After years of political ping-ponging, the decision has been made: we’ll have the first new coal mine in thirty years in the UK. It will be located in Whitehaven, in Cumbria, and it’s meant to bring 500 direct jobs to an impoverished area that has often felt forgotten by central government. The indirect jobs in the supply chain could be between a thousand and 1,500, depending on who you ask.
West Cumbria badly needs jobs. The local population is broadly divided between those who work at Sellafield – the historic nuclear plant – and have quite secure jobs, and those who are on minimum wage salaries or unemployed. Young people look around and all they see is a lack of opportunities. Yesterday, the mood music in West Cumbria was positive. The local mayor, Mike Starkie, said he was “absolutely delighted” at the prospect of hundreds of new jobs. A champion of the mine, he has reiterated his support for the project in every single interview I did with him over the past year.
The first important clarification to be made is that the mine will produce coking coal for steel production, not for power generation. The business case, according to the government, is that demand for this type of coal is still high.
The final call on the mine was made by Michael Gove, accepting the recommendations of the Planning Inspectorate, which amalgamated years worth of reports on the prospect of a new mine. Good at reading the electorate and his party’s concerns, he was aware he had to satisfy opposing views on the party, between job creation and the environmental impact.
His main argument, to which he came back again and again yesterday in the House of Commons, is that this coal will be produced anyway, so it’s better if we make it here rather than if China or Russia make it. As we’ve seen, this leaves us beholden to regimes operating outside of our political norms or sphere of influence. The mine, he insisted, is a “net zero compliant project”, although that doesn’t take into account the subsequent burning of coal in the steel-making process.
Around 85 per cent of the coking coal produced is set to be exported to Europe, while 10 to 15 per cent will go into domestic production. Here, the government is betting on an incredibly volatile commodities market. Even if demand for coking coal stays high for the next couple of years, we don’t know where it will be in ten years’ time. Building a coal mine is a long-term project while coking coal might prove a shorter-term product – and it’s in this time gap that the cracks begin to emerge.
The second core question is how to “level up”, to use jargon favoured by Gove, an area affected by growing poverty and isolation. Campaigners say this should be found in green jobs, as Cumbria’s coastal areas have huge potential in terms of marine and tidal energy. But the considerable investment and effort required for an industry still relatively nascent isn’t a simple fix either. It would require a long-term plan on how to transform the area. The coal mine, from this perspective, is the quick fix. It will create jobs to build and to run. But correcting the errors of successive governments that refused to look local hardship in the eyes won’t be that easy.
How much our international partners will respect us and follow us on our path to a greener future after this decision remains to be seen. Lord Deben, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee, has already warned the mine’s approval would damage our leadership on climate change.
Ultimately, on top of the environmental question, there’s a point to be made about long-term thinking – or the lack thereof – when it comes to local communities. The sentiment behind a push for new local jobs is welcome, but when these jobs expire, we’ll be back at square one. And people in Cumbria will have all the right reasons to be upset at the government, all over again.