A view of the site of Sirius Minerals’ Woodsmith mine, through the trees of the North York Moors national park
A view of the site of Sirius Minerals’ Woodsmith mine, through the trees of the North York Moors national park © Christopher Nunn

When a stranger came sloshing through the mud of John Cook’s farmyard one day in 2011, he had no inkling of the profound effect the visit would have on his future and on the place he lives — the tranquil moorland of North Yorkshire. The visitor, Will Woods, was from a company called Sirius Minerals. Cook, a dairy farmer whose family has been on the land since 1972, assumed Wood was selling something to improve cattle feed. In fact, he wanted to buy.

Cook’s farm, he explained, was sitting on tonnes of potash, a vital ingredient in fertiliser used around the world. In its way, potash is as important to the world economy as oil. Found in a reddish or white crystalline rock, it is mined, pulverised and then spread on crops across the bread baskets of Ukraine, Canada and China to regulate water content and improve root strength. It is one of the key nutrients for growing wheat, oats and barley.

Sirius needed Cook’s rights, along with those of more than 400 other landowners in the area, to begin work on a vast new fertiliser mine that would represent one of Britain’s most ambitious industrial investments in decades, costing $2.9bn and taking five years to build. In the process of digging up the rich seams of polyhalite (a form of potash) under the ground, Sirius promised to create 1,000 jobs and pump billions into the region’s economy.

The deep shaft mine would be sunk to a depth of 1,500m, the equivalent of five Shard skyscrapers stacked one on top of the other, making it the deepest mine in Britain — and the second-deepest in Europe. But there was a catch — it would be built in a national park: the beautiful North York Moors, one of the country’s most protected landscapes and a draw for tourists from across the world.

Farmer John Cook in his milking parlour
Farmer John Cook in his milking parlour © Christopher Nunn

Cook said yes to Sirius not long after the visit. He went on to become chairman of a group of 160 local landowners who clubbed together to negotiate royalties. The money they have received so far and the cash still to come — royalties will only flow once the mining reaches each rights-holder’s land — is a bit like “winning the lottery”, he says. “It won’t transform our lives but it will remove some anxiety. It will be enough to keep some farmers on their land. I want to fix up some of my dry stone walls.”

The man behind the mine is Chris Fraser, 42, the founder and chief executive of Sirius Minerals. Cook likens the British-born Australian entrepreneur to the 19th-century pioneers who led Britain’s industrial revolution. They raised fortunes from City investors, tunnelled into remote moorlands for iron and threw up railway viaducts to transport it across the country. “Chris has always been confident he’ll succeed. It’s old-style Victorian capitalism,” says Cook. “He just keeps going through all the obstacles.”

In fact, it would take four years of wrangling after that first visit to Cook’s farm for Fraser to secure a green light for the project, and the company only won planning permission in June 2015 by a single vote. In October 2016 he convinced Gina Rinehart, the mining and farming tycoon who is Australia’s richest woman, to invest $300m if Sirius could get the rest of the money needed. Last month work finally began on the mine, now named Woodsmith.

Fraser is more confident than ever. “What we didn’t realise in 2010 was the sheer scale and sheer quality of the deposit,” he says. “There is just nothing comparable to it in the world.”

A close-up of the site, the UK’s first deep mine in 30 years
A close-up of the site, the UK’s first deep mine in 30 years © Christopher Nunn

Yet persuading Cook and the other landowners was only one step in Sirius Minerals’ ongoing journey to build what will be the UK’s first deep mine in 30 years. If all goes to plan, the first polyhalite for commercial use should be produced in 2021 — but in the meantime Fraser needs to raise more money. The story of his bid to raise billions of pounds in capital and to persuade conservationists, local councillors and farmers to support the venture is one of risk, enterprise and ambition; pitting extraordinary natural beauty against the promise of extraordinary financial gain.

It also sheds light on the desperation felt in some parts of Britain hit by the decline of key industries: manufacturing, fishing and tourism. Many in Yorkshire hope that the mineral bounty long dormant under their feet will bring jobs, money, energy and — most important of all — young people back to the region.

***

Years before his company knocked on Cook’s door and half a planet away, Chris Fraser was on the lookout for mining opportunities. He was surprised to find one in the UK. At the time, most British mining companies were concentrating on the developing world.

Fraser was born in Yeovil but his parents left the UK when he was five weeks old and he grew up in Perth, Australia. He studied accountancy at the University of Western Australia, and supported himself by working as a club bouncer (he has the build for it). After training with KPMG he went on to become an investment banker, first at Rothschild and then at Citigroup, specialising in Australia’s booming mining sector.

After working as lead adviser on a large Australian mining company’s $2.5bn fundraising in 2006, he decided to look for his own project. “I had made some money and I just wanted to do something for myself,” he says. He kept hearing talk of a huge potash deposit in the UK and got in touch with two geologists who had worked on previous surveys of the area.

