The Great Coal Stitch-Up: A year ago miners had everything to fight for. The Government outwitted them. Paul Routledge on the death of an industry

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The Independent Online
THE LAST rites of the coal industry were administered last week. In the clinical confines of a meeting room on the 10th floor of the Department of Trade and Industry, Energy Minister Tim Eggar told the mining unions that he would not order a moratorium on pit closures. Nor was he interested in a dialogue, unless it was to discuss privatisation.

But he did indicate that he was ready to extend the redundancy scheme for pitmen beyond its 31 December expiry date. The miners do not need any further hints. Seven months after the Government's much-trumpeted pounds 500m 'rescue plan' for the industry, not one extra cobble of coal has been sold. Nineteen pits have ceased working since last October's fateful announcement that the industry would be halved in size, and 20,000 men have quit. Now, a further round of pit closures is imminent.

The axe is likely to fall soonest and most heavily in Yorkshire, where three mines - Hatfield, Bentley and Frickley - around the coal capital of the county, Doncaster, are to be closed within weeks. The one-time wonder pit, Kellingley, is also under threat, and even parts of the new Selby coalfield may be mothballed. In Nottinghamshire, Bilsthorpe colliery, where three men died in a roof fall two months ago, looks certain to share the same fate, along with Calverton. In the Midlands, Silverdale and Littleton are thought to be doomed. In the North-east, either Ellington in Northumberland or Durham's last pit, Wearmouth, is slated for closure. Thousands of jobs will go.

It is hard to believe that exactly a year ago, 250,000 people went on the streets of London to protest about the Government's plans to allow 30,000 miners to be sacked in a billion-pound redundancy operation. Middle England rose in revolt, and 3,000 marchers in Cheltenham carried placards demanding 'Sack John Major, Not The Miners'.

A campaign to stop the closures brought Arthur Scargill into an unlikely coalition with Winston Churchill MP, whose grandfather had once set the troops on the South Wales colliers. The soul of the nation was touched by the plight of the mining communities, exemplified by Jean Nuttall, who wrote to the Guardian: 'Why, on the evening following the news of the closure of the mines, was I, a middle-class, somewhat more than middle-aged, housewife living in a nice house in leafy suburbia, crying into the washing-up?'

Twelve months on from the public outcry that forced a Cabinet rethink, British Coal has achieved most of the slimdown it wanted. Last October, the corporation had 50 operational mines, of which it wanted to close 31 by the end of the 1992 financial year - some within four days. Michael Heseltine's review, culminating in the 25 March White Paper, The Prospects for Coal, 'saved' 21 of the original hitlist with the promise of pounds 500m in subsidies - if the industry could find new markets for cheap coal. But nine of these reprieved collieries have since closed, and a further 10 are likely to be shut down in the next few months.

After privatisation next year, coal industry analysts predict that Britain will have only 12 deep mines. And in a shrinking market in electricity generation, deep- mined output could fall to only 20 million tonnes by the year 2005. The Selby super-pits and a handful of others could meet that demand.

It is a demeaning end for an industry that was once the mainstay of the nation's economy, employing 1.25 million men in more than a thousand collieries at its peak in 1920. As late as 1985, after the year-long pit strike, British Coal employed 221,000 miners and white-collar staff at 180 pits. By last October, that number had fallen to 54,000, and it now stands at just 30,100 working 30 pits. Over the past year, 20,400 miners have 'taken the money and run'.

At Frickley colliery, the most militant in Yorkshire, where the miners' motto is 'Second to None', because only four out of 2,000 broke the great coal strike in 1984-85, the agony of waiting is demoralising. Steve Tulley, the NUM branch secretary, says: 'There are so many rumours. Some of the men are disappointed that it was not announced that we were closing - simply because they want to know. They are just sick of the rumours and counter- rumours. Output has really dropped off this week.

'We feel it is only a matter of days. I don't know what they are waiting for. There is certainly not going to be any resistance.' Another lodge official, Chick Picken, agrees: 'They know we are the most militant pit, and if we fall, they all fall. There is no fight here. Very few people want the pit to keep open. If I went in and said the pit were closing tomorrow, three- quarters of the men would be queueing to sign up. It's as bad as that.'

The collapse of morale at Frickley is an index of the industry's fortunes. It is a 'big hitter', producing 1 million tonnes a year from three faces. In a good week, the colliery produces 20,000 tonnes of coal, with about 7,000 tonnes going to Ferrybridge power station nearby. About half as much again is sold as 'sweetener' coal to mix with output from elsewhere. But the rest - as much as 10,000 tonnes - goes straight into stock at the pithead. The coal mountain at Frickley is 250,000 tonnes high. Other collieries have even bigger stocks - Bilsthorpe has 400,000 tonnes on the ground.

These man-made Alps are cited as the obstacle to a viable future for the industry. British Coal has 15 million tonnes of coal on the ground. The electricity generators, National Power and PowerGen, between them have stocks in excess of 33 million tonnes, tying up capital of more than pounds 1.2bn by their own calculations.

