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Private firms may buy closed pits

First Edition

COLLIERIES closed by British Coal are being sought by UK and multinational corporations who believe that joint-ownership operations with miners could produce big profits. The Hanson group's US mining company is among those interested in pits identified by British Coal as excess capacity.

British Coal is to be privatised next year. Its appeal to potential buyers, including Hanson, may be diminished if it cannot be sold as a monopoly supplier of deep-mined coal; but the energy minister responsible for the coal industry, Tim Eggar, is committed to offering pits earmarked for closure to miners.

In 1984, Mr Eggar was joint author of Reversing Clause 4, a Conservative pamphlet on de-nationalisation. Unwanted collieries should be offered to miners free, with a grant equivalent to redundancy payments, Mr Eggar said. If the workforce did not want to run a mine, it should be put out to open tender before closure.

Last week, talks between British Coal and a company formed by miners made redundant when Thurcroft colliery, South Yorkshire, ceased production in December, almost broke down. British Coal began preparatory shaft-stripping work which would seal Thurcroft pit irrevocably. Miners and their advisers said British Coal deliberately stymied negotiations; the corporation said the miners' company failed to keep to an agreed timetable.

A British Coal spokesman said: 'This pit should have been sealed by the end of March. We delayed closure on three occasions - in early July we made it plain we would accept no further delays. British Coal has been absolutely kosher on this. If there was an Olympic competition for bending over backwards, we would take gold, silver and bronze.'

The cost of maintaining Thurcroft is 20,000 a week. The miners' company has said it will pay half until a leasing agreement for the pit is completed, when the outstanding balance of maintenance costs will be paid retrospectively. British Coal wants costs met in full, week by week. Mr Eggar is believed to have urged British Coal to reach agreement with the company. He went on holiday last week on the day the corporation said it would begin shaft-stripping.

Documents seen by the Independent on Sunday reveal a conflict of interest within British Coal. Pledges to local politicians that the Thurcroft venture would be assisted are at odds with instructions to management to give the bare minimum of co-operation.

The miners' company, launched on pledges of 4,000 each from the redundancy payments of about 150 of its former workforce of 600, has offered 500,000 a year for a lease-licence deal which it forecasts would enable about 200 men to be employed. It predicts profits from sales to power generators and British Steel. New working practices and lower overheads would cut costs by 28.5 per cent.

Organisations believed to be interested in working pits closed by British Coal include the Hanson-owned Peabody, the largest producer of US coal; Budge Mining, the biggest British opencast contractor; and Ryan International, based in South Wales.