Potash mine venture could spark a gold rush for region
Back in 2011, I almost fell out of my seat when I heard that a giant mine could be built in the heart of the North York Moors.
Was it possible that beneath the hills lurked a stash of potash that could create a mini-version of the Klondike? And wouldn’t the screams of protest from those who feared it would scar the landscape drown out the arguments in support of the project?
Well, a little over 18 months later, the managing director of Sirius Minerals, the company behind the proposed mine, is confident of winning wide-ranging support for a scheme that could create 5,000 jobs.
Chris Fraser also believes that the mine will ensure that more children from Whitby and surrounding areas have jobs when they leave school, and, once the scheme is completed, North Yorkshire’s economy will become less dependent on tourism and farming. The memories of the blazing carcasses from the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 are still raw. If the mine creates a mixed economy, and introduces new recruits to the labour market, surely it should be welcomed, provided it doesn’t spoil the view?
As Mr Fraser says: “A lot of farmers want the opportunity for their children to have a skilled career beyond working on the land, but without them having to move away.
“They can stay here and enjoy challenging and rewarding careers.”
To show that it is in earnest, Sirius is scaling back its operations around the world to focus on creating a £2bn mining operation. Sirius plans to invest almost £55m in ensuring the potash mine in the North York Moors National Park becomes a reality. The multi-million pound investment, which is being provided from the firm’s cash reserves for the last financial year, is funding an exploratory drilling programme as well as planning applications and feasibility studies for the potash project.
But why now? Well, studies have revealed that the seam in North Yorkshire is one of the world’s finest deposits of potash. Apart from being a key component in fertiliser, potash can help to boost crop yields at a time when many are starving. So the North Yorkshire scheme could help to feed the world. Surely, a little disruption is a small price to pay for that?
Earlier this summer, senior executives from Sirius Minerals said they were adamant the company was committed to the proposed mining operation, despite the fact that they had abandoned a bid to create a global research centre.
Sirius Minerals decided not to accept a Government grant for almost £3m which would have helped to finance the geoscience research base. While the exact location hadn’t been fixed, North Yorkshire was one of the places in contention to build this facility.
Sirius Minerals opted not to accept the £2.8m grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as it was deemed a greater financial return could be gleaned from the UK Research and Development tax incentive system.
Voices of dissent, notably from Tom Chadwick, the chairman of the North York Moors Association, believe the presence of a mine will devalue the national park. Mr Chadwick highlighted the fact that around a third of the jobs would be created during building work, and he also questioned whether Sirius would be able to raise the £2bn needed to build the mine. What will become of Sirius if the potash market overheats and crashes?
National park chiefs have warned that the company faces an “uphill battle” to build the mine. The fact that the exploratory drilling work was approved, doesn’t mean that the mine itself will get the go-ahead.
We can expect to see plenty of ink being spilt, and papers published, before the project comes before councillors for a final decision.
None of this can dampen Mr Fraser’s enthusiasm. The planning application, he said, will set out the wider economic benefits to local people who are snapping up shares in the business. For every job created in the mine, four will be created outside it, according to Mr Fraser. Sirius has even set up a community fund – known as the Foundation – to help local people gain new skills. In time, the mine could lead to more schools, and improved medical care, in response to a growing population.
For decades, people have been concerned about the lack of jobs and rocketing property prices in the countryside. It is in danger of becoming a stagnant place, with an ageing population and few local services. We can all tell sad stories about villages that no longer have a post office or a corner shop.
If the project is handled sensitively, a trip down the mine could provide a real tonic for our rural economy.