VILLAGERS are celebrating after winning a “David and Goliath” battle to save open countryside near their homes from being mined for coal.

Durham County Council had been widely expected to give Hargreaves Surface Mining the go-ahead to opencast up to 514,000 tonnes of coal and 83,000 tonnes of fireclay from 56 hectares of farmland east of Durham City today (Tuesday, June 17).

But following a vociferous protest on the steps of County Hall and an impassioned debate lasting nearly two hours, the council’s county planning committee voted by 12 to one to throw out the proposals, which relate to a site known as Field House.

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Afterwards, Denise Harland, chairwoman of the Stop The Opencast Between Pittington and West Rainton campaign, said: “We’re extremely pleased that they weighed up the arguments and voted overwhelmingly in our favour.

“They thought more of local communities, people and businesses than big business coming in for a relatively short time and destroying our lives. We’re very pleased with the outcome.”

However, the battle may not be over, as a Hargreaves spokesman said the Esh Winning-based firm would consider an appeal.

“We’re surprised and disappointed by today’s decision by the planning committee, despite the strong recommendation to approve by their planning team,” he said.

Hargreaves had said the project would create and support jobs, boost local businesses, benefit communities and they would have engaged with local concerns.

However, nearly 250 people wrote to the council to object.

Local county councillor Stephen Guy, a former miner, said an opencast would affect people’s health and damage tourism; David Turnbull, chair of Pittington Parish Council, said it would represent an unacceptable physical and visual desecration of the landscape; and Cllr Paul Taylor, a committee member, said it would be wanton vandalism of a wonderful green area, offering no benefits.

Steven McQuarrie, Hargreaves’ land director, said the scheme had been carefully designed, many supported it and there was no reason for the committee to refuse it.

However, councillors lined up to disagree, with only Cllr Richie Young voting in favour.

The plans first emerged 18 months ago. Mining would have lasted for 26 months, possibly starting as early as this summer.