Globally, the big potash deposits are in Canada, Russia and Belarus in the form of sulphate of potash, but in North Yorkshire the potash is found in polyhalite — a mineral that contains potash along with magnesium, sodium and calcium. In the 1960s, the region had attracted potash prospectors including ICI, Rio Tinto and Shell. ICI went on to build a mine in Boulby, just to the north of the national park, in 1973. Now owned by Israel Chemicals (ICL), the mine is still producing, though its reserves are dwindling.

Gareth Edmunds (left), external affairs adviser at Sirius Minerals, on site with the company’s founder, Chris Fraser
Gareth Edmunds (left), external affairs adviser at Sirius Minerals, on site with the company’s founder, Chris Fraser © Christopher Nunn

Fraser got in touch with the British Geological Survey, a government agency, which recommended Rick Smith, a British geologist who had grown up in County Durham, near Whitby, and had worked for ICI before setting up his own consultancy. He told Fraser to look at the polyhalite deposit a few kilometres south of Whitby.

Smith also introduced him to Peter Woods, now 79. Woods had helped to sink the shafts for ICI’s potash mine at Boulby and worked there for 14 years before setting up as a consultant. The pair soon assembled survey data. “We started with a really good understanding of what was there,” says Fraser. “Those two guys had spent their careers studying the geology of the area.”

The surveys showed there was 2.6 billion tonnes of extractable polyhalite underneath the national park — a resource that could be mined for up to 100 years, although not one with an immediate market. It soon became clear that most of the previous generation of prospectors had let their mineral rights options expire. The next challenge for Fraser was to seal agreements with the landowners whose homes and farms sit above the polyhalite.

Much of the area was covered by a handful of estates, including the Crown and the Duchy of Lancaster. Fraser knew that once those estates had signed up, smaller landholders would follow. “The Crown Estate and the Duchy were both very supportive of it because they could see the benefits for the country,” he says. “They took the lead.”

Then it was time to convince a patchwork of farmers and householders, about 400 in all. Peter Woods’ son Will, who ran a land management business and knew many farmers, was enlisted to help in 2011. It was he who turned up in John Cook’s farmyard. “We had Will Woods’ famous pub crawl, where basically we went to pubs and presented to the farmers on a small basis,” says Fraser. “We invited 10 or so farmers to come and hear what the project was about first-hand — ask questions, throw eggs or whatever they wanted to do.

“But generally, the farmers from the get-go were incredibly receptive because it was . . . the phrase they used was: ‘Money for old rope.’ They didn’t know they had it and all of a sudden there was something of value that they had no idea [about]. And farming around here is tough.”

The company initially paid a small sum to each rights-owner to lease the rights for a short period, with the right to buy when everybody was signed up. It continues to provide small annual payments, ranging from hundreds of pounds to the low thousands, depending on the size of the land, and will do so until royalties are paid.

Some farmers were hard to persuade. “The odd farm you’d come across would suddenly think that they were the equivalent of the state of Canada and would put unrealistic demands on their mineral rights,” says Fraser. “One guy demanded a 15 per cent royalty. My response was, ‘Well, if you can pony up $3bn [to build the mine], I’ll happily give you 15 per cent.’ In the end he signed — but he did moan about it and swear about me behind my back.”

Sirius promised royalty payments of 2.5 per cent of the revenue made from selling the potash under a rights-holder’s land. The company also decided to divide lots into 1km squares and pay an average sum, so that no one would lose out if their land sits above a thinner seam.

The project of securing the landowners’ rights had to be shrouded in secrecy. The arrival of a thickset Australian with plenty of cash did not go unremarked upon in the tight-knit moorland villages. Fraser says pubs served as a “bush telegraph”, and his team were anxious to ensure that ICL did not hear of the plans in case it bought up rights-holders to thwart it.

Boats in Robin Hood’s Bay, near Whitby
Boats in Robin Hood’s Bay, near Whitby © Christopher Nunn

As we talk over lunch at a Whitby pub, Fraser points out an elderly woman keeping a watchful eye. “She’s a rights-holder,” he says. “So are the owners of the pub, by the way.”

The mineral rush was not confined to landowners. Hundreds of locals bought shares in Sirius when the project raised its first outside funds in February 2011, after the company listed on London’s junior stock market, Aim, in January that year. There are still about 500 small shareholders from the northeast, even after big fundraisings have diluted their stakes. Over the past five years, the shares have dipped as low as 5.83p in November 2013, and touched a high of 50.95p in August 2016 in the wake of planning approvals being secured; they have since fallen back and now trade at about 18p. There will be no cash to pay dividends until the early 2020s.

