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After coal - a future for Britain's mining communities?

THE issue of the various problems caused by coal mine closures erupted onto the political agenda in Britain in October 1992. British Coal (BC), the state-owned coal producer, announced plans to close or mothball 31 of its 50 deep mines; it would mean the redundancy of 30,000 employees at a stroke. There was a public outcry. For the first time in years, it was clear that public sympathy was overwhelmingly with the mining communities. The government, which had supported BC's closure plans, was forced into a retreat. It announced it would review the decision. It also announced extra help for economic regeneration in the coalfield areas. But what are the obstacles such measures will have to overcome? Is there a chance of success? In sum, after coal, is there a future for Britain's beleaguered mining communities?

Coal communities have already undergone massive deindustrialisation. This renders more difficult the problems facing economic regeneration efforts, because they are taking place in localities where industrial and consumer confidence has been badly shaken, and where the morale of the workforce has taken a beating. At the end of the 1983 financial year, the company now called BC had 191 deep mines, and employed 207,600. By July 1992, there were only 50 deep mines being operated by BC, employing a few over 58,000. Following the closure announcement of October 1992 it looked as though perhaps as few as ten of these had long term futures. Already in many parts of the country, deep mining has ceased. South Wales, an area synonymous with coal, had 22 deep mines in 1982. Ten years later, only three survived, with two of those announced for closure in October 1992.

Deindustrialisation on this scale raises a series of both political and economic questions for governments. What can governments do that will have a chance of successfully reindustrialising, or regenerating in some other way, the former coalfield localities? More politically, what should governments do? This becomes a political choice because there are a variety of potential policy responses involving greater or lesser amounts of public spending and bringing forth different political outcomes. For example, a decision to encourage, or even attempt to coerce, some already existing large scale employer--say a car manufacturer--to a former coalfield locality, in a form of regional policy more common in the 1960s and 1970s, would involve the government in allocating huge amounts of tax payers' money in financial inducements to the firm and, more importantly, perhaps, would recreate in modified form the already existing industrial culture. In other words, 'ordinary' workers would be selling their labour, en masse, to a large scale, industrial employer. By contrast, an economic regeneration ethos which adopted as its central focus the encouragement of people to set up their own small businesses might, if successful, have totally different public expenditure and political impacts. In public expenditure terms, encouraging small business creation and/or 'entrepreneurship' would be quite inexpensive: it might involve a few business-advice seminars; at the most it might mean organising the building of small-scale workshops from which people might do business. Both relatively cheap. Politically, were such a strategy successful the outcome could be a change in industrial culture. Out would be the nationalised industry: a large scale, unionised, monopoly, to whom one sells one's labour; in comes self-employment, or employment in small, privately-owned, non-unionised companies. Not all small business owners vote Conservative. But there is at least a chance that if people are transformed from workers selling their labour to a large company, into the 'owner' of a small business, they might be less likely to vote Labour. This in itself might be sufficient incentive to pursue one particular kind of regeneration policy as opposed to another.

A question that has to be raised is why should anybody be specifically interested in the prospects for the regeneration of former coalfields? After all, other industries have declined in recent times and the communities that relied upon them have had to face economic change. Steel, shipbuilding, car manufacturing and other engineering plants closed very rapidly during the 1980s, for example.

The answer is to argue that there are factors which distinguish deindustrialisation in coal communities from deindustrialisation elsewhere, and which make economic regeneration efforts that much more difficult to bring to a successful outcome in coalfields and former coalfields.

Firstly, although the British coal industry has been in continuous decline in terms of number of collieries and labour force levels since nationalisation in 1947, albeit with a period of stabilisation and occasional slight upturn in the 1970s, contraction in the 1980s and early 1990s was particularly rapid. This resulted in a rapid change in the relative economic position of localities associated, or formerly associated, with the coal industry. One study noted, for example, that of the most deprived districts in the United Kingdom in 1983, no mining district featured among them. By 1988, there were five districts associated with coal mining in the top 13.(1)

Secondly, it is evident and obvious that certain localities traditionally associated with the coal industry in Britain -- often referred to as 'pit villages' -- were one-industry economies. The 'pit village' developed solely because the coal industry had developed. Indeed, private sector coal mine owners would organise the building of company-owned housing near the pit head in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Company villages were created, for example, in the 1920s in Blidworth, Bilsthorpe, Clipstone, Welbeck, Edwinstowe, Ollerton and Harworth in Nottinghamshire.

In such circumstances, were the pit closed or partially closed, the local economy would have little else to offer the local population in the way of jobs and economic activity. This was not the case in all coalfield localities -- there were exceptions, particularly in the Lancashire and Nottinghamshire coalfields -- but the point holds true in sufficient localities for it to be significant.

Essentially, then, it can be argued that many coalfields in former coalfield localities have had poorly developed economic structures. The Coalfield Communities Campaign, a local authority-based pressure group campaigning for greater regeneration efforts in coalfields and former coal fields, argued that:

'The National Coal Board (NCB) does not appear to generate economic activity amongst suppliers to the same extent as most manufacturing industries.'

Moreover, they argued that the small business sector indigenous to coalfields was often underdeveloped:

'In the West Yorkshire coalfield area, for example, in 1981 small firms accounted for only 1 in 20 persons employed compared with 1 in 11 for the country as a whole.'

The one industry nature of many localities associated with coal presented problems for any form of economic regeneration strategy. It meant that skills appropriate to other industries and businesses may not have developed or been encouraged. If appropriate skills in the labour market do not exist, inward investment from industries/businesses alternative to coal may not happen, as companies would be unsure that their labour requirements would be met. Similarly, spontaneous economic regeneration -- where it takes place without government intervention -- is less likely in these circumstances, as people were not learning skills in the established dominant industry which could then be transferred into, say, a new entrepreneurial small business which might contribute to a rejuvenation of the local economy. The skills associated with coal mining are, rather, usually specific to the coal mining industry.

To appreciate the above point fully, it has to be acknowledged just how old an industry coal actually is. In some communities it has provided the majority of employment for over a hundred years. To pick a by no means untypical example, take the 11,000 population 'free standing' pit town of South Kirkby in West Yorkshire, between Barnsley and Wakefield. The shaft of South Kirkby pit was sunk in 1880. In 1984, over 50 per cent of the jobs in the South Kirkby locality were in coal mining. South Kirkby pit was closed in March 1988 on the grounds that it was 'uneconomic'. Such a dominance of one industry over time and in terms of concentration of employment brought forth a particular form of social, political and community culture. Part of it was inter-generational employment and skills transference: the son followed the father down the pit. Hence the miners' leader Arthur Scargill's message during the 1984/85 coal industry dispute over pit closures: don't take redundancy and sell your job, it's not yours to sell. The often hazardous working conditions, the often terrible accidents and, even after nationalisation, the uncertainty surrounding job security, also contributed to the political and social culture. It was a culture which inspired some to political activity, and nearly all to hold a strong sense of community: based upon the miners' welfare club; loyalty to the union; the idea of the miner 'providing' for his family. Not voting Labour, for example, was seen at best as eccentric; at worst as downright disloyalty. For obvious political reasons, this was not a culture which would find much favour with the Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s where, at the risk of simplification, the ethos encouraged was much more strongly based on individualism. Nor was it a culture which might be best placed to produce economic revival in the political context of the 1980s and 1990s. In that period the government believed there was a need to reduce trade union power in order to provide conditions suitable for economic modernisation. Similarly, the government believed economic advancement would best be achieved by emphasising individualist progress over and above community progress.

With the economic base of this distinctive culture removed, the problem facing governmental authorities at more than one level -- local, national, European -- was how to bring about an economic recovery in the areas concerned. For ideological reasons, different levels of government might advocate and practice different responses: a Labour local authority was likely to be more inclined to be interventionist in relation to the local economy than was a free market central government. The Commission of the European Community exhibited a far more interventionist stance in relation to the economic regeneration of deindustrialised local economies than did the British central government in recent years. At least, that is, until October 1992.

There are a variety of options available to governmental authorities seeking to regenerate former coalfield localities. What has to be emphasised is that the decision on which option to pursue is fundamentally a political decision. It would depend upon the priority accorded to coalfield localities. In that sense, coalfield communities' claims for cash from the government were in direct competition with requests for money from government from other groups, individuals and sectors within society: from business tycoons involved in collapsing property investment, as was exemplified by Canary Wharf in London, through to annually recurring demands on the national budget from sectors such as the National Health Service.

The first option for a government authority, then, in response to deindustrialisation would be simply to do nothing. Adopting a free market position, advocates of this approach would argue that these deindustrialised local economies would be capable of sorting out their own problems. Government intervention in any way would simply exacerbate difficulties. In practice, the free marketeers would argue, given the excess of supply of workers over demand for them, wages would fall in these localities. Rational companies would see that they could get cheap labour and move into these former coalfield localities and employment would be generated. Alternatively, rational individuals in these localities would simply move out and look for jobs elsewhere. There are several problems with this theory, however. Firstly, companies might not locate in these coalfield areas even if labour is cheap, for the reasons noted above, or because of the relative isolation of coalfield communities. Road infrastructure, for example, was not good in some coalfield areas because so much coal had been traditionally moved by rail. Secondly, only the young, fit mobile and skilled individuals would be capable of moving. The unskilled, unfit, older (and this does not mean old: some companies are drawing a line at employing people over 35) would be left behind. In a similar way to the inner cities in Britain from the 1960s onwards, factors such as these would lead to a further economic, environmental and social decline in the former coalfields.

A second potential option would be a robust intervention by central government along the lines of regional policy pursued by governments -- Conservative as well as Labour -- in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. There were two strands to such a policy. Firstly, companies were stopped, through a form of planning controls, from expanding in areas that were relatively buoyant economically such as the South East of England or the West Midlands. Secondly, companies were offered financial inducements by government to establish themselves in areas of high unemployment. There is more than one problem with this kind of policy response, however. To start with, with its advocacy of industrial interventionism by central government, it would not have found ideological support amongst the Conservative governments of the 1980s or 1990s. Policy implementation would also have been a problem: it is a policy that might have a chance of success only when there is a buoyant, growing economy. Companies need to be in the process of expansion: this was clearly not the case in the early 1990s or for much of the 1980s. Indeed the economic times have changed so much in the last 30 years that when, in 1960, the British Motor Corporation announced on the same day not one, but three new factories in areas of high unemployment -- in Scotland, South Wales and Merseyside -- for The Times, not only did this not make front page news, it did not merit any better than just another news item on page 8!(2).

A third option available to a government seeking to regenerate former coalfields would be investment in the modernisation of infrastructure. This could take two forms: capital projects, such as upgrading or building new roads, bridges, reclaiming derelict land and converting to business, leisure or housing use; or investment in human capital through training. The latter becomes especially important if there is a limited skills base in an area, as is the case in many mining and former mining communities.

In practice, the government, or agencies working on its behalf, have opted in the 1980s and early 1990s for some limited form of the infrastructure investment noted above coupled with a series of largely limited-life, territorially specific, regeneration schemes carried out by a variety of public sector, or quasi-public sector, agencies.

One example was an enterprise zone -- an industrial estate where firms are granted indirect subsidies through not having to pay business rates to the local authority -- established in South Kirkby between 1981 and 1991. The government announced in October 1992 that it would establish more of these enterprise zones in localities formerly associated with coal mining. Judging by the enterprise zone at South Kirkby, however, it has to be said that success has been very modest, even putting the best light on it.(3) Another example was a civil servant-staffed Task Force in Doncaster in the South Yorkshire coalfield between 1987 and 1990. British Coal Enterprise, created in October 1984 as the job creation arm of British Coal itself, has also been active across the coalfields since the mid-1980s. Another example of a central government-inspired regeneration initiative was the Valley Regeneration Towns Project in South Wales. This was launched in 1988 as a central government-initiated and co-ordinated regeneration strategy, which also encompassed activity by local authorities, the Welsh Development Agency, voluntary associations, and the private sector. The Valley Regeneration Towns Project was itself a successor to The Valleys Initiative, launched by central government in February 1986.

In most of the regeneration schemes, the emphasis was on the promotion of the small business sector: through, firstly, the expansion of the existing sector and, secondly, through the encouragement of people to enter the small business sector for the first time, and become 'new entrepreneurs'. Most of the projects mentioned above had one or both of these objectives as their focus. So did other schemes. British Coal Enterprise has taken this as a major part of its regeneration ethos. In Bolsover in Derbyshire too, where in 1981 46 per cent of males were employed in the coal industry, the regeneration effort has been directed at the small business sector. A strong case can be made for arguing that the focus chosen had as much, if not more, to do with the ideological preferences of central government, rather than objective economics, as discussed above. Where the small business strategy was chosen at local government level, the motivation for that might be at least partly because there was little money available to do anything else.

