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Dole not coal

Twenty-five years after the start of the year-long miners' strike against pit closures, fewer than half of the jobs lost in mining areas have been replaced. Huw Beynon reports on the common experience of Durham and south Wales, two of the coalfields that were worst hit by the closure programme

March 1, 2009
13 min read

In July the streets of the City of Durham will be filled with people celebrating the 125th miners’ gala to be held in the area. Among the banners being paraded through the city at last year’s gala was one from the Tower colliery in south Wales, which had closed in January. The cheers of the people followed its path along Silver Street as the knowledgeable crowd recognised the efforts of the men and women who had kept the mine open in common ownership since 1994 in spite of the efforts of British Coal to close it down.

On that day the Tower banner joined many others representing villages whose mines had closed down in the recent and more distant past. Many of these banners were newly made replicas commissioned by local people and various ‘banner groups’, often with the assistance of the Lottery Heritage Fund. The Handen Hold mine, for example, closed along with many others in Durham in 1968. Its last banner was made in 1961, and its replica, with a portrait of the Welsh socialist Aneurin Bevan on the front, was a further recognition of the way in which the two coalfields of Durham and south Wales share a common history and heritage.

Two coalfields, one strike

A delegation from Tower had also marched through Durham in 1983, as part of the centenary-year gala. On that occasion, the air was filled with a strong sense of solidarity, coupled with anticipation of the struggle that lay ahead. In the previous year, as part of the NUM’s Campaign for Coal, twinning between lodges (union branches) and the establishment of jointly attended weekend schools had seen the beginnings of a common approach built on shared understandings and close contact.

These two coalfields were similar in many ways and both had seen more than their share of tragedy. Mostly this was though mine explosions, the last at Easington in 1951. But tragedy had also extended beyond the mine, as in Aberfan in 1966 when the waste from the Merthyr Vale colliery slid down the valley side and killed a whole generation of schoolchildren. United through their past, the talk in 1983 was of having ‘backs against the wall’ and the fear of a world without the mine. It was this that fuelled their determination in 1984-85 to stay out on strike for a year in the longest and most bitter national dispute of the 20th century.

Colliery closures

In 1985, immediately after the strike ended, it became clear that the closure programme envisaged by the National Coal Board (NCB, later British Coal) was now far more extensive than that announced in 1984 and admitted to during the strike. Fifty mines were to go – and with them 50,000 jobs.

During the strike the deputies’ (supervisors’) union NACODS balloted its members and 82 per cent voted in favour of strike action to support the miners striking to keep collieries open. Rather than strike, though, the union negotiated the setting up of a fresh, independent, element to the existing colliery review procedure. When the 1984-85 strike ended, this new procedure came into effect.

In Durham, the men at the Horden colliery voted against closure, as did those at Bold in Northumberland and St John’s in south Wales. The review of Horden supported the decision to close the mine. Bates was next and although the review concluded that the mine should be kept open, the government supported the NCB in its decision to continue with the closure. By this time St John’s had closed along with a swathe of collieries across south Wales.

The pit closures that followed the 1984-85 strike were followed by a second, similarly devastating phase in the early 1990s, just when it seemed that the industry had stabilised at a lower level of production. In Durham, the 1985 closures ended deep mining in the west of the county but left a string of highly mechanised mines operating along the eastern coast. In south Wales, however, mines continued to close every year throughout the 1980s. By the time Blaenant closed in 1990, 22 collieries had closed, with four closing in 1989, including the powerful Oakdale mine.

By 1991 mining employment in south Wales had been virtually wiped out. Durham followed as its super-pits along the coast closed down, denuding the whole of the Easington district of manual work for men. At that time Betws and Tower remained open in Wales, but they too faced the axe with Betws reopening under a management buy-out. After an enormous struggle, the Tower colliery at Hirwaun was taken over by the workforce and kept in production until 2008.

Holding on at Tower

The story of Tower colliery in Hirwaun is well known. It has been celebrated as an opera and in the French cinema. Stuck out on the northern most escarpment on the South Wales coalfield, its fame gave it a kind of celebrity status. It was also seen by many as a beacon of hope; the survival of an idea, of what could be done. It lasted for 14 years until, finally exhausted, it closed in 2008.

In explaining its success, and the commitment of the workforce to the idea of owning and running the colliery themselves, the workers at Tower identified several critical factors. These included a fierce desire to continue to work in mining, with all the traditions of solidarity and camaraderie that this entailed. As pit after pit closed across the south Wales coalfield, the men who refused to leave the industry were moved on to other pits. Tower was the last. As one Tower miner put it: ‘There were hardcore people in Tower who wanted to stay in the mining industry no matter what. Even at their own expense – putting money in themselves. There was a lot of things they could do, they could have let the colliery go and it would have been bought by somebody else like they did in Yorkshire … but you had a hardcore of people here, the most awkward bastards in the British coalfields – us stuck up here in Tower!’

The period when the mine was due to be closed remains highly charged in the memory of these men. The leadership cadre at Tower remember the details of the events, the drama of the decision and the evocative sense of achievement that surrounded the successful purchase of the mine. Glyn Rogers remembers how: ‘The first year under [the workers’] ownership everybody was walking on air because at least one third of the men had been outside in the big bad world, on the dole, and the other two thirds had actually been working in low-paid jobs in a factory on the production line and they had to put their hand up to go to the toilet and various other things, so they didn’t like the outside world and they realised that … it is a lot easier to work in a colliery without somebody standing over you.’

