Last deep mine in the North-east to close as Poland sends Britain its subsidised coals

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THE PRECARIOUS future of Britain's few surviving deep coal mines was underlined yesterday when the closure was announced of the last pit in the North-east, with the loss of 429 jobs.

Richard Budge, chief executive of RJB Mining, met miners at Ellington on the old Great Northern coalfield near Ashington, Northumberland, to explain. The meeting, said an observer, was "sheer hell".

Derek Hope, 45, who has been mining for 25 years and has two children, said: "It is going to be hard to get other jobs because of the age of the workforce; most of them are over 40." Unemployment locally stands at 11.5 per cent.

Mr Budge has been both hero and villain in the space of five years. Ellington, a 90-year-old pit, had been mothballed by British Coal when his company paid pounds 800m for it in December 1994. RJB took back only one-third of the 1,200 workers but was always walking a financial tightrope. Within two months it imposed a three-year wage freeze. By December 1996, RJB was seeking a High Court injunction to stop a series of strikes.

Yesterday's decision comes after RJB's announcement in September of a pounds 40m drop in profits. There will soon be only 15 deep mines in the UK. Ellington harvests coal up to five miles out under the North Sea, where geological problems have increased costs and made mining unsafe, RJB said. The quality of new seams had not been high enough.

RJB will halt development work immediately with the loss of 100 jobs, while production on the current coal face will continue until February. Then the remaining workers will either transfer to RJB collieries in Selby, North Yorkshire, 100 miles to the south, or be made redundant. If no buyer is found for the pit within eight weeks (the chances are almost nil) all workings will be sealed by late spring.

Furious leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers said RJB was reneging on an unwritten agreement that it would invest at Ellington in return for freedom to expand local open-cast mines. But RJB's task in making mining pay is shown by the closure of five deep mines in the UK this year. Questions hang over two other mines in the Selby field. Pitmen say redundancies are being sought there.

The main problem is cheap imported coal. British pits produce less than half the 46 million tonnes used in the UK, and yesterday the Confederation of UK Coal Producers was preparing to lodge a complaint with the European Commission about levels of cheap Polish coal flooding Britain.

In the past year, subsidised Polish firms have increased exports to Britain by more than 40 per cent to nearly 1 million tonnes and are selling at one-quarter of the cost of production, said Gerry Mousley, director general of the confederation. "The UK coal industry is the only one in the European Union which does not receive state aid," he said.


Scotland: Longannet

Yorkshire: Hatfield and Rossington, Doncaster; Kellingley, Pontefract; Maltby, Rotherham; Prince of Wales, Castleford; three at Selby;

East Midlands: Harworth and Welbeck, Worksop; Thoresby and Clipstone, Mansfield

West Midlands: Daw Mill, near Coventry

Wales: Tower, Merthyr