The UK government recently approved a new coal mine in Whitehaven, a small coastal town in Cumbria, northwest England. The first mine to be given the go-ahead in 30 years is expected to produce 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal a year for steelmaking, and provide 500 new jobs. The decision has provoked an outcry, particularly the project’s estimated 400,000 tonnes of CO₂ a year which will inflame the climate crisis.
But in Whitehaven, the decision has largely been met with relief. As a researcher engaged in an ongoing three-year long project to document local attitudes towards industry, I have tried to understand why support for the mine exists in Whitehaven. The arguments I present here are preliminary findings from my interviews with a demographically representative sample of residents, but these have not yet been published in an academic journal.
Media commentary has so far presented a partial account of why locals are generally in favour of the mine. Some suggest that deprivation is most responsible and that amid poverty, the mine’s promise of economic renewal is enticing. There is some truth to this account, but it overlooks the area’s complicated demography. Government data shows that wealth exists alongside deprivation in Whitehaven. Many of the community’s pro-mine voices are retired or otherwise comfortable.
Other commentators have described a yearning among Whitehaven’s community for a bygone industrial past. The town’s history is often discussed in favourable terms by the people I speak to. But the problem with words like “nostalgia” is that they imply people are merely sentimental about the past. Leaving aside the patronising undertones, this view obscures the fact that people have good reason to feel that changes in recent decades have not always worked in the area’s favour.
Memories are an important factor
Many of the people I’ve come to know through my research have described a way of life that was eroded. Older groups, where I have found support for the mine to be most pronounced, recount their memories of when Whitehaven was a thriving industrial hub. They can recall how, throughout much of the 20th century, dozens of pits were open along the coast, and Whitehaven harbour, where coal was shipped to the rest of the world, was a frenzy of activity. The Haig pit was the last to close in the mid-1980s.
Even those in middle age can remember a more vibrant past. Many talk about the large chemical factory which towered over Whitehaven and employed many thousands of people. Marchon was opened in 1962 and closed in 2005. The factory was razed to the ground and the site now lies empty, with only the perimeter fence and its entrance gates remaining.
Industry provided jobs, but it did more for the area than pay the weekly wage, they say. Social life was ordered around the mines and factories, giving people a sense of identity and direction. As many of my interviewees have suggested, west Cumbria felt like the heart of a modern, expanding global economy. One man proudly explained that Workington steel, produced by burning coal dug up from Whitehaven, could be “found across the world”.
Others explain that, for working-class communities where value often lies in manual work, there were multiple opportunities to put your labour to use. “You could leave school on a Friday and start work on a Monday”, as one person put it to me. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in Whitehaven today, where what geographer Linda McDowell has called the “McJobs” of the service sector are increasingly prevalent, and work is more precarious and often less skilled.
Whitehaven’s high street and town centre is now in a state of disrepair. Shops are boarded up. Once grand Georgian buildings lie empty while paint slowly peels from their exteriors. A group of young people I spoke with described it as a “ghost town”. Some say they are embarrassed at the state the town is in.
While the biggest local employer, Sellafield – a company which is decommissioning what was once an active nuclear power station also called Sellafield – provides secure and often very well-paid work for 11,000 people locally and thousands more through its supply chain, many feel the community is overly reliant on it, especially as work opportunities there are decreasing.
It didn’t have to be this way. The sense of “steady decline” in Whitehaven, as one person I spoke to described it, is not the result of something inevitable. It is due to decisions taken over time by politicians and the wealthy constituencies they respond to about which areas are worth investing in and which aren’t. The result has been a tacit settlement to concentrate investment in the south-east, and abandon communities elsewhere.
What’s the alternative?
How can the government fix the social conditions which make a new coal mine desirable? Perhaps, with a proactive industrial policy which offers places like Whitehaven a part in building an economy which meets the needs of today.
Several blueprints for this kind of change exist. One report by the charity Cumbria Action for Sustainability estimated that 9,000 green jobs – deploying renewable energy installations such as wind turbines and renovating homes to make them more energy efficient – could be created with the right programme of investment.
An idea floated at the 2019 general election involved building a steel recycling plant just north of Whitehaven in Workington. A factory of this nature would resonate with the area’s heritage, and provide a bridge between its past and reimagined green industrial future.
Until the political organisation exists to make ideas like this a reality, the same mistakes will arise, with new fossil fuel projects offering the only investment to communities eager for some alternative to decline.