This week, it was reported that Sirius Minerals has unveiled its pitch to investors for the construction of a new potash mine near the coastal town of Whitby in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. The figures are substantial: £2.4bn investment; 2,500 direct and indirect jobs; annual production of up to 20,000 tonnes of fertiliser; £2.3bn annual revenue. Last year, the park’s planning committee decided that this contribution outweighed environmental concerns and gave the project the green light.
Those in the south, by which I mainly mean London and perhaps most significantly Westminster, might scoff at pleas against the industrialisation of the North Yorkshire landscape. In this respect, such conflicts around development in the north reflect the varying conceptions of the north in terms of the economy, the environment and its people.
Surely, they will argue, the north was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It’s economic heritage is something that has literally been fought for. The Battle of Orgreave, for example, when five thousand picketing miners were batton-charged by at least as many police carrying out the mandate of the last era of Conservative rule.
Back in the present, North Yorkshire is a stronghold of a Labour party currently incredulous at the dismantling of British industry. The Conservative Chancellor, meanwhile, would no doubt hold up the new potash mine as proof of his party’s commitment to a ‘northern powerhouse.’
But now, some are saying, the ‘natural’ landscape of the North Yorkshire Moors is worth more than that. This is despite there being an established potash mine just a few miles north of the current proposal, which, alongside tourism, is a major source of income on this beautiful stretch of the north-eastern coastline.
Indeed, perceptions of beauty and heritage, wellbeing and livelihoods are at the heart of such debates. I don’t see a mining company arguing for the benefits a mine can bring to the local tourist industry, as they often do in the U.S. And landscape is, by sheer nature of cale, a more acute issue on this small island.
From my perspective, I never want to see such impositions while I’m strolling the coastal path between my holiday rental in Staithes and a fish and chips in Whitby. And I’m certain local people also have attachments to the rugged scenery of the area.
Nevertheless, it is significant that much of the oppositional discourse is led by organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. These, after all, are organisations which represent people like me. Middle-class tourists and outdoorists from the south, those with sufficient disposable time and income to spend on expensive cameras and Gore-Tex.
The people of the north-east, however have always known that their livelihoods, and their lives there, are contingent upon a more pragmatic balance between the importance of nature and industry.
And while I mourn the loss of non-industrialised British landscape as much as anybody (if that has existed in living memory), I cannot reasonably claim that, in a globalised world, it should be protected above all other places. Most of the fertiliser this mine produces will be sold to China, where mining companies and the government are far less concerned with issues of social and environmental justice that we are here.
As week have seen with the recent murder of Berta Cáceres, in certain parts of the world, just to contest such projects is to risk one’s life. While the bias towards corporate capital before local interests is as prevalent in the U.K., and while even national parks are not immune from this intrusion, we can expect our lives to remain as safe and comfortable as ever.