I joined The Banks Group as a planner in September 2019 after finishing my course in urban planning at Newcastle University the previous month. During the nine months I have been here, I’ve met so many helpful, knowledgeable people at our sites and office from across the different business areas and I’ve been able to get involved with a range of fascinating and challenging projects within Banks Mining. My experiences so far have served to completely alter my understandings of surface coal mining and its interaction with the planning system in England. I’ve also been really been struck by the quality of the projects that The Banks Group produces for its customers, local communities and stakeholders. Using south-east Northumberland as an example, I’d like to use this blog post to highlight the significant benefits being brought about by Banks Mining’s restoration, landscaping and aftercare of its surface mines by focusing on improvements to local landscape character, health and well-being, and tourism opportunities. Underpinned by Development with Care, surface mining has already delivered, and will continue to deliver, long-term positive change for communities in south-east Northumberland.
Restoration and Landscaping of Delhi and Brenkley Lane Surface Coal Mines
Restoration plans for mineral extraction sites set out exactly how the land will be landscaped after mining operations are completed on various parts of each site. Restoration and aftercare are key considerations during the design phase of any new surface mine, with a detailed plan devised by our landscape architect setting out how the site will be restored and landscaped to the highest environmental standards. Banks Mining has a proud track record, having restored every single one of the 111 surface mines it has worked across northern England and Scotland since 1976 and has even helped local authorities to remediate sites that have been left by other mining companies unable to meet their obligations.
Surface mining sites can be progressively restored to a landform height similar to that which previously existed on site. This is achievable because, despite the removal of a nationally important mineral resource, the volume of remaining overburden and interburden material (the rock, siltstone and mudstone material that lies above and between the coal seams) also excavated will ‘bulk up’ to increase its volume and compensate for the volume of coal, fireclay and sandstone material removed from site. Factors such as the nature of the overburden and interburden material overlying the coal seams, the amount of rock and the method of working all have an influence on the potential bulkage ratio. Banks Mining typically work with sites which have a depth ratio of 20:1, meaning that for every 20 cubic metres of overburden, soils and rock we dig, we extract one tonne of coal.
Pictured above: Restoration Strategies for the Delhi and Brenkley Lane Surface Mines, illustrating the delivery of linkages and landscape scale ecological enhancements.
The main focus for the purposes of this blog will be on the restoration of Delhi, a site that was originally worked between 2002 and 2012. In April 2010, Newcastle City Council granted planning permission for the extraction of 2.4 million tonnes of coal on land to the northern edge of Newcastle, at a site known as Brenkley Lane. At the same time, Northumberland County Council also approved an extension of time of the planning permission for Delhi to the north which enabled the retention of the existing landscaped overburden mound, and the continued use of the site access and compound in conjunction with the Brenkley Lane site. An eastern extension to the Brenkley Lane site was then approved by Newcastle City Council in July 2015, enabling the extraction of a further 500,000 tonnes of coal. The two sites are connected by a specially-constructed underpass which links the Delhi side of the site in the north (Northumberland) to the Brenkley Lane side to the south (Newcastle), beneath a temporary bridge constructed on Ponteland Road.
Improved Landscape Character
Delhi’s restoration scheme is far more than simply restoring the site to a similar landform. Through restoration, surface mining offers the chance to create an improvement on what existed within the land before, with national planning guidance (NPPF, Para 204) stating that high quality restoration and aftercare of mineral sites should take place. To this end, the restoration of Delhi will greatly improve the landscape character of the restored landform, which Northumberland County Council defines as the distinct, recognisable and consistent pattern of elements that makes one area of landscape different from another. Although similar landform heights can be created on restoration, the option of creating new and interesting variations on the restored landscape creates an opportunity to make significant landscape improvements.
Northumberland’s 2010 Landscape Character Assessment described the landscape of the Coalfield Farmland, of which Delhi was part of, as ‘simple’ and ‘heavily affected by past mineral extraction’ with ‘a high number of receptors but few fewer recreational users’. Indeed, a large tract of land to the south of Blagdon Hall had previously been mined by the National Coal Board in the 1950s which resulted in the removal of the southern end of an 18th Century park. In line with the post-war drive to feed the nation, the area was restored to maximise arable production and, unfortunately, there was little consideration given to the parkland features that had been lost. Instead, the restored landform was characterised by large rectangular fields and conifer shelter belts, typical of this area of Northumberland.
