Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has decided to “call in” a controversial application for a new coal mine near Whitehaven, his department has announced.
In a letter to Cumbria County Council, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said Mr Jenrick believed the application had raised issues of “more than local importance”.
It said that he had decided that a public inquiry should be held to explore the arguments put forward by both supporters and opponents of the proposal by West Cumbria Mining.
“There are occasions when it is appropriate for Secretary of State to use his call-in powers, and he considers that this application should be called in for his own determination,” the letter said.
The announcement was welcomed by the environment campaigners, who warned that it would have undermined the Government’s green credentials as it prepared to host the Cop26 international climate change summit in Glasgow later this year.
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Tony Bosworth said it was “a startling, but very welcome U-turn by the Government”.
He added: “Planning permission must be refused: ending coal use, whether for power generation or for industry, is crucial for facing down the climate emergency.
“It was not possible for the Government to maintain, as it claimed only two months ago, that this was just a matter of local importance and the decision will now rightly be taken at national level.”
The announcement came after the council said last month it would reconsider the application by West Cumbria Mining to mine for coking coal for use in steel production.
The move prompted the company to declare last week that it was lodging papers with the High Court to commence judicial review proceedings.
In its letter, the MHCLG noted the application had first been submitted in 2017 and had already been considered three times by the council’s planning committee without it reaching a final outcome.
It said that in taking his decision, Mr Jenrick had taken into account the latest recommendations of the Climate Change Committee for the sixth carbon budget which will set legal limits for emissions between 2033 and 2037.
“The Secretary of State recognises that proponents and opponents take different positions on that matter, and considers that this should be explored during a public inquiry. Furthermore controversy about the application has increased,” the letter said.
“Overall the Secretary of State considers that this application raises planning issues of more than local importance, and further considers that the limbs of the call-in policy relating to potential conflict with national policies … and substantial cross-boundary or national controversy are satisfied.”
For Labour, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said ministers had been forced to act following months of pressure.
“The truth is that this mine is terrible for our fight against climate change, won’t help our steel industry and won’t create secure jobs,” he said.
“The saga of this mine is a symptom of a Government that isn’t serious about its climate ambitions and refuses to invest at scale in a green future to provide the jobs that workers have a right to expect.”
Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Tim Farron said allowing the mine to go ahead would be would be “an almighty backwards step” in the fight against climate change.
“In the year that Britain hosts Cop26, it is blindingly obvious that we won’t be taken seriously on the world stage with this coal mine hanging round our neck. I hope this public inquiry leads to these plans finally being axed,” he said.
Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Doug Parr said it should never have taken ministers so long to act as the case for the mine was “untenable from the start”.
He said: “The Government may have just about saved its blushes, so long as the mine is canned.
“But with plans still to expand airports and a green homes programme left in ruins, there’s a long way to go before Boris Johnson can truly have the full credibility required of a man hosting vital climate talks later this year.”