How coal is making a comeback in Yorkshire

Jonathan Clarke pictured at the New Crofton Co-op Colliery site, near Wakefield.
Jonathan Clarke pictured at the New Crofton Co-op Colliery site, near Wakefield.
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No future for coal in Yorkshire? Think again. Sarah Freeman meets the co-operative planning open the first mine in the county in quarter of a century.

The fields at Crofton don’t look much like utopia.

Just a short drive from Wakefield, they’re well-used by dog walkers, provide a popular local cycle trail and are home to a myriad of wildlife, but as green spaces go it hardly classes as Elysian.

However, it’s what lies beneath which makes this corner of Yorkshire so important. Coal. Lots of coal. And according to Jonathan Clarke, part of a co-operative hoping to open the first mine in the county for more than 25 years, it could not only revive an industry many thought had been consigned to history, but it could also transform an ordinary suburb by rejecting the usual philosophy on which big business is run.

At Crofton there will be no fat cats salivating at the idea that where there’s muck there’s brass. Instead, a chunk of the mine’s profits will be shared amongst the employees and co-operative members and the rest will be invested in a charitable trust to improve the local area.

“When planning permission for the mine was approved last month, a lot of people assumed we would immediately say, ‘job’s done, let’s sell the site’,” says Clarke, one of the co-operative’s founding members. “Yes, the land is worth a lot of money now, but that was never the point. It sounds a bit clichéd, but everyone involved in Crofton is in it because they want to put something back and may be create a little piece of utopia on the way.”

There was nothing in Clarke’s background which hinted he might end up one of the driving forces behind a brand new coal mine. After briefly toying with the idea of becoming a primary school teacher, he instead got a job in an engineering and is now based in Hull where he has fingers in a number of pies, including the housing charity Giroscope. He also describes himself as an environmentalist and admits the Crofton project has caused him a few sleepless nights.

“I kept expecting to get a visit from Friends of the Earth, but my conscience is at peace now,” says Clarke, whose interest was first piqued when he met Bill Birch an engineer with 20 years experience of working in coal. He reckoned that Crofton was sitting on an untapped resource, but his vision was for a very different kind of mining company. “Like a lot of people my instant reaction was coal is dirty, it’s a bad fuel, but the more research I did and the more I talked to Bill, the more I realised the issue wasn’t so black and white.

“Coal is vital to bridge the gap between now and the point in the future where we can rely on renewables. That will be at least until 2030. So surely it’s better to use our own resources rather than importing coal from Siberia, Colombia and America. There are ethical issues in some of those countries and that’s before you take into account the impact on our carbon footprint of transporting the coal thousands of miles.

“It also makes financial sense. Currently coal is selling for £55 a tonne, but we are confident we can produce coal it for £30.”

The co-operative says it will cost £13m to open the mine, but over its 22-year lifespan it expects to extract five million tonnes of coal worth £300m. The team is also confident they will have no problem selling the coal. Already in talks with Drax and EDF Energy, they hope to be fully operational by December 2015.

Clarke and the rest of the co-operative has done much to get the local community onside, working closely with the parish council. So much so that there was barely a murmur of opposition when the planning application was submitted. In fact the only grumble was about potential traffic congestion. While most of the coal will be moved out of the pit by rail, the larger pieces of lump coal, earmarked for domestic use, will be transported by road.

“We’re talking about a maximum of eight bus-size lorries a day, Monday to Friday, which will be restricted to between 9.30am to 11.30am and then 1.30 to 3pm,” says Clarke. “Honestly, it won’t be an issue.

“ It general takes most applications of this kind about five years to make it through planning. It took us seven months, but that’s partly because of the two years of leg work we put into the project beforehand. We made sure people were onside long before any formal application was even mentioned. And we always said, ‘look, if there’s a problem, tell us about it and let’s see if we can work round it’.”

Early on they appointed a community liaison officer who has successfully calmed rumours the entire area would be off limits to the public and allayed worries about dust pollution.

“It has meant that we’ve got to know people,” says Clarke, waving to a trio of local dog walkers as we take a walk around the site. “Initially people were worried that they were going to have a giant open cast mine on their doorstep, but what we have planned here is very different. It’s what known as a drift mine, so hardly anything will be visible from the surface. In fact even the mine buildings will be lower than the current treeline.

“I’m not saying there won’t be any impact, of course there will, but it will be as minimal as possible and the wildlife shouldn’t be disturbed at all. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in the last two years on great crested newts, but it’s a lot. However, we’ve now created three brand new ponds for them to ensure the status quo.”

The project has been inspired in part by the Mondragon Corporation based in Spain’s Basque region. Started in the 1950s by a priest and five graduates of a technical college to produce paraffin heaters, today it’s the country’s seventh biggest company, employing more than 80,000 people across 289 different co-operatives.

“That’s exactly what we want to do at Crofton,” says Clarke, who as well as being an environmentalist is also an idealist. “We want to set up spin-off companies which can supply the mine with everything it needs and every one of those will be run on the co-operative model.”

They’ve not formally advertised any of the 60 or so posts at New Crofton Colliery, but they are already starting to sift through more than 200 on-spec applications.

“It’s been incredible, just incredible,” says Clarke. “We reckon there are two more potential sites like Crofton in Yorkshire and one in Derbyshire, but we want to make sure that we get this one right first. A few of our founding members are not that far away from retiring and may step away from the project in five or 10 years time, but I will be there to see it through to then end.

“This is about more than just coal it’s about community. Over the last few years I’ve learned that there’s an emotional connection to coal around here and if we can help restore that and make this bit of Yorkshire a better place to live then I think we will all be happy with that.”