Shifting perspective

What’s the future for the coal miners of Kellingley, where a historic industry has just come to an end?

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Britain’s last deep pit coal miners ended their final shift at Kellingley Colliery in the usual way – with a long commute. After 10 hours of digging in 34C heat, the handful of men laid face down on a conveyor belt that transported them a mile from the coalface to a subterranean train. Crammed five to a carriage they began the six-mile journey to the pit mouth lift. After travelling for 45 minutes through the earth’s dark bowels, they reached the elevator and were carried half a mile upwards to where a pale winter sun, cold fresh air and an uncertain world awaited.

There were shouts of “it’s over”, “it’s done” and “the industry’s finished” as the miners came out of the pit cage and stored their lamps and emergency breathing apparatus away for the last time.

The end of the men’s mining careers marked the demise of an industry that fuelled the Industrial Revolution. Britain’s last deep pit mine, Kellingley in North Yorkshire, was killed off by a combination of cut-price coal and shale gas imports and the need to go green. The colliery closed in late December, a few days after world leaders came to an unprecedented agreement in Paris to work together to reduce CO2 emissions – an area in which coal is public enemy number one.

Among Kellingley’s 450 miners there is sorrowful acknowledgement that their way of life was destined to disappear, bitterness that UK power stations will continue to burn cheap imported coal until at least 2025 and trepidation for the future.

Feelings were running high on the day of the closure as men who had spent years, and often decades, forming bonds in life-threatening conditions worked together for the last time. The miners did their best to remain stoical and countered their emotions by laughing and joking with one another, but the women working in the canteen didn’t try to hold back their tears as they said goodbye.

“It’s a sad, sad day,” said Andy Borowik shortly after he emerged from the pit for the last time. The 61 year old grew up in a mining community and worked as a miner for 35 years, the last 12 of which were spent at Kellingley.

“It seems to be all service industry jobs now and people sitting behind desks.”

“They’re work colleagues and they’re friends but it’s more than that, even though we don’t send Christmas cards and that sort of thing. It’s just like being on a boat or anything like that. But there’s just no future for coal. We’re dinosaurs – literally swinging picks and hammers. My pension’s not so good, so I’ve got to crack on and find something else. Hopefully I’ll find some work.

“It seems to be all service industry jobs now and people sitting behind desks. Who can blame them? It’s no fun getting emphysema. I’ve broken my back, I’ve broken my neck, I’ve broken my feet, I’ve smashed my fingers. After 35 years you don’t go down there and come out without scars. But they don’t write songs about computer programmers – you know what I mean?”

The memorial to the 17 men who died over the 50 years that Kellingley operated is testament to the dangers of the job and the courage and esprit du corps needed to do it. “If it had shut the week after there was a death, nobody would have been bothered. But once something like that happens everyone’s together. This and the army have the same camaraderie,” said miner James Knowles, who has lost friends at the pit.

Nor is it just that close-knit relationships have been disbanded. The miners spoke with pride and loss about the technical skills needed to work in such a hazardous and confined environment. “You’re basically going where nobody’s been before,” said underground electrician George Lamb. “I’ve worked on districts where we’ve come across fossilised trees. It is an interesting and challenging job and you get a sense of achievement at the end of your shift. I’m devastated.”

Adding insult to injury is the knowledge that Drax power station, which is seven miles away and connected to the colliery by a direct rail line, will continue to burn four million tons of imported coal a year for the next decade. Although the coal is cheaper it has the added environmental expense of being shipped from America and Columbia.

For 50-year-old locomotive driver Gary Kemp, who has spent 33 years as a miner, the lack of economic alternatives and the continued erosion of heavy industry and manufacturing in the UK are frustrating. Like the majority of the miners he doesn’t deny coal’s effect on the climate, but does question how Kellingley’s closure will improve the situation if the fuel is going to be used regardless.

“I start on Monday as a painter and decorator and labourer. It’s a job, isn’t it? I’m gutted really. We’re still going to be burning coal for the foreseeable future but it’s going to be brought in from abroad. How does that make sense for climate change? They just seem to be hellbent on shutting our heavy industry,” he said.

“Now it’s cheap labour and minimum wages. You’ll get a six month contract, then you’ll get finished and get another six month contract. There’s no long term future. It doesn’t exist any more.”

Yvette Cooper, Labour MP for neighbouring Pontefract and Castleford, attended the colliery on the day of the closure. She too questioned the wisdom of leaving the mine’s vast reserves under the ground in favour of cheap imports. Kellingley’s coal also contains higher levels of sulphur than many foreign sources, a factor that excludes it for use in Britain under EU laws that came into force this month. But Cooper pointed to the government’s recent scrapping of an initiative to develop clean coal technology at Drax, which could have solved the issue.

“We’re ending up with long-term decisions that are being made on the basis of short-term market changes. We shouldn’t just be dependent on imports for our energy security. Losing clean coal technology from Drax was also a big mistake – it could have been a way of cutting emissions across the globe and not just here in Britain,” she told Big Issue North.

Local Conservative MP Nigel Adams, whose constituency includes Kellingley, was also in attendance. He stated that using imported coal “was not any better for the environment”, but insisted that clean coal technology at Drax would not have allowed Kellingley to circumnavigate the new EU directives, as it would have taken “a decade to come to fruition”. Adams, who called in Parliament for the government to find a way to ensure the colliery’s survival, made clear the closure was a commercial decision that bore no relevance to the historic grievances many miners hold against the Conservative Party.

Like the majority of miners Kemp doesn’t deny coal’s effect on the climate

Nevertheless, it was no surprise that Adams did not make an appearance at the 2,000-strong march the next day in nearby Knottingley. Resentment of the Tories’ breaking of the 1984 miners strike and the subsequent 180,000 layoffs was as evident as the anger directed at Kellingley’s parent company Coal UK. In a cruel twist the 12-week redundancy packages the men received from Coal UK are worse than the deals offered under Thatcher, which saw each man receive an extra £900 for every year of service.

People lined the streets to cheer the procession – organised by miners’ wives Lisa Cheney and Kirsten Sinclair – as it made its way along the mile long route from Knottingley Town Hall to the Miners’ Welfare Reform Social Club. Reminders of the changing economic climate the pit workers now find themselves in were clear to see: Ferrybridge power station, which will close in March with the loss of 400 jobs, loomed on the skyline. Near the social club, a billboard announced the arrival of a Lidl supermarket that will employ 40.

“With the power station shutting as well I think Knottingley will be derelict in a few years,” commented 23-year-old Jack Robertson, who began work at Kellingley at 16. “All the industry is gone. I’m moving up north with my partner next week to look for work. All the heavy industry is up there. I’m a young lad so I should easily be able to get a job. It’s the older lads who are going to struggle.

“The government have treated us as bad as the company has. It’s Thatcher’s legacy – they’ve just thought we’ll finish what she started. I’m one of the last deep miners in Britain. They can’t take that away, even if the job’s gone. I grew up there, I’ve made really good friends. It’s been great and I’d have done it until I retired. It’s just a shame it’s come to an end.”

As the march drew to a close at the social club, the band played Danny Boy as some of the miners struggled to hold back their tears. Two marchers set alight banners that read “UDM Scabbing Bastards” and “Save Fuel Burn A Tory Scab”, as former NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s wife Anne looked on.

Eventually, after paying its respects, the crowd dispersed and the miners were left to themselves for a goodbye dinner held at the club.

Photo: Mark Pinder and Darren O’Brien/Meta-4 Photos

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