Obituary: Kevan Hunt

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AS HEAD of Industrial Relations at the National Coal Board, Kevan Hunt held one of the most difficult management jobs in post-war Britain.

He assumed responsibility for industrial relations at a critical period of the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85, and then undertook the job of making thousands of miners redundant in preparation for privatisation. Had he been a convinced Thatcherite, both tasks would have been undertaken with relish. However Hunt was no hard-line monetarist and he never forgot his humble origins in the industry; he had begun his career as a colliery electrician in Derbyshire.

Hunt felt like "piggy in the middle" between the Thatcher government, which harboured an ideological passion to defeat the left-led National Union of Mineworkers, and the revolutionary socialism of Arthur Scargill, its leader. During that bitter struggle, in which many mineworkers lost their homes and others saw their families split apart under the pressure, Hunt would privately express his intense frustration with the obduracy of both the government and the leadership of the NUM. He succeeded Ned Smith as head of industrial relations in 1985, just over halfway through the dispute.

The strike took its toll on Hunt. There were prolonged periods of intense activity, often under the glare of the world's media. There was the consciousness that he was a key player in one of the most important periods in post- war British history and there was the realisation that the future of many thousands of miners and their families was partly in his hands. At one stage he believed the great conflict - which saw some of the most oppressive policing in peacetime modern Britain - was near to resolution. The opportunity ebbed away however and Hunt admitted weeping in frustration. He was, he said, "bloody distraught" at the time.

Hunt did not allow his concern for the industry and its employees to interfere with his strongly pragmatic approach. He was a clever, hard- nosed negotiator and often appeared abrasive to those he faced across the table. To ordinary mineworkers Hunt would have appeared as something of an ogre, although they cast most senior managers in such a role. All coal board employees knew was that he was the man who helped to preside over an industrial relations cataclysm and what they saw as the virtual destruction of the industry. In the early 1980s coalmining employed 200,000; today the figure is nearer 10,000.

His single-minded approach to dealing with union negotiators was tempered by his sense of humour. He had the capacity to go toe-to-toe with the trade unionist and then immediately afterwards inquire quite genuinely about their well-being. After the strike Hunt was never to face Arthur Scargill over a bargaining table because the NUM leader refused to negotiate alongside the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, a breakaway organisation which helped to defeat the strike.

If Hunt was responsible for helping to contract the industry - although he fought tooth and nail to keep some collieries open - he was anxious to help ameliorate the impact of the policy on miners and those who relied on collieries. As head of industrial relations from 1985 to 1988, and then as a director of the board until 1991, he attempted to ensure proper financial compensation for redundant pitmen and retraining for those who wanted it. From 1993 to 1996 he was chairman of British Coal Enterprise and helped to involve the private and public sector in the creation of 130,000 jobs in areas affected by colliery closures.

He was active in attempting to regenerate industry in other parts of the country through his presidency of the Prince's Youth Business Trust in Nottinghamshire and through membership of government regeneration agencies. After his retirement the World Bank sought his help in restructuring coal industries in Eastern Europe and Russia. People associated with him in these endeavours tell how senior business people and major players in the public services would always attempt to be at meetings when Hunt was in attendance. They realised that he had been at the "sharp end" of an industry during one of its most turbulent periods.

It was the miners' strike which tested the mettle of the man. Only the far left in the NUM painted him as little better than their sworn enemies in the Thatcher government. Hunt was particularly hurt to receive a letter from Arthur Scargill on his retirement which accused him of relishing the destruction of the industry. Scargill expressed delight at his departure.

Kevan Hunt might have pursued a career in politics. He was a member of the Amber Valley District Council for 12 years and was its leader for three years until 1976 when he moved to the coal board's industrial relations department in London. In later years he was able to go back to his roots, spending more time with former Derbyshire miners with whom he felt quite at home.

His inability to come to terms with Conservative governments, both during and after the strike, cost him a place in the honours list. Last year, however, he became a member of the Royal Victorian Order for his attempts to regenerate the old coalmining communities and for his youth work. Most trade unionists and management colleagues saw not only as a hard-headed manager, but as a warm and generous person.

It was during a medical examination towards the end of his career at the coal board that the leukaemia was diagnosed which led to his death.

Kevan Hunt, industrial relations manager: born Seaham Harbour, Co Durham 13 October 1937; HQ Industrial Relations Director, National Coal Board (renamed British Coal 1987) 1982-84, IR Deputy Director-General 1984-85, Head of IR 1985-88, Executive Director 1988-91; chairman, British Coal Enterprise 1993-96; MVO 1998; married 1958 Valerie Scattergood (two sons); died Derby 17 March 1999.