Parliament and Politics: Pit closures loom as EC cash remains untouched: Jonathan Foster finds gloom and frustration in Mansfield over the Government's inflexible attitude to investment

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The Independent Online
MANSFIELD already knows its place in a two-tier Europe. The town believes it has been stuck on the bottom shelf by an implacable government in London.

The north Nottinghamshire coal town, which is expecting 4,000 pit job losses to be announced this week, is sceptical of the wisdom of abandoning ample coal seams, and resentful that it could have begun spending the pounds 5m offered for economic regeneration by the European Commission in 1990.

Instead, the Treasury has blocked the grants, which can only be paid if there is corresponding investment by the relevant government. The decision has cost British coalfield communities pounds 121m, the lion's share of the 'Rechar' fund which is being gratefully invested in retraining and infrastructure elsewhere in EC mining areas.

Government documents leaked last week admit confidentially that 'nothing either major or new can be presented as an appropriate response' to the closure of 30 collieries, four of them in Mansfield.

The impact on a local economy already unable to provide employment for 16 per cent of its 75,000 workforce will be twice as bad as the gloomy forecast made earlier this year by the local council's consultants. If Bilsthorpe, Clipstone, Rufford and Shirebrook pits shut, 4,000 mining jobs will go.

Mansfield council anticipates unemployment of more than 22 per cent.

Tony Radford, a 23-year-old joiner, has been out of work for four months. 'I can't see anything for me yet, and shutting pits will make things worse.'

Howard Baggaley, managing director of a construction and engineering company employing 250 people said that the Government's block on EC funds, coupled with an 'implausible' energy policy, were alienating the business community.

David Holden, a Mansfield quantity surveyor, said that pit closures would be the terminal blow for many local companies. 'Any public investment in transport and new business premises would be welcome and not inflationary,' he said. 'Profit margins are non-existent.'

The council and its private sector partners in regeneration are appalled by the lack of public investment in an area anxious to improve poor transport links, and build business premises on land reclaimed from closed collieries. Government departments say restrictions on spending Brussels money is a fair consequence of setting strict limits on public spending.

Philip Asquith, Mansfield council's economic development counsellor, said yesterday: 'We are threatened by economic blight. Brussels works like greased lightning to approve a pot of money which was to go where it was needed in mining areas. It was meant to be new investment but, three-quarters of the way through the programme, we still cannot use the money because of deliberate obstruction by our own government.'

Small businesses are especially fearful of the impact locally of 30 pit closures expected nationally when British Coal announces its new, five-year contract to supply power stations.

In Shirebrook, traders say business has not recovered from the loss of 700 jobs three years ago when Warsop colliery shut.

Private mining companies, believed to be considering bids for pits would be welcomed as potential employers, according to Alan Gascoyne, leader of Shirebrook's 811 members of the National Union of Mineworkers.

'The problem has been in bad basic organisation. The lads could still achieve the performance to make profits,' Mr Gascoyne said. 'I thought British Coal would have wanted to keep as many holes in the ground as possible. But most men here tend to think that we've come to the position of condemned men waiting to hear the date of their execution.'

(Photograph omitted)

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