Threatened mines 'will be sold on open market'

PITS THREATENED with closure by this month's government White Paper would be put up for sale on the open market, Neil Clarke, the chairman of British Coal, said last night.

With some ministerial sources hinting that 18 of the 31 target pits could still be scheduled for shutdown, Malcolm Edwards, the former commercial director of British Coal, said many of the mines might well find a market and prove profitable.

Mr Edwards said he was interested in licensing Markham Main, Frickley, Rossington and Bentley, but it was unlikely that all of those mines would be shut, as the Government's consultant, J T Boyd, put all but Markham Main near the top of its list of potentially viable mines. Mr Edwards said he was convinced Markham Main's economics could be changed through worker participation, improved management and changes in working practices.

He said he had customers who would take the coal, but he was concerned that the fabric of the mine would deteriorate if it was allowed to stand idle for long.

Interviewed on the BBC 2's Money Programme, Mr Clarke said mines marked down for closure in the government White Paper would be made available by competitive tender. 'If they are going to be closed and people wish to operate them, as far as I am concerned, they will be offered for sale to those who wish to operate them,' he said.

But that would require high- speed privatisation legislation - something Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, is prepared to promise when he issues his White Paper.

That is expected around the time of the Budget, on 16 March, and will be followed by a Commons debate and a vote that will test whether ministers and government whips have accurately gauged backbench feeling.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet is expected to return to the fray on Thursday following publication of last week's Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee report. John Major and Mr Heseltine have not only to balance the left- right tensions of Cabinet colleagues, but also the demands of interests that are strictly beyond their control - like the privatised electricity industry, its statutory regulator and the courts.

The White Paper will then need to overcome the doubts of Tory backbench rebels. A BBC Television On the Record interview with three Tory MPs yesterday underlined the problems ahead.

Raymond Robertson, MP for Aberdeen South, said the gas interests of his constituents needed stronger representation against the coal lobby. John Marshall (Hendon South) said there was a danger of the Government returning to 'lame duck' bail-outs. And Keith Hampson, MP for Leeds North West and a member of the select committee, would not answer questions on his intentions if the White Paper fell short of the committee's recommendations.

But the difficulties did not appear to be confined to the government benches. On Friday, Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, said: 'Labour will build on the select committee report to demand an energy strategy that secures the future of the remaining pits under threat.'

Yesterday, on BBC Television's Breakfast with Frost, when asked whether he would keep all 31 pits open, Mr Cook said: 'If you kept the present volume of coal burn, then you would certainly keep nearly all those pits open.'