This sort of account of factory work, the quality of alternative employment, the low level of wages and associated levels of tedium and regulation crops up repeatedly in the account that the men at Tower gave of their reasons for ‘taking a chance’ in 1994. It was often linked to ideas of mutual support and solidarity. As another Tower miner put it:

‘You stood together. But if you go outside and what have you, you’ll see men struggling on their own. Underground you wouldn’t see a man struggle, you wouldn’t have to ask anybody to give you hand, they would see you struggling and they come and automatically give you a hand.’

The problem of mining communities

The review report on the closure of Durham’s Horden colliery in 1985 noted that: ‘Serious consequences will result in the local community if (the colliery) is closed, not only on adult employment and youth employment but on the economy generally.’ This proved to be the case and the state of the coal districts became an important issue leading up to the 1997 election. Labour in opposition had not fought the closure of mines but rather argued for the economic regeneration of the mining areas. As such one of the first acts of John Prescott’s new Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) was to set up a task force to enquire into the conditions of life in the coalfields. Its conclusions on the scale of ‘deprivation and decline’ in these areas, as well as their ‘unique combination of concentrated joblessness, physical isolation, poor infrastructure and severe health problems’, were widely reported.

The findings of the task force built upon research conducted by the Coalfields Communities Campaign, which had charted the impact of the post-1992 closures of specific coal mines. Generally a pattern emerged of ‘pensioning off’ through various kinds of benefits, along with – for the economically active ex-miners – an average reduction in wages of £100 per week. Furthermore, it became clear that in these former mining areas exceptionally high proportions of the labour force were on disability benefit. A statistical analysis of mining wards in England published by the DETR in 2003 demonstrated that the ‘coal district’ impact was discernible 20 years after the closure of a mine and concluded that alongside other basic measures of socio-economic well-being ‘health suffered a systematic causal relationship with an area’s past history in mining’.

By the mid to late 1990s the fact that there was a problem in the old coalfield districts was incontestable. The indices of deprivation published by the DETR indicated that two thirds of coalfield wards could be counted among the 20 per cent most deprived in England. The Welsh data revealed a similar pattern, with the majority of the country’s most deprived wards being located in the old coalfield districts. Repeatedly, as examples of poverty or neglect were sought by the media, it was towards south Wales and the north east of England that they turned – most commonly to Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent and Easington.

At the turn of the century in south Wales and Durham, the old mining areas stood out as having very low proportions of the labour force in work, low levels of wages, high incidences of limiting long term illness, poor housing and poor patterns of education attainment. These features combined to produce high levels of household poverty. All this was compounded in particular places by a high incidence of crime and drug abuse and by a pattern of young men and women leaving to find work elsewhere.

Getting the jobs back

The closure of the coal mines, and the removal of almost half a million high-wage jobs associated with mining, was bound to have a devastating effect. But at the time of the strike, free marketeers talked of releasing labour and other resources that were locked into ‘unproductive’ jobs by state support. Once freed, it was argued, a swathe of productive economic activity would emerge throughout the coalfields. British Coal’s enterprise scheme talked of replacing all of the lost jobs with new high-waged employment.

Twenty years after the 1984-85 strike ended, research from Sheffield Hallam University indicated that no more than 47 per cent of these jobs had been replaced in coalfield districts (Christine Beatty, Stephen Fothergill, and Ryan Powell, ‘Twenty Years On: Has the Economy of the Coalfields Recovered?’ paper presented at Regional Studies Association Conference, Aalborg, 2005). Employment did come to the coalfield districts during Gordon Brown’s boom years but this was not achieved by the guiding hand of the market. Rather it was due to the level of public funds devoted to coalfield regeneration.

This involved the enormous efforts of local authorities, various European Union-funded schemes (including ‘Objective One’ funding for the whole of the south Wales coalfield and most of Yorkshire), the British Government (single regeneration budget, selective area status, enterprise zones etc), the Welsh Assembly (Communities First), English Heritage, the Lottery and latterly the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and Save the Children. The total amount of public funding that has been used in an attempt to compensate for the loss of mining employment has been enormous. In 2004, Dave Feickert, writing in the Guardian, estimated the figure was ‘at least £28 billion. This is nearly half of the North Sea tax revenues of £60 billion collected since 1985.’

What has become clear is that the coalfields were forced to compete for a limited flow of new manufacturing and service projects with urban centres and other more favoured sites. Equally clear is the fact that some coalfields are better placed than others to attract such investment, and that each in turn is affected by the local as well as the national context. As a result, the central coalfield areas of England have been better placed than those in the north east and south Wales to benefit from economic growth.

In Durham, moreover, while there has been significant success in attracting jobs for men to the eastern corridor along the A19, many of these jobs have been taken by people commuting from outside the old coal districts. In south Wales new employment has tended to grow along the corridor of the M4 motorway with limited job opportunities along the northern rim of the old coalfield. And as the financial crisis has bitten, unemployment rates in Durham and South Wales have been among the first to show steep rises. Across both areas more than one in ten men of working age remain on disability benefit; in some places it is as high as one in two.

History fights back

Talking at Durham in 2008, Tyrone O’Sullivan, one of the miners’ leaders at Tower colliery, reflected with sadness on the closure of Tower but with pride over their achievement and the demonstration of ‘the way ordinary people can stand up for themselves and change the world’. Increasingly ideas like these are harder to hold on to. Incrementally, in Durham and south Wales, there has been a shift in political perceptions. As mining became seen as a thing of the past, a change of emphasis has developed into a real forgetting.

But in these places history has a way of fighting back. The Durham miners’ gala continues and is much more than the tourist spectacle some envisaged. In south Wales the global demand for coking coal has led Tata, the owners of Corus, to contemplate a new drift mine employing up to 700 miners, linked to the Port Talbot steel works. A quarter of a century after the great miners’ strike of 1984-85, the next chapter in the history of British miners is still being written.

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