Sir Norman Siddall

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The Independent Online

Norman Siddall, industrialist: born Sheffield 4 May 1918; General Manager, No 5 Area, East Midlands Division, National Coal Board 1956-57, General Manager, No 1 Area, East Midlands Division 1957-66, Chief Mining Engineer 1966-67, Director General of Production 1967-71, Member 1971-83, Deputy Chairman 1973-82, Chairman 1982-83; CBE 1975; Kt 1983; married 1943 Pauline Alexander (two sons, one daughter); died Mansfield, Nottinghamshire 9 January 2002.

The contrast could hardly be clearer: Norman Siddall's predecessor as Chairman of the National Coal Board, Sir Derek Ezra (now Lord Ezra) was a distinguished intellectual of high standing in world energy but with none of the grittiness of mining; his successor, Ian MacGregor, had great commercial ability and a reputation in raw materials but was an outsider. Appointed as a stop-gap chairman in 1982, Norman Siddall was the most successful of the three – and had spent his entire working life in the coal industry.

Siddall was born in 1918, the son of a Sheffield knife-grinder. His father died while he was still at school; his enterprising mother opened a corner shop to support the family and made sure that her son completed his education at King Edward VII School, Sheffield. He then studied engineering at Sheffield University.

As in so many traditional British industries, credentials in coal took a long time to acquire. Siddall's formative years were in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire pits. Productivity was high in both, but Nottinghamshire reflected a history of managerial benevolence, industrial relations according to rules, and high pay, whereas Derbyshire had a much more argumentative, old-fashioned workforce. Both pits were in the forefront of the NCB's rapid technological development of the industry after nationalisation in 1947.

During his time as a coalfield manager, Siddall experienced very different market conditions. Until the oil-price collapse of 1958, the challenge for the industry was to keep on producing more and more coal for an energy-hungry world; after 1958 it was all about cost-cutting in order to compete.

Top-class mining engineers combine theoretical knowledge, the skill to apply it in widely differing conditions and the ability to manage men face to face in an environment both hostile and unpredictable. Siddall had proved himself over two decades in the East Midlands Divison, and in 1966 he was brought to NCB headquarters as Chief Mining Engineer. The following year he was made Director General of Production. It was thus with a wide experience that he was appointed to the board in 1971, becoming Deputy Chairman to Derek Ezra in 1973.

Never did a British trade union have such a victory as the National Union of Mineworkers' in 1973-74. It defeated the management and brought about the downfall of the Heath government in February 1974. A long period of relative peace followed but the price paid was high: an annual test of political nerves, but, more importantly, the disappearance or non-appearance of the economic rent from large capital investment and great technical advance. That would require a large reduction in manning, the abandonment of abortive major projects and also the closure of pits at the end of their economic life.

Siddall earned international respect for the completion of the final development of the heavy-duty underground mining system, with its enclosed workplace, now used in so many countries. This combined greater safety with much higher productivity: as Siddall said, "Most of the accidents underground result from hanging around in one place too long."

Safety of the men had always been important for Siddall: he led the development of dust suppression systems, and his very visible role in the aftermath of the Lofthouse Colliery disaster in 1973, when seven miners lost their lives, was widely admired.

He made no secret of his frustration that all this technical progress produced such meagre business results. Only the resumption of local productivity bonuses in 1977 relieved the gloom. He felt that the unions were being allowed to run away with too much. He cheered himself with the chairmanship of the Coal Pension Funds at a time of some of their greatest successes.

In 1981, the attempt to close a few worn-out pits in the recession that followed the 1979 oil panic was outwitted in a masterly fashion by the coalminers' leader Joe Gormley. The Government was caught out but the management was defeated as well. Arthur Scargill succeeded Gormley as President of the NUM later that year. Oil and international coal prices were at a record high and gas was still a "premium" fuel limited to home heating. No one had much doubt that the country was heading for the fourth serious disruption in the coal industry in 10 years.

Appointed Chairman in 1982, Siddall was determined to avoid a major strike. He concentrated all his attention on getting the mineworkers to settle peacefully on realistic terms. He was a good delegator, but decided to deal with the negotiations personally, without comment or interference from politicians whom he regarded as of distinctly limited ability in industrial matters. His wish was conveyed to Margaret Thatcher via her Parliamentary Private Secretary Ian Gow and a period of blissful silence followed.

In the NUM ballot of November 1982 to reject the management's wage offer, Siddall succeeded in persuading the men to support him rather than Scargill. He repeated this the following year. In his 18 months as chairman, he pushed through many changes for the good without any of the expected reaction, managing to close those pits which the NCB had failed to shut down in 1981, as well as those three white elephants, Kinneil/Valleyfield, in Scotland, Bates, in Northumberland, Brynlliw in South Wales, all losing money but with masses of unworkable coal. A real start was made on getting results from past investment.

And then in August 1983 he stopped. Despite being pressed by the Prime Minister to continue, he judged that his heart after major surgery was not strong enough. As he said, "I have shown them how to do it."

His comments were at their most colourful when he heard from the press that Nigel Lawson, the Secretary of State for Energy, had persuaded Ian MacGregor, chairman and chief executive of British Steel, to take on the NCB chairmanship. Siddall made it clear that three years of cutting costs at British Steel after the previous management had won a most punishing strike did not equip MacGregor to complete what Siddall had started, namely to sort out the economics of British mined coal without causing the workforce to take industrial action.

Even if Norman Siddall's heart had been stronger, the coal industry would still have suffered a bumpy ride – especially after the 1986 collapse of oil and world coal prices and the growing environmental concerns began to bite into the market for coal. But if Siddall had stayed on as Chairman the year-long strike of 1984-85 would not have happened and the British coal industry would not now be the remnant which currently struggles to survive.

Malcolm Edwards