Pictured above: Historic parkland that existed before 1950s: 1755 plan by R. Richardson, illustrating Blagdon Hall and the surrounding gardens
However, surface mining techniques are far different today and Banks Mining’s contemporary, sophisticated extraction and restoration strategies are in stark contrast to the 1950s methods undertaken by the National Coal Board. From the outset, the focus of Delhi’s restoration has been to recreate the historic 18th Century Blagdon Hall parkland with a ‘Capability Brown’ style landscape, addressing drainage issues and improving the soil structure. In 2013, following extensive research into historic plans and aerial photos, the new parkland at Blagdon Hall was landscaped and officially opened by the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, then Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (pictured below).
Pictured above: Official opening of Blagdon South Park, May 2013: Left to right are: Rt Hon Viscount [Matt] Ridley; Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP then Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Harry Banks, CEO & Chairman of The Banks Group
Pictured above: Delhi Parkland within 12 months of being restored: November 2013. Also shows adjacent Brenkley Lane site and retained Delhi overburden mound and coal yard
Restoration of the Brenkley Lane site is ongoing and involves the restoration of the Delhi overburden mound, site compound, site access, and the dismantling of the temporary bridge on Ponteland Road. In addition to around 10 hectares of new woodland planting, the elevated landform proposed on the site of the former Delhi overburden mound will see the planting of new areas of species-rich grassland. Species-rich grassland are flower-rich meadows which have declined dramatically across the UK in the last century, with around 97% of flower rich meadows lost in England since the 1930s.
Pictured above: Species-rich grassland at Delhi planted as part of the 2012/13 restoration, and maintained through ‘aftercare’
These grassland areas have been sown with a seed mix which contains 20% flowering plant species and this diversity will benefit a wide range of insect species. In turn, a vital source of food is provided for bird species such as lapwing, skylark, grey partridge and curlew in particular during the nesting season. Each of these birds are identified in our site Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs) as they are species which are facing rapid decline both nationally and in Northumberland. Site BAPs are implemented on all of our mining schemes and ensure that there is sufficient ecological survey information to set targets for protecting, enhancing and conserving priority species before, during and after every new scheme.
Pictured above: ‘Capability Brown’ style landscape: 2018 photo taken within the restored Delhi parkland
Most of the Delhi site is already out of the process of ‘aftercare’, a recuperative process for the landscape which is undertaken at every one of our restored surface mining sites and involves continuous, sensitive treatment and management to make sure that that the natural environment thrives. The aftercare period on the agricultural areas is five years, ten years on woodlands and fifteen years on ecological areas. Progress of the site through the aftercare period is monitored through annual monitoring reports and site meetings with representatives from the Local Planning Authority, Natural England and the landowner, Blagdon Estate.
Health and Wellbeing Benefits
Crucially, the restored Delhi and Brenkley Lane sites will promote greater use of the public access network through new permissive multi-user paths for cyclists, horse riders, walkers and runners. A 2018 study by Public Health England found that walking and cycling reduced the risk factors for a number of diseases and had positive mental health and neurological benefits, such as reduced risk of dementia, improved sleep quality and a greater sense of wellbeing (see footnote 1 below). 2013-14 data collected showed that physical inactivity cost the NHS around £455 million for that year alone, which equated to £817,274 per 100,000 individuals or £8.17 per person (see footnote 2 below). Four years on, in their 2018 study, Public Health England urgently stressed the need for new initiatives to promote walking and cycling in order to address inactivity and contribute to reducing these economic costs to the NHS going forward.
Pictured above: Permissive multi-user path at Brenkley
Around 2.7km of path at Delhi and 5.2km of new permissive multi-user path at Brenkley is proposed on restoration, which will help to bring about significant health and wellbeing benefits linked to increased exercise in this location which lies on the urban fringe. Combined with proposed improvements to public access on both sides of Ponteland Road, variations in the restored landform and land-use will, in the long-term, enhance understanding and increase interest in the landscape. Surface mining therefore has the power to stimulate significant physical and mental health benefits upon restoration and all those involved in the Brenkley Lane scheme are committed to leaving a lasting positive legacy on the restored Brenkley and Delhi sites.
