A COAL mining firm has said hundreds of jobs in the region are at risk due to delays in planning decisions being made.
But environmental campaigners have hit back claiming Banks Mining has been following an unrealistic business model.
The County Durham company has started a first round of consultations on job losses for employees at its surface mine near Newcastle.
Up to 24 jobs are expected to be lost at the Brenkley Lane surface mine which has finished coal excavation and is now restored and landscaped.
With no replacement mines permitted to replace Banks’ existing mines due to delays in planning decisions, a further 220 skilled North-East jobs are at risk with the company.
Banks Mining has been waiting for a final government decision on whether its proposed surface mine near Druridge Bay in Northumberland can go ahead for more than 18 months.
Recently Durham County Council rejected permission for an extension to the existing opencast development at Dipton, near Consett.
Managing director Gavin Styles said: “It is heart-breaking for me to have to tell dozens of members of my team that we can no longer employ them, even though there is still significant demand from British industry for the coal and fireclay that they mine and their work is of the very highest standard.
“It is a sickening punch in the gut for everyone here.
“Many of my dedicated and highly-skilled colleagues have worked with us for years and now, through no fault of their own, they are facing the prospect of needlessly losing their jobs at just about the worst time imaginable.
“They and their families should not be in this awful situation, especially as it could so easily have been avoided if the government had listened to its own experts and approved our Highthorn scheme years ago.
“Whilst British industry still needs coal it should be mined here in the UK.
“It’s better for jobs, it’s better for the environment. We have continued to do everything we can to make the case for approval and to make the consequences of the secretary of state’s failure to make a timely decision on Highthorn crystal clear - but so far, it’s all been to no avail.
“If the Government continues to avoid taking responsibility in this way, there will undoubtedly be further consultations on redundancies to follow which will once again be directly down to its indefensible inaction.
“By not making a decision on Highthorn, they are letting these people and their families down – and with almost four million people already expected to be unemployed across the UK, this is a scandalous dereliction of duty.
“We will now work closely with our colleagues and union representatives in the coming weeks and will do everything we possibly can to provide maximum support to all those affected by this demoralising situation.
“We remain proud to have invested consistently in North-East England for more than four decades, to have employed thousands of excellent people during that time given contracts to hundreds of local businesses and contributed millions of pounds to community projects across the county.”
Jerry Swain, national officer for construction at Unite The Union, added: “The painful consequences of the Government’s cowardly, illogical failure to act on their own planning inspector’s recommendation that the Highthorn scheme should go ahead are now being played out in these job losses, the responsibility for which lies firmly at their door.
“Boris Johnson’s personal promise to repay the trust of the North-East voters who returned him to Downing Street a few months ago has swiftly been shown to be worthless.
“His administration clearly values the jobs of Russian and American miners more highly than the highly-skilled northern workforce at Banks Mining and the longstanding local supply chain that they’re abandoning here without a backward glance.
“The Government’s baffling inaction on Highthorn even ignores its own minister Kwasi Kwarteng’s comment in the House of Commons that ‘from a coal and carbon emissions reduction point of view, it makes sense to have a locally-based coal source rather than shipping it in a very costly way halfway round the world.’
“Everyone knows just how horrendous the situation that we’re all now facing is, and how much more deeply the consequences will be felt in a part of the country that already has severe economic challenges, so to see dozens of skilled North-East workers being casually abandoned due to Government negligence like this is bordering on the criminal.”
Banks Group sites have been opposed by members of the community they operate in, as well as environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion and the Coal Action Network.
Anne Harris, from the Coal Action Network, said the company should be concentrating on developing renewable energy instead of removing coal from the ground.
She said: “This is an especially difficult time for anyone experiencing job losses and the workers have our sympathy. Banks Group is one of the last companies seeking to extract coal in the UK and could redeploy these workers in its renewable business.
“The Government started its plan to phase-out coal in 2015 making it obvious that there would be less demand for coal and so fewer mines operating, until none were at all.
“If Banks were a responsible employer and actually a family focused business it would have been preparing its staff for the transition out of coal mining for five years.
“When the Consett Steel works closed, efforts were made to retrain workers so that they did not face long periods of unemployment.
“Banks failed to do this and concentrated on grabbing land for a quick buck.
“While I have every sympathy with the workers, this is the fault of Banks Group unrealistically taking on employees and apprentices when pursuing an unsustainable business model.
“The Government must follow a green recovery plan and it can’t approve the Highthorn application and honestly claim to be world leading in ending the use of coal to generate electricity.”