Andrew Vine: A bitter winter lies ahead for the men of Kellingley

Kellingley Colliery, which closes this week.
Kellingley Colliery, which closes this week.
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THE last shift will ascend the shaft at Kellingley Colliery on Friday, and with it the final chapter in the history of Britain’s coal mines will be written.

The bell has been tolling for decades for the pits that fuelled this country’s industrial growth, heated its homes, fired its furnaces, kept its lights on and powered victory in two world wars.

Andrew Vine

Andrew Vine

Sense of defiance remains as Yorkshire pit closure signals end of an industry

Kellingley: British coalmining’s key dates in history

Even so, the closure of the last mine is a symbolic moment of profound sadness and deep regret.

We should mourn the loss of an industry that still had so much to give if it had been granted a chance of survival.

But harsh economics and a spectrum of political opinion that ranged from indifference to outright hostility did for coal, stymied the future it could have had and might yet result in Britain facing an energy crisis.

Kellingley is the last gasp of a protracted death that has taken more than 20 years and squandered a precious natural resource. Beneath our feet here in Yorkshire lie millions of tonnes of coal destined never to be dug. At Kellingley alone, there are at least 30m tonnes – equating to 15 more years of work for the 450 miners whose jobs will be lost.

It could, and should, have been mined. The technology was there to give coal a clean future and answer environmental concerns over the burning of fossil fuels.

Successive governments, though, failed to give the support that clean coal plants needed, cowed by the persistence of the green lobby and EU targets on emissions.

Instead of giving the men of Kellingley and all the other tens of thousands of miners across Yorkshire the chance they deserved, Ministers set their face against coal and the energy it produced, characterising it as a polluting relic of the past, and loading the odds against it.

There was another factor, of course. The militancy of miners across the course of decades, resulting in the bitter, divisive, violent and misguided year-long strike of 1984/5 scarred both the Conservative and Labour parties.

Afterwards, no Conservative government was going to fight for an industry whose workforce, goaded by the stridency of its leadership into becoming the foot soldiers of a doomed attempt at class warfare, had caused such strife.

Nor would Tony Blair’s shiny New Labour, wary of scaring the middle classes which gave it power by maintaining links with the most muscular union movement. So coal was left to suffer a long, agonising decline as were the communities and families which depended upon it.

Close-knit, neatly-tended villages descended into decay as the pits shut one by one, and as surely as night follows day, poverty was followed by an increase in crime and drug abuse.

The decline in coal’s fortunes and its human cost over the course of a couple of generations is staggering, almost without parallel in British industrial or social history.

In 1983, the last full year before the strike, Yorkshire had 56 pits, employing 59,300 people and producing 31m tonnes of coal. They were among 191 pits nationally and a workforce of 207,600 which dug 104m tonnes.

By Friday evening, there will be none.

Yet, as darkness falls on Kellingley, and the men who no longer have jobs switch the lights on at home and wonder yet again what the future holds for them, it is coal that continues to play a key part in providing the electricity.

The irony of that will not be lost on them. About 30 per cent of our power still comes from coal, but that can rise to 40 per cent in the bitterest winter months which loom ever closer.

But instead of being dug in Yorkshire, it is coming from Russia, America and Colombia where low labour costs 
mean that British coal simply cannot compete on price.

That’s economic reality for you, 
shrug coal’s long-time critics. Cheap imports have been slowly killing the 
coal industry since the early 1990s, when they were the cause of a raft of pit closures.

Anti-coal energy policies by both Conservative and Labour only added to the industry’s suffering.

Britain’s remaining coal-fired power stations are set to close long before gas-fired replacements are ready. That poses the risk of the lights going out.

We have already seen emergency measures imposed to limit energy use once this year, even though the winter so far has been mostly mild.

Research by the Centre for Policy Studies says that there is the real possibility of a serious energy shortage in the winter of 2016/17 as a result of the impending gap in generating capacity, leaving us at the worst risk of power cuts in 60 years.

By then, Britain’s coal industry, which could have guaranteed the lights staying on, will be only a memory.

We may yet have cause to bitterly regret the fate that was allowed to 
befall Kellingley and all the other long-lost pits.

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