Local attitudes are changing towards the plan for a mega mine on the protected land of the North York Moors. Michael Hickling reports on the winners and losers.
Jack and Steph Newman have brought back to life an authentic piece of the old North York Moors. It’s a treasure – a gamekeeper’s stone-built cottage from the 1780s set deep down in ancient woodland beside a waterfall. The once derelict Grade II listed property was re-invented by the Newmans as the Falling Foss Tea Gardens. Here they serve handmade scones and bacon butties to walkers and tourists who arrive to share this enchanted glade with them.
It’s inside the National Park and just the sort of place you would expect the park authorities to cherish. And indeed they do. When the couple applied for permission to open their business, the National Park would only allow a seasonal licence to operate between March and October. The reason for this was so that the Falling Foss location could ‘retain its tranquil state in an unspoiled situation’.
Steph Newman reflects on the emptiness of this official phrase now that the biggest deep mine in Britain, the second biggest in Europe, is being planned on her doorstep by York Potash.
Initially she and her husband were low-key in their opposition, seeking to maintain harmonious relationships in a rural area where neighbourliness counts for a lot.
But in the past month attitudes have hardened. Steph thinks many locals were dazzled by the scale of the riches held out to them by slick York Potash public relations push. Now as the sheer scale of the impact of a huge construction project starts to dawn, some people are having second thoughts.
The Newmans have organised a series of meetings where residents have voiced increasing alarm at the mine proposals. Not all of them are ‘losers’. One is a farmer who has signed an advantageous mineral rights deal but now says he wishes York Potash would just go away. He has received advice that he won’t be able to stay in his farmhouse during the construction period because of the noise.
Steph Newman agrees that the mine sounds like good economic news for the area. But she resists the company claim that this is the only way it can happen. “It will deliver benefits to friends and neighbours from the mineral rights,” she says. “But the scale of it does not come across in the plans. It will be a massive industrial site, the size of six Tesco supermarkets and this is the wrong location. We were devastated when they told us. It completely floored us. Neither of us slept for a week.
“What about the integrity of the North York Moors National Park? The park belongs to the nation, not to York Potash or to mineral rights holders.”
Steph, originally from Middlesbrough, went to school in Whitby and started the tea garden in 2008 after a career in marketing. “I didn’t want to live in an industrial area,” she says. “This is the lifestyle we wanted. We have no mains, no plumbing, our three children play outside in the forest. You could say we are almost living the ‘Good Life’.
“We depend on a spring for our water and we are concerned about the effect of mining on the aquifers. There will be four years of construction nightmare.”
The Newmans are near the small village of Sneaton, a couple of miles from the proposed mine and the closest community to it. In March, Sneaton parish council voted not to send a letter supporting York Potash’s planning application to the North York Moors National Park. They have since changed their mind.
It’s hard to accurately gauge local opinion which by and large seems to take a positive view of the mine. At the nearby pub, the Wilsons Arms, a village resident who asked not to be named, said, “It will create more employment which is what we need. Good luck to them. The consensus is that people are very pleased. It won’t affect life here.”
Many people in the wider area are counting on it changing their prospects for the better. Unemployment in the Scarborough area, just under five percent, is not a huge issue but Whitby has lost many of its larger employers such as Burberry and with them the source of well-paid jobs. York Potash is promising to put cash in people’s pockets through the creation of 1,000 jobs. They also predict a knock-on effect to the local economy, a stimulus which will be worth a further 5,000 jobs.
The big money however will go to the lucky owners of the 253 square kilometres of land earmarked to be mined. They are the owners of the minerals that lie beneath – about 500 landowners in total. For the purposes of the deal, York Potash divided this territory into two-kilometre squares, paid an option fee to each owner and negotiated a level of future royalty payments for ore extracted. The company expects to pay out £1.4bn in royalties in the first 50 years of operation.
There is much talk locally about millionaire farmers in the making. One of the mineral rights holders is dairy farmer John Cook who farms 140 acres at Harwood Dale some way south of the minehead area. He describes learning about this windfall in the autumn of 2011 as “a bit like a bolt from the blue”.
“Am I going to be a millionaire?” he says. “Well let’s say it’s worth having – probably life enhancing rather than life changing. I can’t imagine anyone round here is going to be driving an Aston Martin. But I imagine a few worn-out four-by-fours will be replaced with new ones and there will be some new farm buildings and things like that.
“There are also dry stone walls which need attention and I’ll be able to afford having that done. I would love to get them tidied. That way the money will be recycled in the local economy and that presents another picture which some critics haven’t appreciated.”
