Heseltine faces attack on neglect of threatened pits

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE, President of the Board of Trade and Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal, are facing protests from MPs over reports by independent engineers that coalfaces at pits under threat of early closure are being allowed to deteriorate beyond repair.

Representatives of a new 31-strong Coal Group of Tory MPs raised the reports with Mr Heseltine last night. The Commons trade and industry select committee reviewing the 31-pit closure programme will put the allegations of neglect to Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke during a hearing today.

British Coal, meanwhile, has privately conceded that it is likely to lose the High Court judicial review brought by the unions over its handling of the closure of the 10 pits scheduled for immediate shut-down. These were excluded from the 'full and open' review conceded by the Government just before MPs voted on the closures on 21 October and are now the subject of 90-day statutory consultation under employment protection legislation. Concern over British Coal's alleged failure to prevent serious deterioration of the fabric of mines is focused on some of the 10, nine of which stopped production within a week of the closures announcement on 13 October.

Mr Heseltine said when the Commons vote was taken that British Coal would have to exercise appropriate 'care and maintenance' of the 10 during the consultation period to keep open the possibility that they could continue in production. British Coal also promised the High Court in the legal action that during consultations the fabric of mines would not be jeopardised. It insists it has kept that pledge.

But reports obtained by the Independent conclude that British Coal has failed to maintain Silverhill, Nottinghamshire. There are similar claims over Cotgrave, also in Nottinghamshire; the two-pit Trentham complex, Stoke-on-Trent; and Parkside, Lancashire.

Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme and a co-founder of the MPs' group, said: 'That, if true, is a serious matter because the Secretary of State has given an undertaking that British Coal will ensure that there is no deterioration that would affect pit viability in the event that consultation should come up with a different answer from that of closure.'

Mr Churchill said the MPs' group was 'very concerned for the future of coal, and about moving from the unique situation within the EC of being self-sufficient in energy to becoming a net importer within a generation'.

It is known that five of the 10 - Betws, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Parkside and Trentham, were considered by John T Boyd, the American mining engineers appointed by British Coal last year, to be sufficiently profitable to be privatised. The trade and industry committee is likely to recommend a number of reprieves.