Letter: The price of coal

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Could we please have a greater sense of perspective about the current "crisis" facing the UK coal industry and Government's latest proposals to "save" it? A couple of questions to illustrate the point:

Which government, in a White Paper on Fuel Policy, accepted "the advice of the National Coal Board that a rundown of about 35,000 men a year would be manageable for the industry. On past experience, and taking account of natural wastage, such a rundown should not create a national problem"?

Answer: the Labour government in 1967 (Cmnd 3438 para. 113). The annual job loss considered "manageable" in 1967 is more than three times the total number now employed in deep mining in England and Wales, and some seven times the number of jobs considered to be saved by the Government's latest announcement.

What do representatives of bodies like the Coalfields Communities Campaign and RJB Mining mean when they ask for a "level playing field" compared with other fuels used for electricity generation? Are they looking to repay the higher price received for UK deep-mined coal compared with alternative fuels and imported coal that British Coal and its successors like RJB received in coal contracts struck with generators in 1990 and renewed in 1993? Or do they really want a continuation of this subsidy, which, at its peak in the early 1990s, cost domestic customers more than pounds 1bn a year in higher electricity prices?

Surely the real question that has to be asked about the coal industry today is how to make effective use of the resources available to central and local government to assist individuals in moving to other jobs, and maybe to other areas where they can be employed providing products and services that are actually required? This must be better than simply seeking to eke out employment for a few more years at the expense of continued market distortions and higher prices for electricity consumers.

The Government's self-proclaimed great victory does not give much hope that politicians will provide a sense of perspective to a debate which has gone on for more than thirty years.


Fulbrook, Oxfordshire