Will there be an opencast site in my back yard?
If you live in the exposed coal field there is a high probability that coal will have been mined near you. If you are concerned about the possibility of opencast coal mining occurring in the vicinity of your house you can:-
- contact your local Mineral Planning Authority (MPA), the County Council minerals department.
- contact the Coal Authority and enquire about exploration licences in your area (giving national grid references from an Ordnance Survey map will be necessary)
- failing this if you live in County Durham the seams most widely opencast are the 5/4 and Main seams. If these lie within 15 - 25m of the surface they are likely to be targets. You can obtain this information from careful reading of a 6" to 1 mile or 1" series geological map.
- local action groups may be able to give you some help.
Spotting the signs
If a company has an exploration license they will at some point have to drill to prove the reserves. Local residents can keep an eye out for drilling rigs in the area. This will give you a good idea of the potential extent of the site. Boreholes are drilled for many purposes. Examine the cuttings left at the surface by the borehole, if they contain coal you are on to them!
Once the application has been submitted
The Planning Process
Two Tier Authorities (District and County Councils)
A operator first sends the planning application to the District Council. They pass it on to the Mineral Planning Authority (County Council) for a decision. The MPA has the power to refuse the site application. District and Parish Councils have the right to be consulted on the application, but have no power of refusal.
These authorities alone will deal with the application.
The role of the MPA
The MPA makes the decision on the basis of an assessment of the likely impact of the proposal. One of the factors will be the level of local opposition. It is extremely important to make your opposition known to the MPA. A well organised campaign, with popular support can help put pressure on the MPA to refuse the application.
If the MPA refuse the site application and the operator appeals then the MPA will have to make a case to a public inquiry. This is a long and costly business and the MPA may already be involved in a number of inquiries.
What can you do?
1) Obtain a full copy of the planning application from the District/County Council.
There may be a charge for this - but it is your right to have a copy of the application.
2) Read the application and accompanying environmental impact assessment carefully.
This will tell you about the planned duration of working, predicted tonnages, lorry journeys to and from the site, possibility of blasting and intended after-care of the site.
Look out for:-
Piecemeal applications - proposed working of a much smaller site than possible. The applicant will, once established in an area, extend the site by further planning applications. Once established it is more difficult to refuse extensions. Many sites in the North East have been subject to extensions. The Whitwell OCCS site gained retrospective planning permission for coal they had already mined!
Very large sites - operators may apply for a large site with no intention of working the whole area. This allows them to capitulate on the area in an amended application putting them in better light with the MPA.
Start a Campaign
North East Opencast Action Group Join this group. Its members have considerable experience at fighting opencast applications. Do not think you are alone!
Check there is not an established Action Group in your area. If not, get together with sympathetic friends, local councillors etc. and call a public meeting. Make sure this is well advertised through the local press, through local political parties, community groups and churches in the area. Put up posters and leaflet door to door.
Get good speakers at the meeting who are well informed and up on the facts. Make sure you do not give out incorrect or misleading information or this will be used by the Applicant against you in discrediting your campaign. There will be representatives of the Applicant at the public meeting.
Explain the details/issues of the site to the meeting. You could emphasise the impact the site will have on peoples lives. Noise, pollution, traffic, depreciation of property prices etc.
Obtain a list of names of those attending the meeting and start your fund raising at this meeting.
You could elect a Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and steering committee at the meeting. Be flexible - make sure all your meetings are open to anyone who wants to help. Make sure the campaign does not become party political. Have regular meetings to keep people informed. You have a long fight ahead!
Your first meeting
This should quickly follow the Public Meeting.
Devise a telephone tree to aid rapid communication.
Start a petition, door to door canvas, petitions in local shops, library, pubs etc. Make sure that as far as possible people affected by the site sign the petition. Your aim is to show a large number of local people are against the site.
In recent years coal operators have also taken to using petitions. It is the experience of the NEOAG that many of the names on these petitions have been fabricated. Work with the MPA to check addresses etc. of petitions and letters in favour of the application. Beware spurious letters in support of the site from non- existent local residents!
Establish a timetable. Find out when the site application is likely to be considered by the Development Control Subcommittees of your District and County Councils. Find out the name of the MPA officer who is dealing with the application.
It is important your campaign has sufficient funds. To print leaflets, pay for meeting venues etc. Fund raising events can also help publicise the application.
Individual letters of objection have more sway than petitions. Encourage as many people as possible to write objecting to the application. Standard letters help focus people but too many will start to look suspicious to the MPA. Send copies of your letters to the District Council and MPA
Contact/Lobby the following people
- All local residents
- All local councillors - Parish, District, County
- Establish links with the staff at the MPA in particular with the officer dealing with your site. Keep one person in your group as the link person with the MPA. They should be asked to be kept informed of any changes or developments in the application and the dates of any council meetings at which the application will be discussed.
You have the right to attend these meetings under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.
- Contact people who have been affected by other opencast sites operated by the Applicant. The MPA should have this information if not contact the NEOAG. This will help you judge how realistic the claims of the Applicant are regarding their ability/wish to control dust, noise etc. You could unearth information which is highly embarrassing to the operator. Keep this safe in case you are asked to address the Development Control Subcommittee Meeting of the MPA or need to provide evidence for the public inquiry.
- Contact church ministers and parish priest if they are not already involved
Ask them to object to the application. Attend their surgeries in person. Invite them to the public meeting. In the case of very large applications you could consider a lobby of parliament (seek advice from your MP) or ask your MP to raise the issue in an Adjournment Debate.
