Isobel Tarr of Coal Action Network speaks to activists at the forefront of the decades-long movement to end new opencast coal mining about how change was won.
‘There was never a point where I thought we wouldn't win,’ says Jos Forester-Melville, organizer of Defend Dewley Hill, a community group which stopped what looks to be the last ever opencast coal mine proposal in England.
Throughout 2020, opencast coal mining plans were repeatedly defeated by local communities working with Coal Action Network, and now it looks like it’s over for English coal. Banks Group, the last company pursuing new opencast coal in the UK, has wrapped up the mining arm of its business after losing planning applications to open three mines in the North East of England.
Opencast coal mining can destroy huge areas of natural habitat by opening up the land to extract coal using large machines and a small workforce. It creates polluting dust and noise, permanently damaging the ecology of the surrounding area. It also fuels some of the most polluting forms of energy production: coal-fired power and blast furnace steel production.
Since the 1980s, campaigns against coal have been fought quietly in isolated rural villages, but in recent years their ability to work together and garner national support has helped bring down one of the UK’s dirtiest industries.
JOS – DEFEND DEWLEY HILL
Jos moved from Newcastle upon Tyne to Throckley, a village 11 kilometres outside the city centre, 17 years ago. She built her family around the promise of access to nature that the village offered.
In 2018, Banks Group ramped up plans for an opencast coal mine on the same footpaths and fields that Jos and her children walked every day. The company wrote to residents to let them know. Jos said: ‘The tone of it was like: “this is happening”. I was angry at how it was being levered in without any real discussion.’ At a presentation by the company, Jos was shown a dim black-and-white image of the land as it was, and a bright colour image of how it would look after the coal mine. ‘They wanted us to believe that opencast mining would actually make the land better.’
Jos wasn’t the only person who came away from Banks’ event ‘spitting tacks’ so she called a town meeting. This meeting sparked the Defend Dewley Hill campaign and Jos found herself taking a leading role. She explains that the group ‘quashed stereotypes’ about who could be an activist: office workers, taxi drivers, and Jos who works in community arts: ‘I didn't have any kind of activist skills or knowledge...I was quite surprised at myself!’
Defend Dewley Hill made links with people from Pont Valley in County Durham where the same company, Banks Group, had managed to start an opencast coal mine. People from the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley came to share their skills, knowledge and experiences of living with opencast mining. Jos explains that this really brought home to her community the impact a mine could have: ‘Everyone got a bit of a shock,’ she says.
JADWIGA – CAMPAIGN TO PROTECT PONT VALLEY
Jadwiga is a resident of High Stables, County Durham, 350 metres from the site of Banks Group’s most recent (and final) opencast coal mine ‘Bradley’, opposed by the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley.
She moved to High Stables in 1979: ‘I used to roam the countryside at night with my dog. I started to fall completely in love with the valley. So obviously, when I heard about the plans to dig it up for coal, I was going to fight.’
She recalls what it was like to make publicity materials in the 1980s: ‘No one owned printers so newsletters and posters were handwritten. Or you’d type it out on wax paper and if you made a mistake you had to do it all over again.’
For Pont Valley, there has been both victory and defeat. The 2018 campaign to stop Bradley was a bitter one for the community; after 30 years of opposition the 520,000 tonne opencast coal mine started, and ran for two years before closing in 2020 when an application to extend to West Bradley was also opposed, and this time refused.
Was it worth 30 years of campaigning despite Bradley eventually going ahead? Jadwiga says, absolutely; ‘t’hey would have just kept extending past the village. It’s been a fight for the whole valley.’ The Bradley opencast mine represented a tiny fraction of the coal seam – it could have become a vast ashen landscape.
However, the part of the valley which was lost was still devastating for local people like Jadwiga whose house is between the opencast site, deforested land and a main road. ‘I felt physically ill at the thought of [walking in the direction of the mine] for the first year,’ she explains. It curtailed my level of activity, and that's affected my health.’
