Sales failure means 10 more pits to close: Tory MPs talk of disgust and betrayal over gloomy outlook for coal

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The Independent Online
THE CLOSURE of at least 10 more mines appeared inevitable yesterday after British Coal's failure to secure extra sales. The move would fulfil the announcement that 31 pits would shut, which sparked a political crisis exactly a year ago today, and leave the company with 19 operating deep mines.

Neil Clarke, British Coal's chairman, said he was 'pessimistic' about the future of almost a dozen pits which were supposedly reprieved earlier this year, following the row over the 31 planned closures and the Government's White Paper on the future of the industry.

His comments provoked a fresh wave of criticism from Labour and the Liberal Democrats and from rebel Tory MPs, who spoke of sadness, disgust and betrayal.

Since October 1992, 20,400 miners - more than half the total - have already left the industry. A further 2,100 non-mining staff jobs have gone and more are expected to be cut. British Coal now employs 30,100 people in all, compared with 221,000 in 1984/85.

Mr Clarke said: 'The position has not improved. I cannot hold out forced optimism for the survival of those pits.'

There is now growing speculation that British Coal will also be forced to close some of its core 19 pits - those supposedly safe - because of the increased use of nuclear power and natural gas in electricity generation.

British Coal is relying on the generators, National Power and PowerGen, to take extra coal. However, they have more than 30 million tons of stockpiled coal which they wish to run down. Sources in both generators say that it is unlikely they will buy extra coal in the current financial year.

A source at British Coal said: 'They way things are we will end up announcing more pit closures almost on the anniversary of the original statement.'

The company faces a further crisis next spring when sales under existing contracts with National Power and PowerGen drop to 30 million tons a year from 40 million tons at present.

Robin Cook, Labour's industry spokesman, said: 'British Coal could meet that from half its existing pits. That means that the other half are faced with closure. And the root problem here is the Government has done nothing in the past year to tackle the rigged market that is squeezing coal out.'

Nicholas Winterton, Conservative MP for Macclesfield, who voted against the White Paper this spring, and Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, who abstained, both recalled an assurance given by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, that he would examine the 'unlevel playing field' that favoured gas and nuclear power.

'The Government have not lifted a finger to carve out a wider market for coal,' said Mr Churchill, who led the 30-strong coal group of Conservative MPs.

Elizabeth Peacock, MP for Batley and Spen, who also defied the whip, said British Coal seemed 'hell-bent on slimming the industry down to nothing' long before privatisation.

Another rebel, Richard Alexander, the MP for Newark, said the best hope now was early privatisation, taking pits out of the hands of civil servants, before the whole industry was destroyed.

(Photograph omitted)