Steve Fothergill: Communities feel the pain of adapting to life after coal

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BRITAIN’S last colliery – Kellingley in Yorkshire – is scheduled to close in exactly a week’s time. The closure is a significant moment in the country’s economic history.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution and much that has followed was fuelled by coal. The demise of Kellingley means that all 170 collieries that operated at the time of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike will finally have closed.

This is a good moment to reflect not just on the history of the coal industry but also on the present and future of coalfield communities. More than five million people live in Britain’s former coal mining areas. The pits may have all closed, but the communities are still there.

What does a Britain without coal mining mean for them?

Over the last 20 years, Sheffield Hallam University has led the way in documenting trends and conditions in former coalfield communities, not just in Yorkshire but across the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.

The 2014 report, The State of the Coalfields, is the most recent in a string of influential studies. The initial puzzle was the scale of unemployment. As pits began to close in big numbers during the 1980s and 1990s, the surprise was how little the official unemployment figures increased. What Sheffield Hallam research showed was that official figures hid the truth. What happened in the wake of the pit closures was that many of the redundant miners ended up on incapacity benefits instead and were removed from the official jobless total.

This is the way mass unemployment in the coalfields became hidden.

A diversion of the unemployed onto incapacity benefits happened across much of older industrial Britain where jobs were being destroyed, but the coalfields were the epicentre of the phenomenon. These days the ex-miners themselves have mostly dropped off benefits and into retirement.

But the generation behind them have found it difficult to find work and those with health problems or disabilities, who are rarely employers’ first choice, still end up on incapacity benefits (these days Employment and Support Allowance).

It is worth remembering that at present Britain has just 800,000 out-of-work people on Jobseeker’s Allowance but 2.4 million individuals on incapacity benefits. Many of the former coalfields still have the highest claimant rates.

But it hasn’t all been bad news in the coalfields. What the Sheffield Hallam research also shows is that there has been real forward progress in regeneration, measured in particular by new job creation. The extensive efforts by coalfield local authorities, supported from time to time by Westminster, the devolved administrations and the EU, have delivered positive results.

Very roughly, half the overall job shortfall in the former coalfields has been eliminated. Regeneration has proved easier in some places than others. Where the conditions are right – good road links, plenty of land for development, financial incentives to businesses – it has proved possible to attract investors.

The Yorkshire coalfield has secured a host of new distribution centres, for example. The new jobs can all too often be poorly paid but at least there is work.

But in the more inaccessible coalfields – the South Wales valleys and Ayrshire in Scotland are perhaps the prime examples – it has been much harder to deliver the new jobs that are needed.

Sheffield Hallam’s State of the Coalfields report documented the continuing scale of disadvantage in Britain’s former pit communities. Across the coalfields as a whole, there are just 50 jobs for every 100 residents of working age, meaning that commuting is often essential.

Coalfield residents in work are more likely to be employed in lower-grade or manual occupations, and the coalfield workforce is more likely to lack higher grade qualifications.

Our report found that 14 per cent – one-in-seven – of all adults of working age in the coalfields are out-of-work and in receipt of benefits, so the Government’s welfare reforms can be expected to impact especially hard.

The report also found that faced with substantial socio-economic challenges in the areas they serve, the voluntary and community organisations in the coalfields are themselves often in difficulty. Cuts to Government funding for coalfield local authorities compound the problems.

We concluded that the miners’ strike of 1984/5 may now be receding into history but the job losses that followed in its wake are still part of the everyday economic reality of most mining communities.

The consequences are still all too visible. On balance, the evidence provides a compelling case that most of the coalfield communities of England, Scotland and Wales still require support.

Even when the last shift ends at Kellingley, the local community must not be forgotten if the area is to reinvent itself.

Professor Steve Fothergill is based at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University.