LONDON — Confronting huge stockpiles and dwindling demand, the once-mighty British coal industry announced Tuesday that it will close 31 pits and eliminate a staggering 30,000 jobs--75% of the nation's miners.
The sweeping cuts--which will be felt nationwide with full force within months, although officials have promised to assist miners as much as possible during the transition--leave only 19 working mines in a previously powerful industry.
As a matter of perspective, when the industry was nationalized by the Labor government in 1947, there were 718,000 miners in about 1,000 pits. By 1985, when the industry was racked by a long, rancorous strike, there were 170,000 miners laboring in the pits. Today there are 40,000.
Many mining towns in the English Midlands and Northeast on Tuesday expressed fear for their future, since as one official put it: "When you close a mine, you close the community."
Robin Cook, Labor Party spokesman for energy, called the closures a "vandalism of our energy resources" which "adds up to a bad energy strategy and a worse economic policy."
Cook added: "The rest of Europe must think we are mad to abandon such a rich national asset. Electricity consumers will pay more in their bills to build the power stations to burn gas instead of coal."
Arthur Scargill, fiery head of the National Union of Miners, warned that union members will strike to protest the closures. But the British industry suffers from over-production, and there is an estimated 18-month supply of coal above ground at mines and power stations.
Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal, the nationalized company, and the man who made the grim employment announcement in London, said the massive closures and job losses are "grievous," particularly since mining productivity has doubled in the past six years. Power generators are ordering only 40 million tons of coal next year against 65 million this year, he said.
Although the full loss of jobs will not take place for five months, some pits will close at the end of this week, the chairman reported. About 19,000 miners will be out of work by Christmas.
The main areas affected will be Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in central England. Television news shows aired footage of desolate miners and their families in those communities. "We've been more productive than ever," one face-blackened miner said. "I feel we've been sold out by the government."
Cabinet member Michael Heseltine, president of the Board of Trade, announced that almost $2 billion will be made available to meet severance payoffs and assist coal communities in adjusting to their loss.
Heseltine said that government subsidies to British Coal are running at almost $200 million annually--a sum equal to all the support given to the rest of British industry.