For Nigel Howard, the chance to invest in the biggest mine to be built in the UK for a generation was too good an opportunity to miss.

The £4bn project – to dig up a mineral used in fertilising crops from underneath the North York Moors National Park – would potentially create thousands of jobs for a region with the highest unemployment rate in England and Wales.

So convinced was Mr Howard of its merits that the 76-year-old local man cashed in his entire £30,000 pension pot to buy shares in Sirius Minerals, the company behind the massive fertiliser scheme.

Now, however, like thousands of other individual investors, the pensioner finds himself stuck in a hole he can’t get out of.

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“It looks as if we’re in dire straits with what’s going on,” said Mr Howard.

This week, Sirius Minerals’ share price plunged by 60% when it was forced to pull plans to raise $500m.

The money was key to Sirius’ future. Securing the funds would unlock a further $2.5bn (£2bn) in financing from US investment bank JP Morgan.

Sirius has embarked on a strategic review, and unless the company finds another way to raise the money in next few months, its future looks bleak.

“We can’t do anything at present,” said Mr Howard, who initially bought shares at 24p each. “We can’t pull out because [the share price] is basically next to nothing.”

Mr Howard said that before the Sirius investment “I was just content for a life of retirement and just enjoy my pensions. But I’m now down to the normal old age [state] pension”.

Regeneration

The company has 85,000 individual shareholders. About 10,000 of these are located in areas surrounding the Teesside project, where many people no doubt invested because of the regenerative benefits for the North East.

At 5%, the region has the highest unemployment rate in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. Sirius said the project would generate about 4,000 jobs.

The plan is to develop the Woodsmith mine, near Whitby, to give the company access to a vast deposit of polyhalite, which can be used as a fertiliser.

The polyhalite will be transported along a 23-mile tunnel and conveyor belt to Teesside near the former Redcar steelworks, which closed in 2015 and cost 2,200 people their jobs.

When Andrew Davies, 59, and his friend were weighing up whether to invest in Sirius six years ago, the boost to the local economy was a factor in their decision.

“Lots of the locals were really, really happy because obviously it is regeneration of their area which is fantastic,” he said.

“Because the share price at the time was quite low, we thought it had great growth, it would supplement our pensions and support a British company as well.”

Fortunately, Mr Davies bought some Sirius shares when they were less than a penny and the highest he paid was 7p.

Still, he has put £60,000 of his money into the company. “I’m obviously very upset as to what has gone on,” he said.

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