In some cases, grandiose claims have been made as to the effectiveness of these regeneration efforts. British Coal Enterprise, for example, was claiming in July 1992 to have 'helped with the creation of more than 75,000 jobs -- that's over one job, per hour, every hour'. In themselves, such publicity efforts also have a political element to them, in the sense that regeneration agencies have to justify their existence. If they are seen to be anything other than successful, then governments might cut off funds to them.

The reality is that the results of regeneration and job creation schemes so far have been fairly modest. In relation to British Coal Enterprise, for example, what has been questioned is how many of the 75,000 jobs 'created' were actually 'new jobs', rather than simply relocations from the nearby vicinity. How many of them are still in existence a few months or years after their creation.(4) Or take the Task Force in Doncaster. It had some successes, and one was that unemployment did fall within its designated territorial area over the period of its existence. But that was tempered by the fact that unemployment fell by a greater amount, proportionately, over the period in localities immediately outside the Task Force area in Doncaster.(5) Elsewhere, it has been argued that the cost-per-job to the British taxpayer through subsidising firms on an enterprise zone in the Yorkshire coalfield was higher than the cost-per-job of subsidising the local coal mine.(6)

It cannot be argued that training, which might provide for individuals at least, a route out of the problem, has been accorded a special priority in coalfield and former coalfield areas. Most of it is left up to local private sector-led training and enterprise councils, whose responsibilities are much broader than simply retraining former coal miners, or those who might have hoped to enter the industry had it still existed.

What emerges as being crucial to a full appreciation of the deindustrialisation-regeneration debate, the impact of pit closures and the political arguments against pit closures, is the evidence from the north Derbyshire coalfield on the long term consequences of colliery closure. Male unemployment in Whaley Thorns, within Bolsover district, for example, where the Langwith Colliery was situated, stood at 15.2 per cent in December 1990, more than twelve years after the closure of the pit.(7) This compared with 8.4 per cent for the male average nationwide in December 1990. At Holmewood, across the border in North East Derbyshire, where Holmewood colliery closed in 1968 and Williamthorpe colliery closed in 1968, male unemployment was 14.7 per cent in December 1990. This was despite economic development efforts -- a 60 acre industrial estate started in 1973 on the site of the former Holmewood colliery, and another 53 acre industrial estate started in 1985 across the road on the site of the former Williamthorpe colliery.

What is certain is that economic regeneration of the former coalfields of Britain will be a long and difficult job. It will need both political and financial commitment from governments if it is to have a chance of success. Much, of course, will depend on levels of buoyancy within the national economy, though even if the economy recovers, this might not fully feed through to the coalfield areas. Quite clearly, coalfields have special problems in relation to economic regeneration which are a legacy of the period of their industrial development, their economic and social culture, and their overwhelming reliance upon one industry.

|Royce Turner is lecturer in public sector management and research fellow of the Policy Research Centre, Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University.~


1. A Tale of Two Industries. The Contraction of Coal and Steel in the North East of England. H. Beynon. R. Hudson and D. Sadler, Open University Press (1991).

2. The Times, 22 January 1960.

3. 'Lift for coal mining areas turns out to be the pits', R. L. Turner, The Guardian, 4 November 1992.

4. 'National policies and local economic initiatives -- evaluating the effectiveness of UK coal and steel closure area reindustrialisation measures', R. Hudson and D. Sadler, Local Economy (1987); 'British Coal Enterprise -- Bringing the "Enterprise Culture" to a Deindustrialised Local Economy?' R. L. Turner, Local Economy (1992).

5. 'A Task Force in a locality of coal mining decline -- the case of Doncaster', R. L. Turner, The East Midland Geographer (1992).

6.The Guardian, 4 November 1992, as above.

7. North Derbyshire Coalfield Partnership -- Coalfield Development Strategy and 1991-1992 Programme.
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Author:Turner, Royce
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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