Government in crisis: Banks confident buy-outs are viable Yorkshire miners plan to buy out pits

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The Independent Online
MINERS in Yorkshire are preparing contingency takeover bids for their pits. Merchant banks, venture capital lenders and branches of the National Union of Mineworkers are confident pits deemed 'loss-making' by British Coal can be profitable run by consortia led by their workforces.

Workers at four pits in the Doncaster area - Bentley, Frickley, Markham Main and Rossington - have sought advice about how they could lease and operate their mines if the campaign to change Government energy policy fails.

Markham Main was this week scheduled for prompt closure by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. The remainder are included in the three- month moratorium which Mr Heseltine yesterday said had been called to allow other operators to bid for 21 pits comprising British Coal's surplus capacity.

Private sector mining companies already covet at least eight of the threatened collieries for short-term, low-investment extraction of easily worked seams. They are also understood to be keen to conclude contracts to provide marketing and management for pits with longer-term viability.

'Discussions have begun at pits in the Doncaster area. While there is a hope of saving them, the priority will remain the campaign to get the Government to change its mind,' Chris Mallender, a local government economic planner, said yesterday.

Mr Mallender was consultant to the company formed by miners made redundant last year when Thurcroft colliery, Rotherham, closed. Plans to lease the pit and produce at least 350,000 tonnes a year were backed by banks and the investment of more than pounds 400,000 from the miners' redundancy payments.

British Steel said it would buy Thurcroft coal, but the pit operating company, led by NUM branch officials, blamed 'British Coal sabotage' for the failure to agree a lease and operating licence after protracted quarrels over the pounds 20,000 cost of 'care and maintenance' of the mine.

Mr Mallender said Thurcroft's failure had taught the importance of early recruitment of professional managers, specialists in minerals law, and marketing consultants to secure customers.

'If it came to allowing miners to license pits, the full 90-day notice would be sufficient to get three-quarters of the way to setting up the deal. British Coal should be obliged to maintain mines while a miners' takeover is being evaluated. They would be subsequently reimbursed and handsomely rewarded through royalties on the coal.'

Many miners at Markham Main would prefer operation of their own pit to survival under British Coal management, which industry analysts say has been confrontational.

Arthur Scargill, NUM national president, this week maintained his opposition to union-led licensing agreements, in spite of many NUM members favouring a policy they believe would secure their future employment and increase earnings. 'It is an immense dilemma. A buy-out has to have the active support of the pit's NUM officials,' Mr Mallender said.