TODAY TOWER COLLIERY CLOSES ? 13 years after the Coal Board pronounced its death

When I was Secretary of State for Wales, the National Coal Board was embarked on a substantial pits closure programme. In each case they reported to the Energy Minister and Secretary of State (DTI) that the particular pit was worked out. They claimed to have surveyed it accurately, and discovered either that there was no more coal to be extracted, or that whatever coal remained could not be worked for a sensible cost.

One of the pits they decided to close was Tower Colliery in South Wales. I was suspicious of the Coal Board’s view. Experience had taught me that they were not great managers of our national resource. They had a glittering legacy of losses, subsidy demands, closures, redundancies and poor employee relations to their credit. Their safety, productivity, profitability and social records were far from perfect. I was not inclined to believe them that so many pits had suddenly become uneconomic. Looking at their accounts, the high overheads they imposed on their mines was a striking feature.

I was therefore delighted when I was told by my private office that miners representatives from Tower Colliery wished to come to see me to put the case for keeping open the mine. I was even more delighted to learn that they believed their case so strongly that they were prepared to take the pit over and mine it themselves, if the Coal Board would give them the chance. The bad news was the Coal Board refused consent, and the Energy Ministry backed the Coal Board’s judgement.

When the miners arrived in my office, I think they were surprised by my enthusiasm for their cause, and by my explanation that their task was not to persuade me, but to work with me on our joint case to the Energy department and Coal Board to give them the opportunity to run the mine. As it meant being allowed to prove the Coal Board wrong it was not going to be easy, but I felt that between us we could do it.

So was forged a partnership in British politics that none had predicted. I joined forces with Tyrone O ‘Sullivan, the charismatic Lodge Secretary and leader of the buy out team to persuade Coal Board and government the should give the miners a chance. I was the only person who saw nothing strange in the alliance. I had always believed in workers participation and employee ownership. Here was a chance to show its magic in an industry that had been gravely damaged by the them and us mentality of the large corporation.

After correspondence and conversations tackling the obduracy of the Coal Board position as retailed by the government, our view finally prevailed. What harm could there be, I argued, in letting the men have a try. If they were right the community would be saved and jobs would remain. If the Coal Board were right and the coal was not plentiful a valiant attempt would have to be abandoned. Nothing was lost – other than some Coal Board pride – by letting them have a go. I was always supremely confident that they would succeed, because they had impressed me by their enthusiasm for the cause and I was sure the cost structure of the Coal Board was wrong for their pit.

It was joyous day when I learned our view had won. The announcement was made to the Conservative Conference in the autumn, and the miners became the preferred bidders to buy the pit. Much of the consideration was to be deferred, to be payable if they were right and the pit had a future, which seemed fair. The leading miners still had to put up £8000 each for the down payment, which was a substantial sum for them. Their wish to do so was further proof of their belief. I accepted that only because I share the miners’ confidence. By the end of December 1994 the deal was done.

I was delighted for them when they took possession of their mine, improved conditions and wages, and set about demonstrating that there were 13 years of profitable workings left. Today I will be sad that this great enterprise has come to an end, but pleased that they made some better paid jobs and shared in some profits over the later years of that mine.

I like to think it will be a model for the future. One day I hope and expect more mines will be opened again in our country, to produce the coal for clean coal technology uses. I want those mines to be ones where there is more machinery, more safety protection and a share in the profits for all who venture underground. If that turns out to be the case, I hope people will remember the pioneering work of the Tower miners. They showed grit and determination. They took a personal and financial risk. They proved the Coal Board wrong. They showed you can mine successfully, with miners playing a leading role in the management of their pit.

After the miner’s strike, I tried to persuade Margaret Thatcher to allow the sale of pits more generally with substantial free shares for miners so they became co-owners in the project. Whilst I got the support of John Moore, an early leak of the scheme unfortunately led to its demise. Had we gone ahead with co-owned pits in the eighties I think we would have had a much bigger and more successful mining industry today.

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9 Comments

  1. MartinW
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    That’s a very interesting account, and especially welcome since your support for the miners is not something we would hear about from the BBC.

  2. Andrew Walton
    Posted January 26, 2008 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    I completely disagree. The Tories wrecked Britain's once proud mining industry. The sad attempt at miming the Welsh National Anthem displayed by John Redwood shows how in touch he is with the solidarity shown by the miners.

