Miners face stark choice as debts threaten co-operative: The independence of Monktonhall colliery near Edinburgh, where 130 pitmen invested pounds 10,000 each, is at risk. James Cusick reports

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The Independent Online
THE 'We're in the money' sign scrawled in chalk on the steel cage door of the main mine shaft is looking worn. Dreams of a workers' Utopia for Britain's only miners' co- operative labouring in a deep mine, are also fading.

Monktonhall Mineworkers Ltd, the co-operative of 130 miners who last year each put up pounds 10,000 to lease and reopen an abandoned British Coal colliery near Edinburgh, now have only a matter of weeks to make up their minds if they are prepared to relinquish control in return for badly-needed cash.

Like the evidence of hard work on miners' faces, the choice facing the Monktonhall consortium is black and white.

Trying to go it alone could mean the Bank of Scotland, currently holding an pounds 1.8m overdraft by the co-operative, ending everything.

The alternative currently being studied by all the consortium shareholders - an independent feasibility report from the Edinburgh-based merchant bank, Quayle Munro - says the mine would become viable if a pounds 3m cash injection was used to open up two further coal faces.

In basic terms, the report's bad news is that Monktonhall is going bust, if it is not bust already. The good news is that it is saveable. But at a price.

Jackie Aitchison, chairman of the Monktonhall Mineworkers Ltd, said: 'There is no timetable for what we have to do now. Everyone is studying the report. When we've done that, we'll decide what to do.'

Although the consortium appointed Quayle Munro to raise capital, there is reluctance among some miners to recognise this may be akin to sending out the executioner to sharpen his axe. Among others there is a fear that unless their appointed banker succeeds in convincing investment institutions that Monktonhall is a good bet, they may lose everything.

In return for the cash it is unlikely any syndicate of investors would allow the co-op to continue controlling how the mine is run. The 130 orginal founders would remain shareholders, but according to one miner 'the principle that here we were working for ourselves, would change. It just would change'.

The new regime, if cash was found and accepted, would mean Monktonhall effectively becoming a joint stock enterprise. Miners would still vote as shareholders, but would relinquish their control in the boardroom.

Already there are indications from senior members of the consortium that change is inevitable. 'The men have performed magnificently with the equipment they have been forced to use,' said Bert Brown, the managing director- designate of the mineworkers.

The 'We're in the money' graffitti was written when tens of thousands of Britain's miners faced the prospect of redundancy last year. Some wrote to Monktonhall to enquire about joining the workers' venture. The enquiries have all but dried up.

Eyes that once looked on in envy at the enterprise of miners moving into their own privatised world, are now watching to see whether they can survive.

(Photograph omitted)