PROTESTORS have called for a decision on an opencast mine to be halted after concerns were raised over letters of support for the scheme which the authors denied having sent.

UK Coal Surface wants to remove more than a million tonnes of coal and 175,000 tonnes of fireclay from a former coal mine and coke works between Stanley and Marley Hill.

Councillors at Gateshead Council have already approved the scheme, and Durham County Council planning officers have recommended a special planning committee endorse the plans when they discuss it on July 29.

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A committee report says 75 letters of objection and 435 letters of support were submitted – the bulk of the latter being proforma letters.

Of the letters of support, 190 were from UK Coal employees, 24 from Tanfield Railway volunteers and 180 from visitors to the area.

The report says: “It should be noted that when acknowledgements were sent to those who made the representations, several people contact the council to state they had not written to the council and were not aware of the planning application.”

Campaign to Protect Rural England's Durham branch chairman, Pitch Wilson, is among those wanting the plans rejected.

He said: “I don't’ think they should give make a decision until they have got to the bottom of this. Everyone is quite shocked by the whole thing.”

UK Coal project manager Richard Cory said: “The Tanfield Railway really got behind the scheme and letters were sent to Durham County Council from both volunteers and visitors to the area.

“We have been assured by The Tanfield Railway that all visitors were legitimately canvassed, either on the train or in the exhibition area and the benefits of the scheme were fully explained to them.”

He added: “Only three per cent (seven) contacted the council to say they couldn’t recall writing to them.

“We are led to believe that this is normal and happens on other applications.”

Stuart Timmiss, county council head of planning and assets, said: “Our standard process is to acknowledge every response to planning consultations.

“In doing this we discovered a very small number of responses in support of the application which hadn’t been submitted by the people named on them.

“These photocopied forms did not raise any new issues and as we have highlighted this issue in the report to the planning committee, we are confident that their discussion will be unaffected by this.”