- MEP's ask them to object on your behalf
- Doctors and health Visitors
- Trade Unions and Trade Councils - can be very useful because of their local contacts.
- Tourist Boards ask them to intervene
- Local Business/Business organisations.
Highlight the impact of the site, extra airborne dust may cause problems to certain processes.
- Local wildlife Groups, Ramblers, CPRE, FOE, and RSPB etc. They can write in support and often have considerable local memberships. Your local wildlife trust might be asked to conduct a wildlife survey of the site. Pay particular attention to protected species, badgers, Great Crested Newts, Owls and bats. The Applicant will have conducted such a survey - check it!
If the landowner refuses to allow access, keep the details. These will be of use at the public inquiry. The landowner is often responsible for the aftercare of the site. Anything that you can collect to show the landowner cannot be trusted with this responsibility will be of use later in the campaign.
- Professional Assistance
Enlist the support of local solicitors, planners, surveyors, naturalists, historians, geologists etc. Try to use the resources of everyone in your community to the full.
You may wish to lobby at council meetings or at the site. Contact the local press and regional TV. Make sure the demonstrations are well attended and well organised. Have placards and banners that state your message clearly.
Check the past record of the Applicant at employing local people. Commonly only few low paid local jobs are available at opencast sites.
The demand for coal is falling dramatically in this country. Anti - opencast campaigns have two things in their favour a major increase in the amount of gas being used to generate electricity and the governments pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Both these factors will lead to a further reduction in demand for coal. It can take up to a year for a decision to be made if a site application is subject to public inquiry so time is on your side. Delaying tactics should be employed wherever possible. These can include:-
- requesting details of how the Applicant is going to deal with rare species on the site.
- Tree Preservation Orders. Ask the District Council to place a tree preservation order on mature trees.
- Ask the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (55 Great Ormond Street, London) to intervene if there are old farm buildings n the site.
- request a full archaeological survey.
- question as much as possible the details of the environmental impact assessment, noise calculations etc.
If the MPA refuses the application the Applicant can appeal to the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Secretary will normally call a public inquiry in such cases. The Secretary can also ask an inspector to consider the appeal based on written evidence or at a hearing. Consult Department of the Environment Circular 15/96 for details of the Appeals Procedure
An opencast public inquiry consists of an inspector chosen from the Department Inspectorate. They are usually planners, surveyors or lawyers. It is their job to listen to the evidence given to the inquiry and make recommendations on the basis of the arguments made. Their recommendation is to allow or refuse the application which then goes to the Secretary of State who has the final say.
In the last few years a significant number of appeal decisions have gone against the applicant.
The Public Inquiry
Before the inquiry check all the details about the site.
You must not make claims at the inquiry which are false or the Applicants barrister (who will have conducted many such inquiries) will use this to discredit your case.
Ask if there is to be a site visit and if a local representative can be present. Try to highlight local issues on the site visit.
Obtain list of all the documents the operator will refer to at the inquiry- this is contained in their Rule 6, or Rule 7 statements which you can ask the MPA to send you a copy of.
Public Inquiries normally start on Tuesday mornings at 10am and continue to 5pm , except Fridays when they will finish at lunch time. Evening sessions may be arranged. Inquiries can last from a few days to a few weeks.
Make sure the inquiry is well attended by local residents. Attendees will be asked to sign and this list can give a good indication of local support. You don't have to stay all day but make sure you sign in! Get local pensioners, the unemployed etc. to try and attend on a longer term basis.
The only people who have a statutory right to speak at the public inquiry are the main protagonists, the local councils and the Appellant company and local residents. Other groups such as CPRE are usually allowed to speak too at the Inspectors discretion. We know of no case where such interest groups have been refused permission to speak.
You must work closely with the MPA. Try to have a variety of speakers covering different aspects of the application - effect on recreation, wildlife, noise, dust etc. Avoid repetition. Emphasise local issues-this is where local knowledge is of the greatest advantage.
Get each speaker to prepare their statements with care. Have them typed and pages numbered. Clearly label maps and diagrams. Date any included photographs and attach a map to show where they were taken. Make sure there are enough copies for the participants and the media too.
Make sure you get as many people as possible to the opening of the inquiry and to any sessions where local residents are giving evidence. At the Billingsgate Inquiry nearly 200 people attended the first session, this clearly impressed the inspector.
People giving evidence can be cross examined, normally by the companies barrister. This can be a harrowing experience so make sure you are briefed. Stay cool and calm under cross examination. Do not allow the barrister to intimidate or anger you - this is exactly what they are trying to do! The inspector will intervene if the questioning becomes too aggressive for amateur witnesses.
Obtain copies of the operator's proofs of evidence at the first day of the inquiry. Ask people to read them in advance and prepare cross examination notes on them.
Be polite and courteous to the Inspector at all times. Try and arrange local groups to provide tea and biscuits, home made cakes etc. and finally make sure the inspector has comfortable accommodation.
If the application is allowed
If the MPA allows the application then ask your MP to approach the Secretary of State to ask him/her to call-in the application for a decision. This could happen if the decision was in your opinion contrary to the policies in the County Structure Plan or Local Minerals Plan.
You an also ask the Local Ombudsman to investigate, where there have been irregularities in the way the decision was made, if you were excluded from meetings, you weren't consulted even though you stand to be affected by the site, or because of the appearance of bias in the Council. The ombudsman does not have the power to stop the application going ahead but it is important that Councils are taken to task if they act improperly.
Having won the decision
Celebrate accordingly but do not disband your group. Coal operators can re- submit a modified application after two years from the date of the decision.