The turning point for Jadwiga was this summer after the machines stopped, and Campaign to Protect Pont Valley regrouped to walk and reclaim the land together. ‘It feels like a weight has been lifted. I’m finally reclaiming my identity and my connection with the place.’
RAKESH – SAVE DRURIDGE
‘Northumberland has given me a lot. I wanted to be able to give something back.’
Rakesh lived in Northumberland for 18 years, during which time Banks Group proposed a new 3 million tonne opencast coal mine called Highthorn at Druridge Bay, on the east coast.
‘Northumberland is unique as a county because of its long stretches of beaches that everyone treasures. I go up and enjoy it more since the campaign because of the connection I've made with the place,’ says Rakesh.
Rakesh saw the potential for linking rural anti-coal campaigns together with the climate movement in Newcastle, raising funds and profile to help save Druridge Bay. He saw that people living on the front-lines, whose homes and businesses would be affected, often felt isolated and alone against the mining company.
At the beginning, Rakesh wasn’t as optimistic about Druridge Bay as Jos was about Dewley Hill: ‘It felt like we had no chance,’ he says. ‘We still organized and gathered and did everything we could. Going to the town hall the day the county council made the decision [in favour of the mine] was hard. They put us in a café and we had to watch it on screens and hear them say why they were for it, without being able to say anything ourselves.’
In September 2020, the decision was finally overturned following a protracted inquiry and appeal process, and the opencast mine application was stopped. ‘It was my proudest moment,’ says Rakesh.
Upon moving to Newcastle Rakesh got stuck into supporting Jos and the nearby village to stop the Dewley Hill opencast, and now divides his time between Newcastle and Cumbria where he is supporting the community fighting the West Cumbria Underground mine public inquiry.
Jos sees Rakesh’s role as key: ‘It’s your Rakeshes – those people out there joining up the dots who make the difference. We definitely couldn’t have done this on our own.’
HOW WE MADE THE CHANGE
When asked how these grassroots groups took down an entire industry, the recurring reason people gave was that the campaigns worked co-operatively and were invested in each others’ success. Rakesh says this is cultural: ‘When you’re in isolated communities you need to be able to ask for help and give it. You have to depend on each other. As people here say: “Shy bairns don’t get nowt”.’
People have also worked across perceived divides: ‘In this part of the country people don’t lead with their politics. The people working on Druridge Bay were all from different backgrounds and that’s why it worked.’
In Pont Valley, the 1980s successes in stopping the opencast mine owe something to an alliance with miners who did not want opencast coal, which was considered a different (less labour intensive) industry. According to Jadwiga, miners used to pass inside information to the campaign, there was no divide between ‘miners’ and ‘the community’.
Now, a key factor in stopping opencast coal has been that national energy policy has moved away from coal.
‘The final push was a change in policy,’ said Jadwiga, but the path was prepared ‘from the ground up.’ Behind government decisions has been the surge in public support for climate justice campaigns. Jadwiga and her neighbours were buoyed when a protest camp was set up against Bradley in 2018, through to the defeat of West Bradley in 2020. ‘Suddenly all these people appeared in our neck of the woods where we’d been fighting this low-profile battle for years,’ she explains.
Fighting a coal company on your doorstep is not the same as supporting campaigns to stop coal from afar. Every local campaigner talks about the inability to ‘switch off’ because the campaign is always present. Jadwiga and her neighbours had Banks Group’s security vehicles patrolling their streets, and in the early days of fighting UK coal she received threats. For Jos, it affected her family life: ‘I felt responsible, like I had to see it through. The kids would sometimes say “You’re always busy”. I wasn’t really aware of the effect it was having on my family because I was two feet in with it all.’
For Jos, the sacrifices were worth it: ‘Every day I go that way on purpose to just look at the land and just feel dead happy. It just looks beautiful – particularly at the minute as the crops are about to be harvested. That feeling hasn’t diminished.
‘We all had our different little fights but we did it together. It’s one of the biggest achievements in my life. It’s an incredible people-powered thing to have done.’
Isobel Tarr is a Campaigner for Coal Action Network who worked alongside the people fighting against coal mining in their communities. Coal Action Network fights coal on a national scale.