From pits stop to pits go: The new owners of mines ditched by British Coal as worthless believe they have a future

British Coal could not make a go of Markham Main colliery. So, in the spring of 1993, it was closed. Nor could British Coal make a go of Coventry colliery, Betws, Trentham, Hatfield, Rossington, Clipstone, Calverton and Silverdale. British Coal abandoned them. Now a new set of owners believes that all have a future.

Markham Main and the rest represent the vanguard of coal privatisation - pits leased and licensed from British Coal on an individual basis. Privatisation of the rest is expected to be completed by the end of 1994.

The confidence of the new owners raises the question: why do they believe they can make profits if British Coal could not?

But for the public outcry over the 31 pits announced for closure in October 1992, these would never have been licensed. Abandonment by British Coal would have meant that they were lost for ever, together with the jobs they provide. Allowing them to be licensed individually appeased public opinion.

Malcolm Edwards, former commercial director of British Coal and now head of Coal Investments, the company operating four former British Coal deep mines, believes there is no secret formula to make the pits economic.

While British Coal remains heavily dependent on the power station market, Mr Edwards' pits - Markham Main, Coventry, Trentham and Silverdale - will produce high quality coal enabling them to succeed in the industrial and domestic market without necessarily selling to the generators. 'It requires radical rethinking. You have to select the right colliery to meet the needs of the market. It has caused a lot of sleepless nights, though.'

The 'radical rethink' has had wide-ranging implications - for production techniques, working practices and industrial relations. Mr Edwards is bringing effective mining practices from abroad. These include the use of continuous mining machines that are remotely operated and work entirely within the seam section, producing low-ash coal.

Industrial relations have also changed. Markham Main, under British Coal, had a reputation as one of the most militant pits in the country. Asked about the status of the National Union of Mineworkers at Markham now, the response from a welder at the pit is astonishing: 'To tell you the truth, the union is not something that's ever discussed.'

The company policy on unions is clear. Miners may join any union they like, and Mr Edwards says he would advise them to do so. If the men decide to elect a representative, Mr Edwards will negotiate with him. Pit-based representation for the NUM may still be a possibility, whereas the inclusion of the national and area NUM in negotiations has probably gone for ever. 'A lot of the history of coal has gone - all that is dead,' Mr Edwards says.

On at least one issue there is agreement between Mr Edwards and the NUM leadership. British Coal has been trying to introduce 'flexible working' at its remaining mines. One aspect of this is lengthening shift times, to which the NUM is vehemently opposed.

Mr Edwards shares that view. 'Twelve-hour shifts are a bloody disgrace. Very long shift working doesn't pay off. We're on eight- hour shifts, the men are rostered, five days over six, to keep the mine working and the teams together.'

Malc Hart, shift manager at Markham Main, believes the atmosphere at the pit has changed completely since Coal Investments took over. 'We have a feeling now of all working together. It is not 'us' and 'them' any more.' This exemplifies the participatory business culture Mr Edwards is trying to instil. He has set up a share ownership scheme he believes will help the management to run the four pits effectively. Every worker will have a share in the business.

Arthur Scargill believes such schemes blunt the potential militancy of workers, who are blinded into thinking that, on the basis of what is often a small shareholding, they are somehow owners rather than workers.

Despite the views of the national leadership, the South Wales area of the NUM is preparing a bid to take over Tower colliery, the last British Coal mine in South Wales.

The NUM national leadership has consistently opposed buyouts of pits - even worker buyouts - as being a back-door route to privatisation that might be more easily sold to a workforce desperate to retain jobs. It argues that working conditions for miners will worsen and workers investing their own money are likely to lose it.

Nevertheless, in recent times the alternative to these buyouts has been closure. The Yorkshire area of the NUM, in its heyday of 1975, was exploring leasing a coking plant near Barnsley. The plant, owned by a private company next to British Coal's Barrow colliery, was facing closure and the proposal was an attempt to save it. The prospective lease never came to fruition, but the union believed it could make money from the plant as well as saving jobs. Arthur Scargill led the negotiations.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Administrator

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about custom...

Recruitment Genius: Dialler Administrator

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Main purpose: Under the directi...

Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City of London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen