‘I wouldn’t want my son to have to go underground like I had to’: The ex-mining families seeking a greener future

Plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria have reignited conversations about the need for economic development in the UK’s former mining strongholds. Daisy Dunne speaks to ex-miners and their families who would favour green opportunities over new coal

Sunday 14 February 2021 10:24 GMT
Stock piles of coking coal, used in steel production, at a steel-making plant
Stock piles of coking coal, used in steel production, at a steel-making plant (Getty)
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“My dad was a miner, my grandad was a miner and my great grandad was a miner, so it was in the blood,” says Gavin Scollen, a 58-year-old father-of-three from Seaham, County Durham.

The northeastern harbour town was once a hub for coal mining. “Everything was around coal,” Mr Scollen tells The Independent. “When I was growing up, I think the population was about 20,000 and we had three deep coal mines in that one small town.”

Mr Scollen left school at 16 and started working for the Tempest Colliery, one of Durham’s last deep coal mines. He worked there for almost 15 years and took part in the miners’ strike in the mid-Eighties. “I was out just about every day picketing and going on various marches,” he says. “I stayed working underground until the Tories closed down the mines and I was made redundant at 30.”

A controversial proposal for a new deep coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria has reignited conversations about the need for economic development in the UK’s former mining strongholds in recent weeks. The proposed mine would produce coking coal for use in steel production. If approved, it would be the UK’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years.

“The thought of reopening deep mines seems crazy to me to be honest,” says Mr Scollen, who now works as a senior manager in the property sector.

“First and foremost based on the climate. But secondly – although I’ve got really fond memories of mining – there’s a litany of health effects around where I live. I’m generally fit and healthy, but it’s had an impact on me too. I would never want my eldest son to work underground like I had to at 16.

“We need to build a country where we don’t have to work in environments like that as far as I can see.”

Gavin Scollen pictured with his mother following a visit to Tempest Colliery in Seaham, County Durham in the 1990s
Gavin Scollen pictured with his mother following a visit to Tempest Colliery in Seaham, County Durham in the 1990s (Supplied)

Plans for the mine have been condemned by scientists since they were first proposed in 2019 over their incompatibility with the UK’s climate goals. A report released by the think tank Green Alliance in 2020 estimated that the mine would produce 8.4 million tonnes of CO2 per year – the equivalent of the emissions of more than one million homes.

“It will add millions of tonnes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere and that is directly contravening the Paris Agreement,” Prof Rebecca Willis, an environmental scientist at Lancaster University who co-authored the Green Alliance report, tells The Independent.

Those in favour of the mine have argued that it would provide an environmental benefit by saving on the need to import coking coal for use in steel production. But only a small fraction of the coal mined in Cumbria would be used in the UK. Around 85 per cent of it would be exported for use in Europe, according to the plans.

Cumbria County Council has approved the mine on three separate occasions. But earlier this week, it announced that it would reassess the proposal in light of “new information” from the UK’s climate advisers. The government has faced intense criticism in recent weeks for not intervening in the council’s decision-making to date.

Proponents of the mine say it would create 500 new jobs in an area with high levels of unemployment – and some media reports have framed the controversy surrounding the mine as an issue of “saving the planet versus providing jobs for local people”. But Mr Scollen disagrees with this framing.

“I think it’s a false dichotomy to be honest,” he says. “Obviously jobs are vitally important. Coming from a working-class mining community and everything that we’ve gone through, we understand that.

“But we need to be building jobs around green energy and sustainable futures, not going back to sending people down coal mines. Is that really the way we want to move forward as a country?”

His sister, Jackie, a community worker living in northwest Durham, agrees. “When our communities fought in the strikes, we weren’t fighting for coal – we were fighting for work,” she says. “Coal hasn’t done anybody any favours over the generations – apart from the wealthy.”

“Jobs are really important for people’s health and their wellbeing and their dignity,” she adds. “But we’ve got a climate and ecological crisis that we’re going to have to face up with. So I think we need to invest in jobs that will help us reach net zero.”

In December, a landmark report from the UK’s climate advisers found that, if the right policies were put in place, the journey to net zero could create up to 200,000 new jobs across the UK. New positions would come from the need to retrofit the UK’s housing and transform its transport infrastructure, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said.

“The transition to zero carbon is a huge industrial transformation and involves some really good high-quality jobs,” says Prof Willis.

“We owe it to communities who have borne the brunt of deindustrialisation to make sure that they are at the forefront of the opportunities provided by the transition to zero carbon.

“The danger with coal mining is they could get stuck in an industry that’s on its way out.”

Artist’s impression of the new Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven
Artist’s impression of the new Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven (West Cumbria Mining)

The Whitehaven mine would stop producing coal in 2049, according to West Cumbria Mining, the firm behind the project. But in its net-zero report, the CCC said there can be no use of coking coal in steel beyond 2035 without “carbon capture technology”, an innovation that is still not available at scale – raising questions over the permanency of the jobs offered by the scheme in Whitehaven.

Today, around a third of global steel is produced without coking coal and is instead made either through scrap recycling or gas-based techniques, according to Greenpeace. The government has plans to launch a clean steel fund to “encourage” industry to find new ways of producing steel without fossil fuels.

Phil Horrell, 63, a retired civil servant who grew up in the Rhymney Valley, a former coal mining hub in south Wales, agreed that the opening of a new coal mine would be the wrong step for the UK.

“My father was a miner for a short time and my grandfather also worked in the pits,” he tells The Independent.

“I don’t think you’d find many ex-miners – other than the camaraderie that they had – that would mourn the passing of the pits.

“Obviously, it was employment, but it wasn’t the job that the father wanted you to go into, put it that way. I still know some ex-miners and their health is so bad – the emphysema and the coughs and the wheezing. So we don’t mourn it.

“My gut feeling is I wouldn’t like to see it open.”

Not all ex-miners share the view. Chris Kitchen, who was a coal miner for 25 years and is now the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, tells The Independent that he is in favour of the scheme going forward and that many other ex-miners would be too. He adds that he is not convinced that new jobs in greener industries will materialise.

Much more work is required to ensure that jobs in the transition to net zero reach the areas that need them most, says Prof Willis.

“I think the government hasn’t made it anywhere near clear enough that there will be opportunities from the zero-carbon industrial strategy,” she says.

“They haven’t done nearly enough to work with local authorities to promote these opportunities.

“What you find is that areas like west Cumbria are not getting the same opportunities as big cities at the moment and they are the areas that we really need to focus on to make sure that their future is secure.”

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