National Power sources insist: 'We have stocks three times the level justified by our operational needs. And with a flat market for electricity, and increasing competition from nuclear and new gas- fired generating plants, we just cannot see any prospects of the need to buy more coal.' PowerGen concurs: 'We don't actually need any more coal.'

So what happened to the pounds 500m subsidy that was supposed to save the pits? Not a penny of the cash promisedin Mr Heseltine's White Paper has been spent. Nor, on present trends, will any of the subsidy be taken up. Neither of the big generating companies wants to buy British coal - even at discounted prices. 'No matter how big the subsidy you offer, they don't want it,' said an industry insider. 'They have no use for it.'

The privatised generators want to run down their stocks to somewhere around one-third of their present size. The DTI has only had two applications from electricity generators anxious to get their hands on the money. They are small, non-mainstream operators. Even if their bids succeed (they are still 'under consideration'), they will not have any serious impact.

Far from presiding over a 'level playing field', the Government has stood idly by while the energy market has become yet more distorted against coal. Nuclear power has taken an increased share of the market. The 'dash for gas' has accelerated, with DTI approval, with gas displacing coal at a faster rate than expected. Mr Eggar's department has recently approved three new applications to build gas-fired power stations in Avon, Humberside and Oxfordshire. He has also given the go-ahead for two power stations to switch to burning orimulsion, an oil-based bitumen fuel imported from Venezuela.

Small wonder, then, that the Victoria Street meeting between Mr Eggar and the TUC Energy Committee four days ago was a rather acerbic affair, with union leaders reminding the minister from time to time that this was a serious business involving the lives of whole communities. Roger Lyons, leader of the white-collar MSF and chairman of the union side, was taken aback by the minister's attitude. 'He was extremely complacent, and showed a nasty little temper,' Mr Lyons said. 'I got the impression he is a semi- detached minister. He simply wants to privatise the industry and get it off his desk.'

Perhaps only a minister with Mr Eggar's legendary thick skin could have scheduled a meeting on the future of the coal industry on the first anniversary of his chief's announcement of the closure of more than half the nation's collieries. The TUC had been asking for talks since Labour sponsored a Commons debate on the coal crisis last June but, said aides, 'this was the only date that could be fixed'. Even so, Arthur Scargill of the NUM, could not make it, nor did his union send anybody else.

The rival Union of Democratic Mineworkers had a separate meeting with the minister, and came away just as infuriated. Neil Greatrex, UDM president, gave Mr Eggar a piece of his mind: 'I told him that despite all the promises in the White Paper, they haven't done a bloody thing or lifted a finger to help - and it is time they did. You never get a clear-cut answer or an offer of assistance unless you are talking about privatisation. It is a complete sham. The White Paper was a ploy that worked successfully to get the President of the Board of Trade off the hook. None of their promises has been kept.'

The unions' assessement of the Government's position may be regarded as partisan. But it is widely shared. Andrew Cox, editor of UK Coal Review, argues: 'Heseltine's White Paper failed because, by the time it came out, it was already too late. Things had gone too far. The Government had already decided to go over to gas in a big way.

'Once that had been agreed with the generators it was a done deal. It has been government policy for a long time to move away from coal, ever since the miners' strike.

'The Government never forgave the NUM for what happened in 1974 (the coal strike that precipitated the downfall of the Heath government). They didn't forgive the NUM and the strike in 1984 was really inevitable. They weren't going to let it happen again.'

In fact, the fine print of Mr Heseltine's Great Stitch-Up indicates clearly that the Governmentdid not expect to compel change favourable to coal. The White Paper promised 'urgent consulta tions' with the generators about sustaining high, strategic stocks. But ministers would not 'force companies to buy goods that they did not want to buy, for the benefit of another commercial entity'.

Restricting coal imports was also out of the question - though they have fallen sharply because of the recession. Imports are running at 3.3 million tonnes for the first half of this year, less than half the figure in 1992. However, British Coal is importing house coal from Eastern Europe after closing down too many domestic fuel collieries.

Ministers also continued to approve plans for gas-fired power stations, and rejected the idea of reining back on electricity imported from France via the cross- Channel interconnector. The one non-cost promise they did make, to set up an Energy Advisory Panel that would produce an annual report on energy trends, has not been fulfilled. Mr Eggar explained lamely to the unions that he wants to press ahead, but seven months later 'we are still having difficulty finding a chairman'.

Next month, theQueen's Speech will give details of what Cecil Parkinson once described as 'the ultimate privatisation' - coal. The industry will be broken up into five regional packages and sold to the highest bidder. Industry observers have likened it to a car- boot sale. Mr Lyons says the rundown of collieries shows that the Government has no interest in a market for British coal: 'It is a tragic loss of a national resource, and it stems from a tragic double-cross in the White Paper.' A great many Britons, not just miners, will say Amen to that.

(Photograph omitted)