Outlook: Kissing goodbye to the coal industry

Closing down coal mines is a bit like working in them - dirty, dangerous and, as Michael Heseltine discovered in 1992, costly to political reputations. As New Labour prepares to finish off the job that Hezza began and dump what remains of the English coal industry on the slagheap, history looks like repeating itself.

John Battle, the Energy Minister, is the hapless soul given the task of telling Richard Budge that he has no subsidy, no hope and no future. Yesterday, as he battled through his brief from the despatch box, he was joined by the Prince of Darkness, the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson - always a sure sign of trouble brewing.

If the Government is to preside over the closure of a third of RJB Mining's 17 deep mine pits and with them 5,000, perhaps 10,000, jobs, then Mr Budge wants to make sure the Energy Minister at least joins the casualty list.

The Budge line is that it would only take pounds 30m of subsidy a year to bridge the gap between what the generators are prepared to pay and the price he needs to keep his pits open. If the Government can find pounds 400m to keep the pensioners warm this winter, then surely pounds 30m is not much to ask to keep a whole industry alive. Alas this misses the point. Even if it were feasible to subsidise one producer in one section of the energy market, it would hardly serve the Government's wider agenda, which is to be seen as the clean man of Europe.

When Mr Blair jets off to Kyoto in three days time, he knows that the best way for Britain to honour its pledge to cut CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 is to jettison a large chunk of the coal industry. Quite apart from the nasty side-effects like mesothelioma and subsidence, coal is a big pain in the ozone layer and no amount of smart technology can make it environmentally acceptable at a price the market is prepared to bear.

New Labour is about to grasp the nettle and the result will not be edifying. But if the run down of the coal industry can be achieved in a humane manner, then it will surely be worth the pain. It is not easy, particularly for a Labour Government, to say goodbye to the working class culture and traditions of this once mighty industry. But in truth, these things belong now more to a museum than the modern world. The time has come to let go. There are better uses for Government money.

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