Forest miners fight for right to stay free

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Indy Politics
For 700 years the free miners of the Forest of Dean have mined coal without such bureaucratic niceties as planning permission, but now history is set to be overturned and their future is in the balance.

The fiercely independent miners will not see their birthright eroded without a fight. It was the skills of their forefathers in tunnelling under castle fortifications that brought them the right to mine without hindrance or encumbrance anywhere in the Forest of Dean, the area of land between the River Severn and Wales.

Gerald Haynes owns one of only two full-time mines remaining. He has been told he needs planning permission to continue his mine at Hayners Bailey, Cannop, where he travels 200 metres underground to hack out 400 tonnes of coal a year in a one-man operation.

Like all the free miners, Mr Haynes was born in the hundred of St Briavels and worked a year and a day underground in a mine. There are still a couple of hundred free miners surviving but few now mine.

He said: "It seems that the authorities want to get rid of the free miners. Now there are only a few left mining the impression is that we are an anomaly they want to see removed."

Mr Haynes said it had always been accepted that free miners did not need planning permission. But consent may prove difficult to obtain in what is an environmentally sensitive area.

"All I want is to be able to carry on as I have done for 20 years. Most of the coal goes into local homes."

Donald Johns, chairman of the Forest of Dean Free Miners' Association, said the whole issue was complicated, but he was critical of the new Coal Authority for insisting on planning permission.

He said: "At stake is an important tradition for this area. We are not just looking at today but for the next 50 years. We can't let our rights be eroded."

Paul Marland, the MP for Gloucestershire West, has backed the miners' fight. "We must ensure that the free miners and their ancient rights are protected and preserved."

Roy Piggott, the Forest's minerals estate manager - known as the deputy gaveller - said free miners needed planning permission. "You get this folklore, but the rule of law is the rule of law. There is a tendency to believe the free mining is the Oxford Dictionary sense of free, and it isn't."

He said there was still confusion over whether all free miners required a licence. A spokesman for the Coal Authority admitted the whole issue was complex and governed by arcane regulations.

The authority and the deputy gaveller said they were in talks to try and find a compromise.