the extra two.
Planning officer Sue Birnie said the main drawbacks of allowing an extra two years’ working were loss of part of the Fusiliers plantation and the raising of a soil mound by up to 40 per cent.
They were outweighed by benefits including enhanced areas for wildlife to the north and south of the site, conservation headlands along field boundaries and 74 acres for ground-nesting birds, councillors were told.
Footpaths would be reinstated and permissive paths added for 25 years by permission of landowner Viscount Ridley.
Coun Paul Kelly said: “With this site and this landowner, we are not getting the benefits to the public in the long term that we are getting on other sites – that is enhanced public rights of way as of right.”
This was a token gesture, he said, as permissive paths could be closed when the agreement ended.
“I find that offensive,” said Coun Kelly.
The additional work will not require any land outside the existing site to be mined or any increase in daily traffic movements.
Banks Group environment and community director Mark Dowdall said: “The Shotton mine has now been operating very successfully for almost three years.
“We are very pleased that the members of the council’s planning committee have agreed to approve the Shotton scheme enabling Banks to extend the life of this project for a further two years.
“Banks has made a significant investment in south east Northumberland over more than two decades, and is now one of the biggest industrial employers in the area.
“Being given approval for these plans means we can maintain our investment in the region and continue to provide employment for our 140 operational employees on site and support for the 150 other people employed by Banks Mining in the north east.”
The Northumberlandia project being built next to the Shotton site will provide a 29-hectare public park when it opens in 2013.