Local Tourism Opportunities: Northumberlandia
In addition to promoting high quality restoration, Paragraph 204 of the NPPF emphasises the need for worked land to be reclaimed at the earliest opportunity. To this end, Banks Mining has spearheaded the principle of ‘restoration first’, whereby it seeks to initiate the benefits of surface mining and restoration for the local community during the earliest possible stages of operations as opposed to waiting until the project’s completion.
Pictured above: Northumberlandia under construction using material from Shotton, 2010
Constructed within the first three years of the Shotton surface mine commencing, Northumberlandia – The Lady of the North is the epitome of ‘restoration first’ and is the world’s largest human form sculpted into the landscape. I was given a tour of Northumberlandia during my first week at Banks and was astounded by the level of thought and detail that went in to her creation. Larger features were constructed with rock core and finer details were placed on the top for intricacies such as the eyes, nose and mouth. Without the Shotton surface mine which lies next to the sculpture, the magnificent Lady of the North would not be here as it was built, like many of our homes were, because of coal mining.
The Banks Group and landowner Blagdon Estate sought to create something truly unique for Cramlington as part of the planning application for Shotton. The late Charles Jencks, a world-renowned landscape designer and architectural historian, was approached to design a new landmark feature and our teams then faced the challenging task of turning Jencks’ vision into a reality…
Pictured above: BBC Countryfile National Landmark of the Year 2020: Northumberlandia
The result? A sculpture which is unique, daring and immense in scale. At 1,300ft long Northumberlandia is taller than an eight story building at its highest point, featuring around 4.16km of surfaced paths and 2.5km of grassed paths over a total area equivalent to 7.5 football pitches. Its network of paths not only allow the visitor to fully explore the landform, but also reinforce the echoed outline of the figure as it steps down to the surrounding ground and lakes. Eight years on from its completion, Northumberlandia is now managed by the Land Trust in association with Northumberland Wildlife Trust and continues to be recognised on a national scale, with the Lady of the North scooping ‘Landmark of the Year’ at the 2020 BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards as voted for by the general public. With over 100,000 visitors per year, Northumberlandia is an asset that Northumberland, Cramlington, the Blagdon Estate and The Banks Group should be very proud of and is a testament to the foresight and persistence of all those involved.
Perhaps this is best summarised by James Berresford, former chief executive of Visit England who concluded that: “Northumberlandia demonstrates what can be achieved when the private sector works together with local tourism organisations and the community”. Working closely with stakeholders and local people lies at the heart of Development with Care and enables the Banks Group to develop high-quality, sustainable projects such as Northumberlandia. The right hand of the sculpture points towards Shotton surface mine, a permanent reminder to all that without the site, the project would not have been funded or created.
So, to conclude, surface mining, underpinned by Banks Mining’s Development with Care approach, will deliver long-lasting benefits for the area of south-east Northumberland and its residents. At Delhi and the whole of the Brenkley Lane site, landscape character has been enhanced with areas to increase biodiversity and improved public access through the sites will result in greater opportunities for walking and cycling in this urban fringe location. Thanks to Shotton surface mine, south-east Northumberland possesses the national ‘landmark of the year’ which itself promotes physical activity and continues to attract 100,000 visitors each year. Yet this only provides a snapshot of the significant local and national environmental, social and economic benefits which The Banks Group brings to each project it undertakes.
I’ve really enjoyed my first nine months at Banks and I feel proud to be part of a group which is fully committed to making a sustained, lasting positive contribution to the County in which I live. However, this shouldn’t be the end of the story- the next chapter is yet to be written for this part of England’s largest county and I believe there is capacity for even more positive change to be delivered here. Underpinned by Development with Care, surface mining has already delivered plenty for the communities of south-east Northumberland. I am sure that if Banks Mining is granted planning permission for new surface mines In the region we will deliver even more…
By Ben Siddle, graduate planner, Banks Mining, June 2020
(1) Public Health England (2018) Cycling and Walking for Individual and population health benefits: a rapid evidence review for health and care system decision-makers. Accessed online at: https://government/Cycling & walking for individual & population health benefits.pdf
(2) Public Health England (2016) Physical inactivity: economic costs to NHS clinical commissioning groups. Accessed online at: https://government/Physical inactivity costs to NHS.pdf