Northern Tory MPs declare support for controversial coal mine

‘Red wall’ MPs accuse Labour of ‘turning its back’ on northern communities

Youth climate activists launch digital demonstration against West Cumbria coal mine

Conservative MPs from the so-called “red wall” seats won from Labour at the last election have declared their support for a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria.

The Northern Research Group MPs accused Labour of turning its back on northern communities by opposing the development at Whitehaven.

In a letter to Cumbria County Council’s Labour leader, the 31 NRG MPs – joined by civic leaders from the north of England and a further 12 Tory MPs from elsewhere in the country – warned that threats to block the mine represent a “serious risk” to the area’s economy and jobs.

But Labour’s business spokesperson Lucy Powell accused them of “ trying to con people with a false promise”, insisting the mine was not the answer to provide a long-term future for industry.

The West Cumbria Mining plans to dig coking coal for use in the UK steel industry were initially approved in 2019, but have split the county, with some welcoming the prospect of skilled jobs and others fighting the proposal on environmental grounds.

Formal planning consent is yet to be granted, and on 9 February the council announced it would reconsider the initial approval in the light of the recommendations of the government’s Committee for Climate Change on planned cuts to greenhouse gas emissions after 2033.

The rethink came amid reports that that the UK president of November’s United Nations Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Alok Sharma, was “apoplectic” at cabinet colleague Robert Jenrick’s failure to “call in” the plan.

It was welcomed by Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband, who said: “The UK cannot claim to be a climate leader whilst opening a new coal mine.”

The application is likely to be considered at a council planning meeting in April, but a final decision is not expected until after the local council elections in May.

Today’s letter to council leader Stewart Young is signed by Cumbria Tory MPs Trudy Harrison (Copeland), Mark Jenkinson (Workington), Simon Fell (Barrow in Furness) and John Stevenson (Carlisle), as well as others from newly-won seats in the north of England and Conservative mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley.

They warned the council might be open to legal challenge for taking into account recommendations which have not yet been adopted by the government, and called on Mr Young to publish internal legal and planning advice to show that the decision to reconsider was not “political”.

Mr Stevenson described Labour opposition to the plan as “a direct attack on industry and job creation”, denying Cumbria of more than 500 well-paid jobs at the mine and 2,000 more in the supply chain.

And Mr Fell said: “Steel underpins every single renewable technology that we need to employ to hit our net zero target and we cannot make that steel without coking coal. 

“The choice we face is whether to offshore the carbon debt of mining coking coal to countries like Russia and accept the huge environmental and humanitarian cost of doing so, or to allow this mine to proceed and wrap our own high environmental standards around it. 

“We simply can’t pretend that this is all someone else’s problem and pat ourselves on the back for hitting net zero 2050 while outsourcing the problem elsewhere. By opposing it, Labour is showing once again that they are out of touch with working class communities in the north of England.” 

But Ms Powell said: “Not for the first time, Tory MPs are trying to con people with a false promise.

“The Cumbria coal mine is not an answer to the issues facing our steel industry. Eighty-five per cent of its production is due for export, and this plant will not address the financial challenges facing the industry going forward or provide it with a long-term future.

“We won’t take lectures from the Conservative Party about standing up for UK steel making and the communities which support it, as they’ve failed to tackle the issue of high energy prices steelmakers are facing.

“We need investment to help the steel industry to get through the worst economic crisis of any major economy, safeguard primary steel-making, and support the transition to a decarbonised future, protecting jobs and livelihoods.

“That’s why Labour has called for a £30bn green recovery to turbocharge our economic recovery and deliver a secure, long-term future for our steel industry.”

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Tony Bosworth said the letter’s signatories “should be listening to climate experts about this mine”.

Mr Bosworth said: “Last month the government’s official climate advisers warned that a new mine in Cumbria would increase global emissions and have a negative impact on the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets. 

“It will also put a massive dent in the UK government’s credibility ahead of crucial climate talks in Glasgow later this year.

“West Cumbria, like other parts of the country, desperately needs new jobs – but these should be green jobs created by investing in a cleaner, safer economy, rather than extracting more fossil fuels that help accelerate the climate crisis.”

Cumbria County Council declined to comment on the letter.

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