    It is no thanks to Thatcher or Redwood that Tower was saved – talk about being wise after the event.

  3. Steven_L
    Posted January 26, 2008 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    A very interesting personal insight. I've read other blogger recently advocating a return to coal power in a greener way, super critical or something it's called.

    It does seem to make sense in terms of energy security and cost, just not carbon. I haven't made my mind up on energy yet, but I was pro-nuclear all the way before reading the coal argument, now I'm not so sure.

  4. mikestallard
    Posted January 26, 2008 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    The fairest reaction to this is, actually: Well done John!
    It is really good to know that sometimes, just sometimes, ministers are able and wiling to take sensible risks and – yes! – achieve success!

  5. Posted January 26, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    This is a refreshingly perceptive analysis, as usual Mr Redwood.

  6. Posted January 27, 2008 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I worked in the coal industry for over 20 years and remember the Labour Government's attempt in the 1970s (I think it was 1974, to be precise, when Tony Benn was in charge of Industry) to develop a UK energy strategy. With the complete agreement of the then chairman of the National Coal Board – Sir Derek Ezra, as he was then – this was summarised as COCONUKE – coal, conservation and nuclear power. (Probably not the exact acronym but near enough!)

    At the time, it was said that we had over 400 years of coal supplies – based on known reserves – and it gave great impetus to finding ways of burning coal more cleanly. I seem to recall there was a "fluidised-bed combustion" plant at Grimethorpe that carried out much of the early research into how sulphur (that causes acid rain) could be removed from the emissions. Other countries were also involved in this area of research and, of course, South Africa – forced by the international trade embargoes at the time – had already developed SASOL which was a coal-based process that supplied them with the fuel they needed to replace oil and its petroleum-like products.

    As as result of the 1983/4 miners' strike in the UK the importance of coal in our energy mix was relegated to the bottom of our priorities and all the funding for developing its (cleaner) use was cut. No politician, or at any rate, no Conservative politician was inclined to give Arthur Scargill and his ilk the chance to hold the country to blackmail ever again.

    Whatever you think about that it was undoubtedly a mistake not to look to the future. Now we are are relying more and more on foreign (Russian?) supplies of gas to heat our homes, generate our electricity and which dictates the prices we have to pay (because of the link to dollar-priced oil) to drive our cars, run our railways and fly our planes.

    Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes, as I am sure you have said many times before, John.

    I was interested to learn that you supported the employee buy-out of Tower Colliery. I didn't know that but they did have a niche market (anthracite!) that meant they could compete against Vietnamese and Russian until the supplies ran out. Good for you.

    As long as it only costs a few dollars a tonne to transport coal 12,000 miles from Australian strip mines (or many other countries now rapidly developing their coal industries), it might be difficult to ressurect the UK coal industry. But times they are a'changing. Time to dig for Britain?

    Reply: Yes, time to dig for warm homes. I have long wanted a new mining industry in the UK where the miners share in success. At current energy prices that is possible.

  7. DennisA
    Posted January 27, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Coal is the name that mustn't be spoken in the current misplaced hysteria about CO2 and yet in 2006, according to the Association of UK Coal Importers, 40% of UK electricity was produced from coal

  8. APL
    Posted January 27, 2008 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Andrew Waltonon: "I completely disagree. The Tories wrecked Britain

  9. Bazman
    Posted January 28, 2008 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    The coal industry was destroyed by The Thatcher government for their own political gains, not for the good of the country or energy issues.
    If the coal industry is ever rebuilt any government of company will find it has to pay real wages for this work to a large number of people. This clearly cannot be allowed as these people will then have political power. Ways will be found around this though. Special visas and the like.
    The dash for gas is a short term and foolish idea. It's questionable that a resource as precious as gas should be even burned in power stations. Instead should be used in the manufacture of plastics and other things. Never happen though.

    reply: The Thatcher govt did not destroy the industry for political reasons. On the contrary, it kept the nationalised insutry together because it thought that was what the miners wanted – it was the Coal Board that closed so much down through its view that so many pits were not economic.

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  1. By John Redwood on the Tower Colliery Story on January 27, 2008 at 6:17 pm

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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