After Coal - a Future for Britain's Mining Communities?

Article excerpt

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? …