Death-throes of Europe's most efficient operation

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Coal's latest crisis has been brewing for many months. From next March the privatised electricity generators are free of the statutory commitment imposed by the last government to buy British coal. They can buy from the cheapest source, including overseas suppliers. Negotiations are under way between the generators and RJB Mining, the private-sector successor to British Coal which mines 90 per cent of UK output. The generators are increasingly turning to gas-fired power stations in preference to coal - the so-called "dash for gas" - and are reducing their orders accordingly. In the past year, RJB Mining sold 27 million tonnes to the generators, but current indications are that next year this figure will fall to around 16 million tonnes. It could go much lower in succeeding years.

After privatisation and restructuring, British coal-mining is the most efficient in Europe, but the high value of the pound makes exports extremely difficult. With a shrinking home market, RJB Mining will have to cut capacity by around 10 million tonnes. The company said yesterday that it may have to close five to eight collieries, probably in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, at a cost of 5,000 jobs. Others believe this is a conservative estimate, and the end of the coal industry - which in its heyday employed a million men - is only a matter of years away.

Today 9,000 men work in the remaining 29 collieries, some of which are very small. The once-mighty National Union of Mineworkers, whose strikes in 1972, 1974 and 1984-85 convulsed the nation, is reduced to a tiny rump of fewer than 5,000 paying members. However, the Labour government, with its strong historical links to the miners, is now working on a rescue package for the industry - coal's last chance.