A controversial new coalmine planned for Cumbria appears to have been put on hold.
The local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, had previously refused to intervene but on Thursday night he said he would take responsibility for the scheme away from the local authority.
A notice from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government sent to Cumbria county council said the cabinet minister was “calling in” the planning application.
It cited “further developments” since Jenrick last considered the case, including a new report from the independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on emissions targets.
The letter, sent by an unnamed civil servant on Jenrick’s behalf, said that “proponents and opponents take different positions” on the committee’s recommendation of reducing demand for carbon-intensive activities and expanding low-carbon solutions, but that these should be investigated by a public inquiry.
Controversy about the coalmine “has increased”, the letter also said, adding that Jenrick “considers that this application raises planning issues of more than local importance”.
The inquiry will be handled by the planning inspectorate, and Cumbria county council was told to provide information on how the coalmine, planned for near Whitehaven, would be “consistent” with “meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change”.
Government sources denied that the move was a U-turn but Mark Jenkinson, the Conservative MP for nearby Workington, took to the Tory MPs’ WhatsApp group to disputethat.
In messages seen by the Guardian, he called the decision “a remarkable volte-face” and “complete reversal” of the previous position, adding it was a “kick in the teeth for those ministers and MPs that repeated the secretary of state’s position on local decision-making”.
Another northern Conservative backbencher agreed, and called it “another U-turn”.
But Greenpeace called it “fantastic news and definitely better late than never”. And Friends of the Earth added it was a “startling, but very welcome U-turn”, and urged the government to refuse permission for the project.
Ministers have previously been criticised for not blocking the coalmine, particularly given that the UK is hosting Cop26, the UN climate summit, in November.
Just weeks ago, one of the country’s most eminent environmental scientists, Sir Robert Watson, said it was “absolutely ridiculous” the government was refusing to act.
James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost voices on the climate, also warned Boris Johnson that letting the mine proceed would lead to “ignominy and humiliation” for the UK. He said the plans for the mine showed a “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people”.
Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, said Hansen “expressed it very well” and called the government’s decision a “big mistake”.
Alok Sharma, the former business secretary put in charge of organising Cop26, was also said to be furious at the decision to let the project proceed.
If it goes ahead, the underground mine would be the UK’s first in 30 years. Supporters of the £165m project say it would provide 500 jobs in what is among the most deprived areas in the country.
Forty Conservatives MPs had written to the leader of the county council warning that stopping the mine would “represent a serious risk to Cumbria’s economic growth”.
The council approved the mine, called Woodhouse Colliery, in October. Jenrick was urged to call in the application then but refused.