Blog: The political fallout from the Government's decision to approve the West Cumbria coal mine

Communities secretary Michael Gove approved plans for the mine on Wednesday evening. Credit: PA Images

Our Political Correspondent looks at reaction to the Government's decision to approve the new deep coal mine in Whitehaven.

The West Cumbria coal mine is so fascinating as a test of political priorities.

The project promises a boost to the local economy, which fits with Conservative pledges to 'level up' the country.

The war in Ukraine has encouraged a new focus on the UK becoming more self-sufficient, rather than - for example - importing coking coal from Russia.

But then there's the threat of climate change, and the Government's claims to lead the way in tackling it.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove insists that giving permission for the project will help satisfy all three priorities, but that's been met with derision from many climate campaigners and experts.

Among them is Lord Deben, a Conservative cabinet minister in the 1990s, and now chair of the Climate Change Committee, an official advisory group to the Government.

He described the mine as "absolutely indefensible" in the summer, and has repeatedly and strongly condemned the decision in the last 24 hours.

Alok Sharma, who was a cabinet minister until recently, after leading the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last autumn, said at the weekend that opening the mine would be "a backward step."

But he has kept quiet since the decision was made, as have other critical colleagues, like Penrith & The Border MP Neil Hudson.

All of the Conservatives who stood up to speak in the House of Commons after Mr Gove's statement today were supportive of the mine, and his approval of it.

Workington MP Mark Jenkinson was the first of many Tory MPs elected in 2019 in former 'Red Wall' seats who argued there's a continuing need for coking coal for the steel industry, and celebrated the new jobs on the horizon.

The mine seems to have taken on real significance for this group, and approving it does feel like a bit of party management.

For those Conservatives particularly concerned about climate change, the Government has this week moved to allow more onshore wind farms, something that's been reported as a 'quid pro quo' for the mine.

So while there is now relative calm in Tory ranks, opposition parties at Westminster are vocal in their dissent.

Some local Labour and Liberal Democrats councillors in Cumbria have been supportive of Woodhouse Colliery, but nationally their parties are forthright in opposing it, on climate grounds predominantly.

Shadow Communities Secretary Lisa Nandy asked: "What on earth is he thinking?" to Mr Gove in the Commons.

His written assertion that the project would have "an overall neutral effect on climate change" has sparked particular incredulity.

Shadow Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said this was calculated "by ignoring the effect of burning the coal... just like cigarettes have no health effect if you ignore the smoking of them."

The argument about climate neutrality was accepted first though by the independent planning inspector, who led last autumn's public inquiry, and recommended the mine be given the go-ahead.

The Government says Mr Gove's role was quasi-judicial, providing oversight for the inspector.

Ministers can certainly overrule planning officials though, as this summer when they approved a nuclear plant in Suffolk.

Even now, the matter of the Whitehaven coal mine may not be completely settled.

Next to Parliament, plans for a Holocaust Memorial were called in then approved by the Government, before being blocked in the High Court.

A further legal challenge over the mine is now likely - but the Government's decision is a big moment nonetheless.

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