Chris Hadley in his family fish-and-chip restaurant in Whitby
Chris Hadley in his family fish-and-chip restaurant in Whitby © Christopher Nunn

Chris Hadley, who runs a family fish-and-chip restaurant in the nearby town of Whitby, bought a small stake in Sirius in 2011 on the advice of a friend he played rugby with, Tristan Pottas. Pottas returned to Whitby to work for Sirius after a stint as a geologist in Peru.“He was able to come home because of the mine. I see the benefit of good jobs and people with more money to spend,” says Hadley. “I am not expecting dividends for a long time. The shares are a long-term investment.”

Not everyone in the town is so optimistic. Built on the fishing trade, there are just a few small boats left in Whitby, and its fish market and harbour walls are crumbling. John Freeman, a local artist and former town council chairman, fears the effect of construction traffic. He relies on selling cards and paintings to tourists. “Whitby will bear the brunt, and the national park and Scarborough will get all the money,” he worries.

At present, visitors descending from the ­russet-coloured moors into Whitby have a splendid view of the town’s ruined Benedictine abbey. During the mine’s construction, the skyline will also be punctuated by 45m-high winding towers, but once it is built it should be possible to drive past without noticing much change. Buildings will be concealed from view by trees and artificial embankments. The complex will be visible from some surrounding hilltops — but then so is the bizarre pyramid-shaped radar of the RAF Fylingdales early missile warning station.

Tom Chadwick, who led the campaign against the mine, in his cottage in Castleton
Tom Chadwick, who led the campaign against the mine, in his cottage in Castleton © Christopher Nunn

Opposition to the mine is led by a former art lecturer, Tom Chadwick, 74, who is chair of the North York Moors Association. He moved to the village of Castleton in 1972 to teach at Whitby’s school and raise his children. He still lives in the same stone cottage opposite the local church.

“This is an enormous and inappropriate development in a national park,” he says. He believes money has been allowed to trump conservation of a cherished landscape, and that the largest planning application in the national park’s history left its members “out of their depth”.“Members of the national park authority were under enormous pressure to look at the economic benefits,” he says. “They stepped back from their statutory duty to protect the national park.”

These arguments played out in public on a sweltering hot day in June 2015, at a protracted planning meeting attended by more than 100 people. The 15 members of the planning committee, made up of local councillors and government-appointed experts, listened as Fraser and his supporters presented their case for the mine, while representatives from a number of conservation bodies warned against it.

The national park’s own director of planning, Chris France, argued that the economic benefits did not outweigh the negative impacts, describing “ongoing and permanent harm to the special qualities of the national park in terms of loss of tranquillity, loss of the park’s land forms, and its sense of wildness and remoteness which cannot be replaced”.

A cross-section of the mine
A cross-section of the mine

But the economic arguments were persuasive. Without the mine, the area’s future looked bleaker than its recent past. Scarborough was once a leading seaside resort but was forsaken by holidaymakers when cheap flights abroad took off in the 1970s. Some 40 per cent of jobs in the area are part-time, compared with 31 per cent across the country; 14 per cent of the population claim benefits, compared with a national average of 11.3 per cent.

Sirius says that once the mine is at full production, from 2026 onwards, it will generate more than 1,000 permanent jobs, and has promised that at least 80 per cent of these will go to local people, from the Teesside, Scarborough and Ryedale area.

One Whitby resident wrote to the park authority to express his support for the mine. “There will be disruption while the mine is being constructed but the short-term pain will be rewarded by a huge boost to jobs . . . Please approve the application and stop the deteriorating living standards of the Whitby people. Stop the young moving out and plan to keep families together.”

The planning committee was also swayed by the fact that Sirius had adapted its original plans in response to the early opposition to the mine, coming up with a number of environmental measures to lessen the impact. Fraser had decided to build an underground tunnel to take the ore to a port at Teesside so that the traffic would not have to pass over the countryside, and agreed to pay £130m to the park authority over the project’s lifetime to protect and enhance the environment. 

To minimise noise and disruption and reduce costs, Fraser’s original plan to pulverise the polyhalite into sulphate of potash, the usual form of the fertiliser, had also been scrapped. Now it would be kept intact and marketed in its entirety — as a wonder drug for plants. Unlike potash sulphate, polyhalite has no chlorine so is less damaging for the environment.

Thanks to the modified plans and the strong local support, planning permission was approved — albeit by the smallest possible margin, with the committee voting eight to seven in favour. A jubilant crowd greeted Fraser in the evening sunshine as he emerged from the meeting. Shares in Sirius rose from 15p to 21.5p the next day.

