A SITE earmarked for a major opencast coalmine on the border of County Durham has been sold to an agricultural company.

UK Coal, the mining company behind the controversial development at Hoodsclose, near Whittonstall, maintains the sale of land will not affect its planning application.

But residents opposed to proposals to extract 2.2 million tonnes of coal from the land fear for the future of the land if the scheme is approved by planners next month.

Val Barnes, of the Whittonstall Action Group, said: “WAG considers that there is now an even more urgent need for Northumberland County Council to insist upon a watertight financial bond so as to guarantee full restoration of the site following coal extraction.

“This increases the need for a restoration bond and assurance that the new landowner will honour the restoration and aftercare plan and will not submit a new application for the land to be used for other purposes namely biomass, willow crops, house building and/or industrial storage.”

The land was owned by Harworth Estates, which was UK Coal’s property arm, prior to the company’s restructuring in December, and sold last month to Strawsons Property.

Now, Harworth Estates and UK Coal form part of the investment portfolio of their holding company, Coalfield Resources, and all are owned by a conglomerate of mining pension funds.

Gordon Grant, communications manager of UK Coal, said: “It is entirely normal in the surface mining and wider quarrying industry for the applicant or operator to own the mining rights and not the land in this way.

“UK Coal Surface Mining retains the rights to mine the land and this transaction does not in any way change the planning application, including the restoration proposals or commitments made to the community.”

Sarah Wilson, communications officer for Northumberland County Council, said UK Coal would be primarily responsible for the restoration of the site if permission is granted.

She added: “We were aware that the site had been sold, but land ownership is not a material consideration in determining a planning permission.

“As with all planning permissions the land-owner would become liable in default.”

No-one from Strawsons Property was available for comment when contacted by the Northern Echo.

The application is expected to be discussed by Northumberland county councillors at a meeting in Morpeth on March 5.