Britain’s last coal miners dig deep as carbon targets and spending cuts bite

With coal-fired power stations scheduled for closure, can the remaining pits – and their camaraderie – survive?

A miner’s shift: ‘near the face it’s hot – up to 38C’

Jack Saunders is a miner. At 22, he is one of the youngest in the country. Small, dark and wiry, he looks even younger than his age but has worked at Hatfield colliery, near Doncaster, for four years and loves it.

Mining is in the blood, he says. “My uncles, my dad, my grandad, my great-grandad have all done it,” he says. “I  never thought I’d get an opportunity to go underground because the pit was shut when I was 16, but it opened back up when I was 18. It’s something that doesn’t happen for young lads these days. All my mates in the village are always asking me questions, but you can’t explain it because it’s a totally different world.”

The average age of the remaining 3,000 or so deep miners is around 50. For them, spending much of life underground is routine.

But Jack is young enough and his experience fresh enough to summon up the strangeness of the occupation. It was only Jack who mentioned the lack of lavatories at the coalface: you had to dig a hole. Digging really is a way of life.

Until the accidents in September at the Gleision pit, in south Wales, and the Kellingley mine, in Yorkshire, which left five men dead, people might have assumed we no longer mined coal in the UK; that an industry which once employed a million men had ceased some time after Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill waged their titanic struggle in 1984-85.

But we do still have an industry, albeit a small one producing 19m tonnes of coal annually, about a third of the UK’s consumption. Last winter, almost half our electricity was generated by coal.

The deaths of the five miners produced a remarkable outpouring of feeling, especially in south Wales.

Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, historian of Welsh mining and son of the former general secretary of the NUM in Wales, says that despite its precipitous decline the industry has not lost its cultural power. “We’ve always said that Wales was built on coal, and there is a special emotional relationship even today when there are so few miners left. The valley communities still see themselves as mining communities and respond accordingly.”

The watershed for mining was the strike of 1984-85. When it began there were 160,000 miners. The defeat for the NUM after a bitter year-long battle ensured the industry would be privatised and much reduced, as the newly privatised electricity industry was freed to buy coal from foreign suppliers.

Many pits closed in the 80s and 90s, but a few staggered on, and energy price rises in the past couple of years have prompted a modest revival. The coal industry has folded across much of western Europe but in the UK it has managed to survive, “clinging on by its fingertips”, as Margaret Faull, director of the National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield, puts it.

Chris Kitchen, the successor to Arthur Scargill, the NUM general secretary of the mid-80s strike, says: “We knew what we were fighting for. We knew it was a slippery slope, that they’d sell the industry off. I couldn’t see anything wrong with a nationalised energy industry that supported a national coal industry and vice versa. We’ve got the coal, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the manpower to mine the coal profitably and, compared to the rest of the world, very safely. That would have given the … stability of not relying on imports.”

Kitchen’s style differs from Scargill’s, being more pragmatic. “Most people don’t know who I am and that’s not a bad thing. Scargill did what he did in his era because he reacted to the conditions of the time. My conditions are a lot different. I’m more into preserving what we’ve got … trying to improve things.

“I’m not out to change the world and neither is the NUM – which was the ethos at that time. We were a big, powerful, union and could dictate policy. Times have changed, but it does sadden me that short-termism and people looking for profits are selling us all down the river.”

Kitchen’s constant refrain is that the coal industry should be nurtured because the UK’s coal stocks are abundant and the alternative, in the medium term at least, is dependence on foreign gas. He says mining provides well-paid jobs – key coalface workers can earn £70,000-plus a year in pits with good bonus schemes – and keeps communities alive. He contrasts the social stability that characterised mining areas with the drug and gang culture that came with de-industrialisation.

Mining is now at another watershed. The coal-fired power stations, the industry’s main market, are due to start closing in the middle of this decade in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond 2020 things will depend on exploiting carbon capture and storage to produce “clean coal”. The idea is to pump pollutants under the seabed rather than into the atmosphere, but progress on developing the technology has so far been glacial.

The government spooked the industry in October when it scrapped a carbon capture project at the Longannet power station in Fife, blaming technical problems. And Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, added fuel to the flames when he said recently that £1bn set aside for carbon capture might be diverted to more immediate infrastructure projects to boost the economy.

“There are too many imponderables at the moment and against that background people won’t invest,” says David Brewer, director general of the Confederation of UK Coal Producers. “The Department of Energy and Climate Change has been, at best, lukewarm towards the coal industry. They set themselves carbon targets, and the easiest way to meet them is to switch from coal to gas.”

DECC denies it is lukewarm towards mining, and insists it remains committed to carbon capture. “We took the right and responsible decision on Longannet,” says a spokesman, “but are clear that £1bn remains available to support future projects. There are a number of promising projects in the UK, and we will be launching a new, accelerated, selection process as soon as possible. The money will be made available when the new projects need it, which is likely to be over a number of years.”

