IN July 1973, having made a journey north to Yorkshire, I encountered two life-changing experiences.
I watched a blast furnace being tapped at Parkgate, between Sheffield and Rotherham, and I went down the pit at Frickley – South Elmsall Colliery.
The second of these two experiences would turn out to be more of a portent than I could ever imagine.
For, 30 years on, in 2003, I came to Wakefield in the aftermath of the pit closures which had decimated deep mining for coal in Britain. For a yellow-bellied southerner this gave me some street cred: South Elmsall is in Wakefield Diocese and by now I had been down several other pits – indeed my father-in-law was an electrician at Ashington Colliery in Northumberland and he took me down there too with him.
I need not labour the impact of the collapse of the coal mining industry on local communities. Grim as the work of pit men may be, it moulded the community in village after village in so many parts of industrial England.
Brassed Off, the acclaimed feature film, was based on the fate of the village of Grimethorpe – also in this Diocese. For all the toughness of the mining industry, it undoubtedly shaped so much of South Yorkshire. No one would have believed in 1973 that there would be only two deep mines left in Britain 40 years later – and indeed that both of these would be under threat.
Kellingley Colliery, just to the east of Knottingley, the most productive coal mine surviving in England, is now fighting for its life despite its immediate proximity to Ferrybridge, Eggborough and Drax Power Stations; Drax, with an installed capacity of 4,000 megawatts, is the largest coal-fired power station in Europe.
How come then this crisis at Kellingley? The answer lies, of course, in the international commodity market: the dollar exchange rate and the price of imported coal make it very difficult for our last surviving deep mines to compete. But the wider impact of the closure of Kellingley Colliery is difficult to exaggerate.
First those employees and their families in the local area will lose their jobs and livelihood, so affecting the local economy more widely. But the final collapse of an entire industry will also have a knock-on impact for firms supplying equipment. It will mean too the total loss of a broad range of skills in an industry which, by its very nature, includes a remarkable range of engineering and technical expertise.
There is one still more worrying effect of the collapse of the last vestiges of our coal industry. Throughout the 20th century, successive governments sought to vary the resources used in generating electricity and supplying energy to industry and for domestic use. There was a careful balance between coal, gas, oil, nuclear and other sources of power. In the past three decades, the United Kingdom has become more and more dependent on imported fuel and thus on the vagaries of the market and the often fraught state of international relations.
The Ukrainian crisis has been a salutary reminder of this: Europe is increasingly dependent on gas supplies from Russia. The price of imported coal will increase just as swiftly as it has most recently decreased. Exchange rates too are notoriously volatile and unpredictable.
All these factors argue for seeing the fate of deep mining at Kellingley within a much broader context than merely the local. The auguries for the stability of future energy supplies suggest a scenario increasingly perilous. There remain vast reserves of coal beneath the ground in Britain and advances in technology have made the extraction of coal far less dangerous and less injurious to health.
Over the past two centuries, Yorkshire has been one of the dynamos helping to make and keep Britain amongst the leading world economies. This local crisis has far wider significance while remaining a plague on local communities and their wellbeing.
This is a poignant moment to be writing these words since the Diocese of Wakefield (alongside the dioceses of Bradford and Ripon and Leeds) is itself to be extinguished tomorrow! So, many of us can feel a clear resonance with those involved in the coal industry locally. That is not to argue for or against restructuring in the Church of England. Those decisions have been made. It does, however, remind us of the impact of such closures and discontinuities in any walk of life.
When I arrived here in Yorkshire 11 years ago, I was asked what I thought was the single most significant matter that I and others needed to address in this part of the world. My answer was community self-esteem. Take away an individual’s self-esteem and you threaten their very being. Loss of self-esteem can lead individuals to suicide. The impact of a loss of self-esteem in communities is no less critical. Worklessness and the collapse of the industry that has shaped South Yorkshire continues to be devastating.
The closure of Kellingley will mean the loss of an entire industry; it will also resonate in a dramatic way in this part of Yorkshire. So, can we not throw off our myopia and tackle the industry’s problems with a real view to the long term future and not simply to current but ever-changing market forces?
Ultimately this is a spiritual issue – it directs us to the very ground of our being as human individuals and communities. Tomorrow is Easter Day, a day which proclaims hope to human kind. Hope is more than optimism – it is rooted in reality. Let hope reign once more by investing in the realities of our coal industry.
• The Right Reverend Stephen Platten is the Bishop of Wakefield. He is due to step down tomorrow.