Emma Boyes at home in Whitby
Emma Boyes at home in Whitby © Christopher Nunn

Emma Boyes grew up in Whitby and has worked in the hotel and restaurant trade since leaving school. Now she has a finance apprenticeship at Sirius, has had a baby and is buying a house. Boyes, 31, says most of her friends had left town but she stayed for family reasons. “I always worked, but it was minimum wage and not steady hours. I could pay the rent but not plan for the future.”

Her husband, a scaffolder, lost his job in the recession but is back in work, the couple are on the housing ladder, and she is taking accountancy qualifications. “It’s a really exciting time. Even on maternity leave I have been keeping up with what is going on. I feel so lucky.”

Yet even after the planning meeting, the future of the mine was not assured. There was the small matter of $1.2bn to raise. The breakthrough came in October when Australia’s richest woman pledged $300m. Fraser had worked with Gina Rinehart, from Hancock Prospecting, during his time in Australia. She is a controversial figure who owns billions of dollars worth of iron ore, coal, media and farming businesses. In 2015, she achieved a long-held ambition to have her own iron-ore mine, which started production after $11bn of investment. She also expanded her agriculture empire last year by buying a huge beef business that controls land holdings bigger than Ireland.

Rinehart declined to comment for this article but at the time of the deal she said the project delivered “a new and natural product that is relevant to Hancock’s focus on agriculture, and after years of field tests and across many crop types, demonstrated improved yields”. Although Rinehart’s investment is conditional on Sirius raising the rest of the money, she became the cornerstone investor that lured others. In November, Sirius raised a further £370m in equity and $400m from a convertible bond. That is enough to start building.

Yet significant challenges remain. Sirius needs to borrow another $2.7bn to complete the first stage of the mine, while contending with some tough rivals around the world. The company claims it can mine for a relatively inexpensive $30 a tonne due to the thickness of the mineral seams. But the price of potash has fallen in recent years: the average price for the material delivered to China, an industry benchmark, fell to $219 per tonne in 2015 from more than $500 in 2011. Fraser argues that as the world’s population grows, food production will have to rise massively, even as land becomes more scarce. Those conditions could drive demand for the nutrient-rich polyhalite, which has been shown to increase crop yield and quality.

***

Sirius must also build a market for polyhalite. It has so far signed up customers willing to buy eight million tonnes of the mineral annually once the mine starts producing, but of that only 3.6 million tonnes is guaranteed. It will need more before the banks will lend the money required for the next phase.

In the City of London, views are mixed. Some have questioned whether there is sufficient demand and queried Sirius’s potential customers, which include an unnamed Fortune 500 company and Dian Huang, a relatively unknown Chinese peony grower. Asked why it has to deal with small-scale customers in the world’s largest potash market, Fraser says, “We’ll grow together.” Yet the majority of brokers covering Sirius believe it is a good investment. In February, JPMorgan Cazenove issued a 51-page note to investors appraising the project. It suggested the shares should be valued at 40p — but warned of risks ahead.

“It is a large-scale, technically complex development requiring significant amounts of capital,” wrote analyst Luke Nelson, noting that there are five separate mine shafts to sink. A 4.3m-diameter tunnel will run for 37km under the moors. Waste water could flood into the tunnel and will need to be disposed of. It could hit faults. Most problematic of all, warned Nelson, “There is currently no comparable, see-through price for polyhalite, which means ­reliable forecasting of a long-term price (post 2025) is inherently uncertain.”

A view of the North York Moors national park, heading north from Whitby
A view of the North York Moors national park, heading north from Whitby © Christopher Nunn

Fraser says that he is facing the normal challenges of doing something new. “The fertiliser market really hasn’t seen anything in a large-scale, multi-nutrient form that’s different for 40 or 50 years. I was trying to explain to my wife the other night that for the last six years my job has basically consisted of crisis management. Essentially, you are going from crisis to crisis to crisis to crisis and, hopefully, you manage them sufficiently enough that you still move forward. So right now we have no crises.” The next one may not be long coming. And if it does, it will not just be Fraser’s wife worrying. He has raised hopes for an entire generation and could yet face a local backlash.

Back at John Cook’s farm the sun is setting and he has to go and help his son milk the cows. As the animals troop into the milking parlour they file past his baby grandson in his pram, oblivious to the moors all around him and how their future development will shape his world.

What is polyhalite?

© Christopher Nunn

Polyhalite, meaning “many salts” in Latin, combines four of the six macro-nutrients essential to plant growth: calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulphur. It is a naturally occurring mineral that was deposited about 250 million years ago in the “Zechstein Basin”, an area covering parts of Europe and the east coast of Britain. North Yorkshire sits on one of the largest known deposits of high-grade polyhalite — 2.6 billion extractable tonnes, enough for 100 years’ worth of mining, according to Sirius.

Andrew Bounds is the FT’s northern correspondent and enterprise editor

Photographs by Christopher Nunn

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