High Court agrees to hear challenge to controversial coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria

19 May 2023

Planning and Environment

Mrs. Justice Thornton DBE yesterday ordered that two legal challenges to the decision of the Secretary of State to grant permission for a new underground coal mine and associated development at Whitehaven in Cumbria will go forward to a three-day hearing in the second half of this year. This reflects the complexity and importance of the issues at the heart of the claims: the impact of opening a new UK coal mine on total global emissions, the UK’s reputation as a climate leader, and the proper calculation of ‘downstream’ emissions of fossil fuel developments.

Permission for the Claimants, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) and Friends of the Earth (FoE), to go forward with the claim was due to be decided in a day-long hearing on 23 May. On considering the parties’ written arguments in advance of the hearing, the High Court order a ‘rolled-up’ hearing should take place, where it will hear the application for permission and the substance of the Claimants’ statutory review simultaneously.

The case will therefore now likely be heard after the landmark Supreme Court challenge brought by Sarah Finch concerning plans to allow oil drilling at Horse Hill in Surrey, set to take place on 21 June. The company seeking to promote the mine in Cumbria (and defendant to the statutory challenge brought by the claimants) also intervenes in that matter.

SLACC and FoE launched their legal challenges in January after the Secretary of State controversially granted planning permission for the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years, following a month long planning inquiry that took place in September 2021. Permission was granted notwithstanding significant concerns raised by leading climate experts at the inquiry that the mine would add to global emissions at a time when dramatic reduction was necessary, and would permanently damage the UK’s climate leadership credentials, all as the UK held the COP26 presidency.

SLACC and FoE contend that in permitting the proposed mine, the Secretary of State failed to account for the significant climate impacts of the mine, including the acceptability of carbon credits to offset the mine’s emissions, the international precedent that opening a new mine would set, and the impact of opening the mine on the global coal market.

Estelle Dehon KC and Rowan Clapp represent South Lakeland Action on Climate Change – Towards Transition (“SLACC”) instructed by Matthew McFeeley of Richard Buxton Solicitors. The same team represented SLACC at the called-in inquiry in September 2021.

Marc Willers KC, Estelle Dehon KC and Ruchi Parekh represent Sarah Finch in the Supreme Court challenge, instructed by Carol Day and Rowan Smith of Leigh Day.

SLACC was established in 2007 after a City Councillor from San Salvador visited Kendal as part of a speaking tour, and explained that mudslides in his city, caused by torrential rain as a result of climate change, had led to deaths. He brought home that climate change would get worse and affect people across the world. SLACC has actively opposed the mine proposal, garnering support from experts such as the Materials Processing Institute and Professor Paul Ekins OBE, Professor in resources and environmental policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London.