Northern Tory MPs are concerned that the government could be willing to sacrifice the levelling up agenda when it becomes inconvenient.
Is there a clash between the government’s plans to achieve Net Zero and its aspirations to level up parts of the North and Midlands? It certainly seems that way, after the Planning Secretary Robert Jenrick last night U-turned and launched an inquiry into the construction of a new coal mine in Cumbria, which would provide coal for the construction of steel. His decision to ‘call in’ the planning application came after the US climate envoy John Kerry told the BBC this week that ‘coal is not the future’.
Jenrick’s decision has exposed a rift in the Tory party, between a government keen to make a success of the UN climate summit, COP26, held in Glasgow later this year, and backbench MPs fighting for the North and Midlands to be ‘levelled up’. Several Tory MPs have publicly supported the coal mine, pointing out that it will create at least 500 jobs in Whitehaven, an area that desperately needs investment and a diversification of its economy.
The proposed mine is in Copeland represented by the Tory MP Trudy Harrison, who in February suggested that anyone who thought the UK wouldn’t need steel for construction – and therefore rely on the coking coal from the Cumbrian mine – was living in ‘cloud cuckoo land’. Rather awkwardly, Harrison is Boris Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary.
Meanwhile, Jenrick’s decision to call in the mining decision has been celebrated by environmental groups, who have opposed the opening of the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years. In his letter announcing the inquiry, Jenrick said that new factors had influenced his decision, such as the independent Climate Change Committee warning that a new deep coking coal mine would increase global emissions. However, the frustration among disgruntled Red Wall MPs is that if the product is not created here, it will simply be ordered in from elsewhere.
So does the row over the Cumbrian mine represent a wider battle between northern MPs and the government’s climate agenda? It’s worth noting that most MPs accept that green jobs – like the announcement this week that a new wind turbine plant will be opened in Teeside – will play an important part of the levelling up agenda. And Tory backbenchers in the north are certainly keen to stress that they are not in a battle against Net Zero or climate change targets.
Instead, they point out that the coal from the Cumbrian mine would have only been used to construct steel, not burned for power, and the UK already imports millions of tonnes of coking coal every year from other countries. As one local MP told Coffee House, by importing coal from elsewhere, the UK is ‘just making it someone else’s problem’ (sic). Most green infrastructure projects, such as wind turbines, will also rely on steel and therefore coking coal.
There is a feeling, however, among some that the decision to delay construction has been a victory for those who sensationalise the fight against climate change. Mark Jenkinson, who is MP for neighbouring Workington, has said the decision to delay the mine once again has been a ‘capitulation to climate alarmists’ – arguing that the mine did not impede the government’s Net Zero targets.