Outlook: Labour may not leap to the coalfields' rescue

Whoever it was that said coal in the hole would be a safer bet than pie in the sky when RJB Mining and BSkyB simultaneously tapped the market in 1995 must be feeling a little bruised today. True, BSkyB's share price performance this year has not been exactly electrifying. But at least it has performed better than RJB's, which is now comfortably south of the price at which Richard Budge dug money out of investors when he paid pounds 815m for the English coalfields.

The fact that the share price did not flinch yesterday when another chunk of RJB's market was swallowed up by yet more gas-fired generating capacity shows that things could scarcely get worse.

As fast as Mr Budge puts out one fire another flares up. The closure of the Asfordby superpit, the rising tide of imported coal, the renegotiation of RJB's contracts with the generators, Labour's promise to get rid of open-cast mining, the prospects for clean coal technology - you name the problem and RJB has got it.

The assumption that a Labour government would bring some respite, because of its emotional and cultural links with the mining industry, is proving woefully optimistic. New Labour appears much more concerned with meeting its environmental commitments than defending Britain's dwindling coalfield communities.

John Battle, the Energy Minister, has not given much of a hint yet. However, there is little evidence that he intends to stop the inexorable rise of gas or twist the arms of the generators when they finally come to decide what will be left of RJB's market from next April. If Labour has an energy policy, it may not be one that the coalfields want to hear.

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