Highthorn Opencast Coal Mine – some questions

Coal is, amazingly, still a large component (20%) of the UK’s energy supply. Still, that is big decline compared to the 85% of UK energy provided by coal in 1956, when we were still a manufacturing nation.

Most of the coal these days comes from abroad, after Maggie Thatcher destroyed the UK’s deep mines in a political war against the unions. But Coal is making a comeback, as open cast. Instead of it all happening deep underground, the ground itself is removed, the coal extracted, then the land is re-landscaped. If you believe the greenwash of companies like Banks group, who extract millions of tonnes of coal a year from Viscount Matt Ridley’s land, it’s actually better for the land and society for the coal to be removed, than for it to be left in the ground.

Banks group is now proposing to open an extremely large Open Cast mine covering something like 600ha of land, from which Bank will extract 5 million tonnes of coal. This area is known as Highthorn.


Highthorn is right next to Druridge Bay, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and heritage coast. Druridge Bay has long been a contested landscape: it was scarred by the previous history of coal mining in the 19th and 20th century, and is still recovering from that change. It was also long fought over as a location for a nuclear power station and for sand extraction. In more recent years, all those with an interest have come together as the Druridge Bay Partnership to see a longer term future for the area that places nature at the heart of decision making.

So it not surprising that Banks’ proposals to return to open-casting in this recovering landscape has been met by horror and a Save Druridge Bay campaign is now up and running. I was interested to try and find out whether The Rational Optimist Viscount Matt Ridley might have his finger in this particular pie.

In these days when it is a matter of a few seconds work on the internet to find out who are the directors of a company, or how much your neighbours bought their house for, or how much a particular MP received from a business (for whatever reason), that is it still not possible to tell who owns millions of acres of England.

I had a good look in various places and discovered that two farming businesses were claiming agri-environment scheme payments from within the area of search for Highthorn: W and S Bell at Hemscott Farm, and EA Storey and Sons, in the northern section of the search area. I also noticed that Alcan Farms Estate were getting a forestry payment to the south of the area. The Bells at Hemscott Farm run a glamping business, encouraging people to come and stay on the farm and enjoy the delights of the local natural environment. EA Storey and Sons are based quite a long way away at Ponteland. Ponteland lies, as far as I can tell, within the Blagdon Estate owned by Matt Ridley.

The Alcan Estate was a large area owned by the Aluminium smelting company Alcan, land around the Lynmouth smelter which has now closed. Alcan sold this estate, of some 4500 acres, to the Crown Estates, earlier this year. This is now known as the Ellington Estate, and includes farms at Highthorn and Blakemoor, both of which lie within the area Banks is exploring as part of its open cast proposal.

I think, but cannot prove, that the land which the Bells and EA Storey claim payments on, is tenanted. Who might be the ultimate owners  – and beneficiaries of the “wayleave” paid to extract the coal? Given that EA Storey are based in Ponteland, on what appears to be Blagdon Estate land, is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that The Rational Optimist Viscount Ridley is a landowner who will profit from the Druridge Bay opencast? Whether he is or he isnt, another beneficiary will be the Crown Estates.

The Crown Estate is an odd beast. It was of course originally land owned by the King or Queen – but it is now 100% owned by us, the British public; yet it acts like a commercial property company. It owns a lot of land and controls all of the seabed in the UK territorial waters. It is controlled ultimately by the Treasury, and with the current Chancellor that spells trouble, especially for things like nature.

Having said that, the Crown Estate has invested heavily in renewable energy production, on our behalf. So why is it involved in open cast coal mining? The word “sustainable” litters the pages of the CE website  – I cannot imagine anything less sustainable that a massive open cast coal mine right next to one of the finest area for nature in Britain.

We, the British public, need to know more – is leading climate denier Viscount Ridley going to profit from the High Thorn site; how much is the Crown Estate going to profit from it, and how does this fit in with its own sustainability commitments.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in coal, Crown Estate, Matt Ridley and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Highthorn Opencast Coal Mine – some questions

  1. JR says:

    In fairness to Lord Ridley, I do not believe he has any interest in the land at Druridge. The Bells of Hemscott are owner occupiers and have a long and ugly history at Druridge Bay: witness their recent application for permission to extract 69,000tonnes of sand per annum from the beach. The Storeys’ land is tenanted. Often the rights to mines and minerals were disposed of many, many years ago and current owners and tenants can do nothing about it, not even voice an objection; often those rights were compulsorily acquired by the state when the coal industry was nationalised. That is the position ay Blagdon. But then the government of the day, be it Labour or Tory, has always regarded the north east as a dumping ground.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks JR.

      The situation with the coal at Highthorn is the same as at Ridley’s other pits – he receives a wayleave in return for providing access for Banks to mine the coal. It is unclear how large this wayleave is, but it is substantial.

      It remains to be seen whether Ridley will benefit directly from High thorn.

  2. mike says:

    They’re all in it together. Can’t think of much to say, except when survival gets difficult I hope to be in a lynch mob that goes after the worst of the greedy planet-wreckers.

  3. http://www.morpethherald.co.uk/news/business/local-business/park-returns-to-bygone-era-1-5680227

    The brothers-in-law Ridley and Paterson with Harry Banks, chairman of Banks Group doing some PR.

    All these local families like the Storeys and White-Ridleys have been working together for generations now. Just like everywhere else in rural Britain and business Britain it’s still semi-feudal, with The Crown at the centre of everything.

    Looked at your link to the Crown Estate, very interesting, never looked before. Surely the Crown Estate Commissioners are in charge of making the decisions, not Treasury? Quite of few of the Board, as you say, claim green credentials, one was even, according to the Board page, chairman of the “Green Alliance”!

    Plenty more to discover here …

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