PROTESTORS opposed to the creation of a controversial opencast coalmine near their homes have accused police of stoking community tensions.

Durham Constabulary has said policing ongoing disruption to the development at Dipton, near Consett, has so far cost the force around £16,000 in additional manpower.

On Tuesday, following the arrest of two environmental activists, who chained themselves to a metal pipe, Chief Inspector Richie Allen described their actions as ‘criminality’ and said such behaviour was beginning to affect the policing of other communities.

He also emphasised how the 13 people arrested were ‘not local’ to County Durham, said they were ‘travelling activists’.

The police statement, shared on the force’s Facebook pages, led to many abusive comments directed at the protestors.

Members of the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley, which is made up of local residents, who have been opposed to opencast coalmining on their doorsteps for decades, issued a statement in response.

The campaigners' statement said: “Given the abusive online trolling directed towards the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley, the stressing and repetition of the terms ‘non-local’ by Ch Insp Allen could be considered to be divisive, if not inflammatory.

“It should be stressed that this 30-year campaign has always been led and supported by local residents and still is.

“The use of the word ‘criminality’ implies that the peaceful protestors are part of a wider criminal fraternity.

“This is a regrettable confusion of terms on behalf of Inspector Allen.

“We find it unfortunate that in the statement Durham Constabulary make mention of the fact that peaceful protestors were detained and arrested under Section 241 of the Trades Union Act which was originally used against picketing miners during the Miners’ Strike.”

Planning permission for the scheme has been rejected three times by Durham County Council since 1986, and denied at two public inquiries but that decision was overturned by High Court judge following a legal challenge by UK Coal.

Banks Group has until June 3 to start removing coal from the land, but must first build an access road, and work has been hampered by bad weather and the efforts of protestors.

Durham Police, Crime and Victims’ Commissioner Ron Hogg said: “The lawful decision to approve open cast mining at Pont Valley has been and still is extremely controversial.

“However, I fully support the rights of local people and local protestors to demonstrate lawfully regarding this matter. This is part of being a democracy. “Chief Inspector Allen correctly points out that as a consequence of officers policing the protest, service delivery in other aspects of policing will suffer. Again this is the price of democracy.

“I have received regular briefings and I am satisfied that Durham Constabulary have liaised with protestors to describe the limits of lawful protest within the law, and I ask that protestors heed this advice or seek clarity about the legality of their proposed actions.”