The end of coal in County Durham

Far from 'hippies versus miners', this was a former mining community which took on a developer and won, again and again.

Director Harry Banks paid himself £979,000 last year: let's remember who is really benefiting from opening these mines.

There has been extensive coverage of the end of a two-year opencast coal extraction site at Bradley this week, signalling the end of coal production in County Durham. The company Banks Group attempted to extend the mine but were thwarted by a local campaign.

Banks Group's attempt to convince Durham that digging up more coal in 2021 is completely fine was almost as bold and misleading as the PR push it is now pursuing in the wake of it's failure.

Banks has worked hard to spin the closure of Bradley into a tragedy that can only be repaired by opening another coal mine. It has its sights set on securing permission for a three million tonne opencast coal site at Druridge Bay,

Rejected

Here I go through some of the major misleading themes in their public relations.

According to Banks Group there was “no conceivable reason” to reject the extension to the Bradley mine.

The mine has been a subject of a public debate on climate change at a national level, but locally the decision-making centred around loss of amenity, proximity to homes, and local policies on piecemeal working.

To go against these policies would have been unlawful and grounds for a judicial review. There were plenty of other reasons – but these were the deciding factors.

How does this reflect on Banks as developers looking to open coal sites elsewhere if it apparently doesn't understand why its application at Bradley was rejected?

Heritage

The government don't want to upset XR.” This was in reference the delay over Druridge Bay, but Extinction Rebellion has not been involved in the Druridge Bay campaign.

It's perfectly clear to anyone locally who is running the anti-opencast campaigns: clued-up local people, many with mining heritage who care fiercely about their community, local wildlife and the environment more generally.

At the hearing where West Bradley was turned down, the main speakers against the opencast were from community groups or were local councillors, one who had served the community for 30 years, whereas only employees of Banks Group defended the project.

Banks routinely portrayed our opposition as inauthentic, remote and undeserving because the company can't claim to have broad local support.

But the media loves a culture war, and Banks is more than happy to sell them one.

Workforce

I've been able to make light of Banks' propaganda, but... Banks Group put forward a quote from one of their workers who was hoping for "a career" in coal when he started at the Bradley site.

The site was only meant to run for two years, and the extension would have provided one more year. It is not being prematurely shut down, and it is hardly a long-term job prospect when the coal phase-out is due to complete by 2025 or sooner, and coal for steel will soon go the same way.

In a county where coal was king, and Thatcher's assault on the communities was never repaired, it's not surprising that some people saw Banks as a solution. Banks had a responsibility to manage these expectations or otherwise offer realistic long-term work outside of coal.

If only Banks Group had a renewables arm, then they could offer their workers roles in the clean energy sector, and be part of at least some form of 'just transition'. But wait, they do have a renewables arm.

So why are they sending their coal workforce away disenfranchised?

Proud

A look at their most recent group company accounts shows that they can make more money out of coal than renewables. They want coal from Druridge Bay because it's more profitable than expanding their wind arm.

Instead of exploiting workers' “heartbreak”, they could prevent these redundancies if they weren't so concerned with profit. Let's remember who is really benefiting from opening these mines: director Harry Banks paid himself £979,000 last year.

There is an “end of an era” tone about the reporting on the closure of the Bradley mine, which only opened in 2018 after the valley was coal-free for 100 years.

The opening of the mine itself was described as an "end of an era” by locals who could no longer roam freely on the land as they had done all their lives.

Statements like "200 years of coaling come to an end” imply continuity between the proud days of deep pit mining in Durham, which employed entire communities (of men), and the opencast mining which replaced that.

Industry

In fact, these are two separate eras. Far from upholding the mining tradition in Durham, opencast coal extraction has been instrumental in its demise.

Opencast mining was not favoured by the miners who fought Thatcher's closures - just ask Durham Miners' Association - because it put them out of work.

By using heavy machinery, opencast mine operators like Banks Group employ far fewer workers and extract the coal much faster, bringing jobs to an end sooner. Thatcher wasn't against coal: she was against the miners. Opencast coal was the solution.

The old mining skills were not transferable, so opencast is seen by many former miners as an entirely different industry. Many locals of that era insist on calling opencast mining 'extraction' and workers 'drivers' not 'miners'.

Rights

In narrating continuity between these two eras, Banks Group appropriates the vital struggle of generations of pit communities from which the labour movement as we know it emerged.

But commitment to its workforce or to the community is not embodied the company's actions.

The unnamed constituency in all of the reporting on the end of opencast coal mining in Durham has been people on the front lines of the climate crisis, predominantly in the Global South, who stand to lose or gain the most from the decisions made in the Global North about whether to open new fossil fuel projects or to end them.

Closing coal mines in 2020 is the right thing to do, and nobody's rights - workers, communities in the UK or in the places hardest hit by climate change - need to come at the expense of another's.

This Author

Isobel Tarr is a campaigner at Coal Action Network.

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