Tristram Hunt: The ugly, polluting plan for opencast mining in Bignall End (map)
As if the prospect of High Speed 2 scything through the county was not worry enough, the North Staffordshire countryside is facing a new threat this spring.
On the high fields of Bignall End, with Mow Cop just about visible in the distance, UK coal is planning to dig a huge new surface mine.
What is threatened at Great Oak is all part of a trend. Around the world, coal is making a come back. Of course, in China and India coal-fired power stations are still coming into production at a terrifying rate.
But Germany – for all its focus on renewable energy – remains heavily dependent on dirty brown coal. And in America, the success of shale gas (from the controversial fracking technique) means the U.S. has been able to start exporting coal to developing markets.
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In the UK we continue to rely on coal for 30 per cent of our electricity.
The tragedy is that no-one has yet cracked the question of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations.
Plans for so-called Carbon Capture and Storage – extracting gases from power stations and pumping them into the North Sea – have all come to nought. And global climate change is now a dangerous reality.
Now, no-one wants to see the lights go off. We need to keep a secure energy pipeline. And I am not against energy infrastructure developments – be they methane from coal beds, off-shore wind farms, nuclear waste storage, or even investigating the potential of fracking for shale gas.
What is more, in the short term, coal will have to continue to be a significant, if diminishing, part of that mix. But there is a big difference between deep pit mining, and scraping the top off 80 hectares of Bignall End.
To be fair to UK Coal, it has sought local residents' opinions and invited nearby villagers to attend public exhibitions.
But concerns remain. First of all because of the historic significance surrounding the nearby Diglake Colliery site.
It was at Bignall Hill in 1895 that 80 local men and boys lost their lives in a mining disaster. Some 40 bodies still remain trapped beneath the ground and families regard the planned mine as disrespectful.
Then there is the traffic. To get the coal out of Bignall means piling on to the narrow roads of Talke, pushing existing traffic into Chesterton, then barreling along the A500.
If you are hoping to extract 450,000 tons of coal that means a lot of big lorries on some very narrow lanes.
UK Coal suggests some 60 jobs will be created. And given the current recession, any job creation is to be welcomed. But will these be locally sourced? Will they last longer than the 15 months of the coaling period? And how many local jobs might be lost from the environmental degradation unleashed by the mining operation?
Because we should be in no doubt, this will be an ugly, polluting process. Mining is a dirty and dusty business and the digging boundary in Bignall End will go right up to an existing children's playground.
Nearby there are also areas of Special Scientific Interest, wildlife and a much loved array of flora and fauna.
And the mine will be an unavoidable eyesore, given the raised promontory it commands.
Of course, UK Coal claims the area will be returned to its pristine condition – and without any form of imported backfill.
ut there are fears the site could end up either as a landfill site or turned over for brownfield development.
However, the real threat is that this is a scoping exercise by UK Coal – and once they have started digging, a much larger application will go in to exploit the greater North Staffordshire coal bed.
Even if the Great Oak Surface Mine is indeed a time-limited, specific application, it will still mean enormous disruption and pollution for local residents.
It seems to me that if the people of Bignall End are going to take the hit for our broader energy needs, then they should be compensated. The high fields of Great Oak don't just need to be returned to their former condition, the profits of UK Coal need to go to support community infrastructure projects.
If local people are able to profit from the renaissance of King Coal, then across the country these kind of difficult planning problems might prove a lot easier to solve. Our ability to wean ourselves from an over-dependence upon fossil fuels will prove a much harder task.