The government points to the launch of a “flagship test programme” at the Ferrybridge coal-fired power station in Yorkshire. “This project, part of a £125m government-led research and development programme, is the first operating carbon-capture plant attached to a power station at this scale in the UK,” says the DECC spokesman.

Jonson Cox, who last year became chairman of UK Coal – Britain’s largest domestic producer and owner of four of the remaining six deep mines – sees a future for the industry into the early 2020s, but is not prepared to offer predictions beyond that.

“Here is a legacy industry with really skilled jobs, with an iconic role as an industry and an iconic role in the communities it serves,” Cox says. “It has the potential to find other, cleaner, ways of exploiting the energy value, but  it will be seven to 10 years before we really know whether that can be exploited.”

His job, he believes, is turning the company around, sustaining it for the next decade, and making sure the “mining skill base” is still there 10 years from now if the development of clean coal encourages a new generation of coal-fired power stations.

UK Coal made big losses in 2008-10, largely because of spiralling labour costs, but it has just recorded a small half-yearly profit, and Cox believes the corner has been turned. “We’ve got some momentum back into the company, and we’ve got a recovery plan. It can work, and rising prices help.”

The company has, however, warned the workforce at its largest pit, Daw Mill, in Warwickshire, that it is reviewing operations there. Some see this as a negotiating tactic in the battle to drive down labour costs.

The government claims that it is committed to the long-term future of coal, yet the post-privatisation fragmentation of the industry, started under the Conservatives and continued under Labour, is striking. As a nationalised industry, everything was centrally planned; productive mines subsidised less productive ones, miners felt they had “jobs for life” (they talk of “signing up” at 17, as if they were joining the army), there was a highly structured training programme and career progression, and great emphasis was placed on research. British Coal was working on clean coal technology in the 1980s.

Since privatisation it has been every mine for itself, with many going to the wall and frequent changes of ownership. There has been no master plan and little continuity in an industry where long investment cycles mean planning is  everything. There has also been fragmentation in union representation. The 1984-85 strike led to the formation of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which opposed Scargill. The division has never been healed, and the few remaining miners are more or less evenly split between the two unions. In an age of amalgamation and super-unions, these two minnows carry on with tiny memberships and a sense of mutual loathing.

Cox is probably right to concentrate on the next decade. The longer-term future for mining is murky, despite DECC’s warm words. More than half of the UK’s coal now comes from open-cast mining (more akin to quarrying), and the trend away from high-investment deep mining is likely to continue.

Wayne Thomas, secretary of the South Wales NUM, doubts whether another shaft will ever be sunk in the UK. He says there could just be open-cast, or drift mining, where tunnels are driven into hillsides.

For the moment, the men who work in deep mining are grateful for what they have and dust, and the heat and humidity. They are working a mile underground, at coalfaces up to five miles from the bottom of the pit shaft. It can take an hour and a half to reach the face from the top of the shaft. Yet still they insist it is a job like no other and enthuse about the craic and camaraderie. “We’ve got a sense of humour nobody else has got,” says Jack’s father, Howard Saunders, a miner for almost 40 years, “very dry, funny … you wouldn’t get away with it anywhere else. If you worked in a factory and said the sort of things we say, you’d be up the road.”

They are fond of practical jokes. One trick was to put a mouse in a colleague’s pocket or food box. That stopped after the 1984-85 strike.

All the mice – once plentiful in the mines because of the food brought down by the miners – had starved. Mrs Thatcher, mouse-killer!

They have a pithy language of their own, too. Jack talks about spending his first month as a miner getting his “pit feet”, adjusting to life underground. But the expression that truly encapsulates mining is used by Bob Fitzpatrick, a miner for almost 30 years, with the scars on his legs to prove it. “When Yorkshire puts her foot down,” he says, “it comes and that’s it. You can’t help it.”

“When Yorkshire puts her foot down” – a poetic way of capturing the horror of a mine collapse. The expression is an ancient one; Howard Saunders says his grandfather liked to use it.

It seems that miners through the ages have had a fatalistic streak. Except when it comes to the future of the industry. Against all the odds they refuse to let mining die.

Deadly month

Two accidents this year were a reminder that the UK still has a mining industry – and that it can still be desperately dangerous work. On 15 September seven men were working at the tiny Gleision colliery near Swansea, which had nine full-time staff. They had been using explosives to extract coal 90 metres below the surface, when a blast triggered a flood. A 30-hour rescue operation followed in a fruitless effort to save Charles Breslin, Phillip Hill, Garry Jenkins and David Powell.

The mine manager, Malcolm Fyfield, was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. He was bailed until the end of January. He has not been charged, and inquiries continue.

A fortnight after the Gleision deaths Gerry Gibson, 49, died at the UK Coal-owned Kellingley mine in North Yorkshire when a roof gave way near the coalface. Another man was injured. A Health and Safety Executive investigation could take up to six months.

UK Coal’s chairman, Jonson Cox, accepts the increase in deaths must be reversed. “Safety performance has declined, and we had already introduced a massive safety programme,” he said, adding that Gibson’s death showed it had to be implemented “faster and with more intensity”. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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