Only 13 pits have hope of survival: Fate of coal industry is decided

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SIX MONTHS of deliberation over the fate of the 31 pits threatened with closure produced a potential reprieve yesterday for only 13 of them before the entire industry is privatised.

The ten pits not covered in the Government's review which have ceased production remain scheduled to close along with two of the 21 included. Six are to be put on care and maintenance and one placed on development as a low-cost mine with the possibility of re-opening. A dozen will continue in production, but with no definite future.

In his White Paper yesterday, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, made only one significant concession to public criticism, the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, opposition MPs and Tory rebels - the need for a Treasury subsidy to help British Coal compete against cheap imports.

Even this subsidy, estimated to be worth up to pounds 500m, is to be limited to half the five-year period called for by the select committee in its report into the closure plans. Most of the committee's other recommendations have been ignored.

British Coal estimated there will be 5,800 job losses. More than 8,000 miners have taken redundancy since the closure announcement in October.

The package looked sufficient to placate most Tory rebels. Michael Clark, the MP for Rochford, one of only six Conservatives to vote against the Government last October, told MPs Mr Heseltine had given the industry the opportunity of a long and viable future.

But Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, said the 'mix of short-term subsidy and long-term betrayal' would not save a single pit beyond two years.

Mr Heseltine said: 'I cannot guarantee that supplementary sales will be achieved by British Coal.' Sales above the core amounts agreed with the generators National Power and PowerGen are essential if the 13 pits named yesterday are to survive.

Mr Heseltine said the White Paper's central theme was competitive markets producing electricity from a diversity of sources at competitive prices. Within that framework, privatisation was 'the only way of enabling the coal industry to take full advantage of the opportunities the market offers'.

Norman Willis, TUC general secretary, said: 'For the Government to claim that privatisation will secure the industry's future is an insult to miners and their families. Unless action is taken to create a much larger and sustainable market for UK coal, by 1995 there will be only a mere handful of pits left.'

The extra contracts needed to secure reprieves for the 12 will, however, need to be signed within months, as Mr Heseltine made clear. 'The future of coaling in individual pits will depend on the extent to which intensive efforts over the coming months identify a market for their product or realistic prospect of sale to the private sector,' he told MPs.

The difficulty of that was underlined by Neil Clarke, British Coal's chairman. He said: 'The recent contract negotiations (for the core sales) amply demonstrate what a demanding task this will be.'

Mr Heseltine announced consent for three new gas-fired power stations - at Connah's Quay, Clwyd; Rydale, North Yorkshire and Aylesford, Kent.

View from pit, page 6

Leading article, page 21

New gas field, page 27