Cornwall goes back down the tin mine as fresh demand puts a shine on prices

The industry died out six years ago at South Crofty. Now, Paul Lashmar sees work starting on a new tunnel at the site
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Britain's last tin mine is set to reopen as the price of the metal soars to a 14-year high. The South Crofty mine in Camborne, Cornwall, was closed in 1998 after it was deemed too expensive to run. The owner, Baseresult Holdings, now says that an increase of nearly £2,000 per ton in the price of tin has given its plans to reopen aboost.

Baseresult started work on a new tunnel in the South Crofty mine last week. This will help pump water out of the 2,500ft-deep workings flooded after six years of disuse.

David Stone, the technical director of Baseresult, always believed the mine was viable, but said the tin price rise had helped: "If we were in production now we would be laughing all the way to the bank."

When Baseresult bought the mine in June 1991, the price was less than $3,000 a ton - a 30- year low - but it has gradually increased to over $9,000.

"Once the mine starts working again it should be able to produce up to 3,000 tons of tin a year, nearly a third of Britain's domestic requirement," Mr Stone said. "We have about 80 years of reserves at South Crofty. At the current rate that would be worth £1.5bn to £2bn."

Until recently, tin was being written off as a viable commodity because of the use of plastic and aluminium in food packaging. But now it is seen as a metal for the future because of its low toxicity and resistance to corrosion. Tighter environmental laws in Japan and Europe have favoured tin solder over lead solder in the electronics industry. The price has also been driven up by demand from China, the biggest user and producer in the world. Chinese domestic production cannot match demand.

Ingrid Sternby, a base metal analyst at Barclays Capital, said: "The market is likely to remain in deficit until 2006." Barclays forecast demand to exceed supply by at least 20,000 tons this year on a 300,000 tons world demand.

Mr Stone said: "There is some froth in the current price because of speculation, but it should remain reasonably high."

The new tunnel will take six months to complete. Kevin Williams, Baseresult's managing director, said: "It will provide direct access to the areas we need to pump out. It represents evidence of our absolute determination to get South Crofty working as a fully operational mine again."

Cornwall once boasted 2,000 tin mines and was a world leader in the industry. But overseas competitors began to produce ores far more cheaply. In 1816, Cornwall survived the threat of competition from the Dutch largely due to the abolition of the 7 per cent duty charged on smelted tin. In 1872, tin was discovered in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania. More recently, China had become a major competitor.

A handful of Cornish mines remained open after the Second World War. South Crofty was the last mine to be commercially worked in Europe. Its closure came as a blow at a time when Camborne and neighbouring Redruth were already among the poorest areas in Europe.

Mining is only part of Base-result's plans for the site. The firm started tourist visits to the mine last October. "It's been a great success," Mr Stone said. "We have already had 1,500 visitors. We can only take nine people underground at a time. But we are putting in a lift that should help us take a lot more visitors down."

Baseresult has also applied for permission to build housing and business premises on the large site.

With the work on the new tunnel started, 17 people are now employed at South Crofty. If the mine is drained successfully it should be operating in two years' time. "The mine should give employment to some 200 people once it is up and running," Mr Stone said.