John Cook’s family came to Burgate Farm 40 years ago and he is chairman of the Yorkshire Coast Mineral Rights Association (YCMRA). “There are six or seven institutional or individual landowners of large estates with mineral rights,” he says. “The YCMRA represents the majority of the rest and has 190 members.
“Some farms are owned by different members of one family each owning separate mineral rights. We have all negotiated a contract but no-one knows what is under a particular piece of land. It depends on the yield.
“We all do live in this area and our concern about the environment was well expressed before we rushed off to sign up. We were impressed by the reassurance we received that they would minimise the effect on the environment. Some of the farmers also operate tourist businesses, like horse riding or caravan parks, so it’s not in their interest to spoil it. We draw a bole hole here and I wouldn’t like anything to affect the aquifer.
“It was noticeable at the last planning meeting that there were a lot of people who had nothing to do with it. They were there because they see this as jobs for their children. That struck me quite powerfully.”
Insiders at the YCMRA say this has now all become ‘a very sensitive issue’.
The North York Moors National Park has been dealing with the Sirius Minerals, the owners of York Potash, for over two years. A park planning decision expected on May 21 has been put back to July 2.
Scarborough council is enthusiastically in favour. There is implacable opposition from the North Yorkshire Moors Association which has about 400 members, some of whom live abroad and opposes industrial development full stop.
Mining is a capital intensive industry. If the company gets the green light it must raise an eye-watering $1.7bn from investors for the first stage of production.
York Potash’s company headquarters are on an industrial estate on the fringe of Scarborough. Upstairs in the offices, a narrow cardboard container opens to reveal a mottled off-white mottled substance that represents 250m years of history. This is polyhalite, compressed salts and minerals left behind when an ancient sea condensed.
It’s a sample core from unique polyhalite reserves which York Potash plans to mine from Permian Age rock older than the Jurassic Age when dinosaurs roamed.
An energy company discovered these potash seams by accident as they drilled for oil in Eskdale on the eve of the Second World War.
The first company to mine them was the Israeli-owned Cleveland Potash. Its mine near Staithes with its uncompromising bulk and white chimney plume is a familiar sight to seasiders.
Its boss was Graham Clarke who spent 26 years working at Boulby. Today he is York Potash’s operations director.
As we drove out to view it he emphasised that the old mine does not look at all like the plans for the new one. The mine head will be just south of Whitby off a minor road, the B1416. This runs steeply downhill towards the sea and one of the most charming spots in the area, the picturesque green steel bridge crossing the Esk and the railway crossing at Ruswarp.
This is not a spot anyone would wish to see choked with construction lorries and plant and equipment deliveries.
The site of the mine head is currently still occupied by Dove’s Nest Farm. This is not picturesque and blocks of trees screen some of the current work in progress from the road. The site will eventually spread over 100 hectares (247 acres) and accommodate what are described as ‘low impact’ buildings – no headstocks or conventional winding gear of the old coalfields variety.
The mine will have a working life of 140 years producing five million tonnes at first rising to 14.4m ten years later.
The company says that everything that comes out of the ground will be saleable – so no unsightly waste tips. The polyhalite ore will be ground into a white powder then mixed with brine before being despatched as slurry through a 44-kilometre underground pipeline to Teesside. Here it will be granulated and sold as a premium fertiliser product.
In January the National Park Authority asked for an extensive list of further information from the company. Towards the end of last month the park asked for more information again and the Ministry of Defence has also put in a ‘holding objection’ over concerns about the effects of mining on RAF Fylingdales.
The company says it’s confident it can demonstrate to the RAF that mining operations will create no more background vibration for Fylingdales than the passing of HGVs on the nearest road. The Environment Agency is also requesting more technical detail on the mine and reassurances about hydrological issues.
Graham Clarke says turning down the mine would be ‘ludicrous’, considering the part polyhalite can play in meeting the urgent global need for increasing crop yields to feed rising populations. There’s also the issue of Britain’s need to export and produce more from our resources.
He also thinks it would be a missed opportunity for the locals who have an affinity for this industry. “People round here really take to this work,” he says. “At Boulby, I sometimes had three generations of one family working for me.
“Here we have an apprentice who is a farmer’s son. He comes in and does his shift, then goes home to help on the family farm. People like that just work all the time. They are very impressive.”
So it seems like a stark choice between a hugely valuable mineral resource or a precious landscape.
Steph Newman would like to see a compromise which allowed the mining to go ahead but the controversial mine head placed beyond the boundary of the North York Moors National Park.
Graham Clark insists that from a practical point of view, this not possible. He says faulting in the ore strata and other technical issues rule out re-locating the mine head. There doesn’t appear to be a Plan B. So for the decision-makers, it’s all or nothing in July.