Dust to dust.
Twenty years ago the Selby coalfield, the most advanced of its kind, came into operation, promising jobs for life and long-term prosperity for the region. Yet today, the last of the five pits closes down. Hilary Macaskill visits the site to find out what went wrong
Tuesday October 26, 2004
When Wistow mine, the first of the five in the Selby coalfield, began
producing coal in 1983, it was a mine that people from all over the world
came to see: this was the first new British coalfield for half a century,
the biggest pit in Europe. Tucked away on a quiet country road in Yorkshire,
screened by hundreds of young trees, its winding gear encased in mellow
York stone, it didn't look like other pits. But by the end of that decade
and well into the 90s, Wistow was smashing production records. It seemed
Now Wistow is deserted. A notice reads, "Welcome to Wistow. This
mine is environmentally friendly - keep it clean to keep it green,"
but the last coal was mined back in May. The only sound is wind rustling
the leaves of the trees, the occasional twittering of birds. From here,
as from all points in this flat, verdant landscape below York, the eye
is drawn south to the cooling towers of Eggborough power station, peacefully
puffing out clouds of steam, once the destination for the coal and a poignant
reminder of what
Blaming financial losses and deteriorating geological conditions, UK
Coal has carried through the closures it began upon taking over in 1995
as the privatised descendant of British Coal (formerly the NCB). The sign
from the A19 still says Whitemoor Mine, but it's now Whitemoor Business
Park - 24
It seems impossible that a project that so gripped the imagination at its outset has met with such an early death. In 1976, writing a piece for the Guardian on the migration of miners, I was taken by NCB public relations officer Fred Sanderson to a bridge overlooking marshalling yards at Gascoigne Wood, to hear of the wonders of the Selby project. In 1972 boreholes drilled by NCB geologist Ron Goossens had confirmed the presence of a reservoir of coal the size of the Isle of Wight. The vision of a superpit - five shafts subtly integrated into the rural Vale of York, linked by an underground network of railways and conveyors to transport coal to the one surface exit at Gascoigne Wood and thence by train to nearby power stations - captivated all who had the slightest connection with the coal industry.
"We were cock-a-hoop about finding this coal," says Sanderson. "I thought, 'What a great product to sell.' I was working full time giving briefings to journalists from all over Europe. Coal was suddenly in fashion."
"It was a fantastic project, a tremendous opportunity to mastermind it," agrees Bill Forrest, who was chief mining engineer for North Yorkshire at the time. "It brought together so many things, especially all that mining engineering know-how. The great thing was sinking the shafts, and driving the drifts [inclined tunnels] to the surface through water-bearing strata - we had to freeze the ground to do that."
It was not only knowledge of the riches below ground - 10ft-thick seams
of good-quality coal, tall enough to work at without bending double -
that fired their enthusiasm. It was also the challenge of exploiting them
in an area of high-grade farmland."Locals were afraid it would be
A campaign to win hearts and minds swung into action. In one year Forrest, "Mr Selby" as he became known, attended 60 meetings at schools and societies. A Social Implications Working Party was set up. "We discussed housing, libraries, provision for under-fives," says Canon Gwynne Richardson, who for 14 years was industrial chaplain to the Selby coalfield.
It was a time of optimism. The NCB commissioned plans for engine houses
that would blend in with the surroundings - a practice unheard of in the
context of pit buildings. Roofs were to be low-pitched, cladding to echo
surrounding buildings, in York stone or redbrick. Wheel washers were installed
As Forrest says: "We tried to think of everything. For example, Skipwith Common, which had never been cultivated, had rare moths and there was a worry they'd be attracted to the lights at Riccall and die. So we put in special lighting."
House-buying here would be more common than renting. As it turned out,
in another first for a pit, this was commuterland - these pits had huge
car parks. "Miners came from Newcastle, Bridlington, Bradford, Rotherham.
A group would share a car, and take it in turns to drive," says Ken
"The sheer scale of the engineering was staggering," says Sanderson.
"It makes the Channel Tunnel look like a fleabite." Brian Lewis,
author of Up Sticks and a Job for Life: Voices from the Selby coalfield,
agrees: "It's like having the Eiffel Tower underground, but you don't
know it's there." He points out that Selby is not going to be "mothballed"
for possible use at a later stage. "It's a bad mistake. It could
be used as a research centre or for training. And how do we know we won't
need the coal in the future?" A
The argument that geology is the problem does not wash with some miners. It has as much to do with share prices, they say grimly. But things have been difficult for UK Coal, which inherited contracts for coal at premium prices. By the time of renegotiation of contracts in 1998, the world price had fallen and proceeds fell by 20%, meaning that UK Coal had to go for the lower-cost reserves available.
And until 2001 Britain was the only country in Europe that gave no subsidy to the coal industry. In the three years before the announcement of closure in 2002, the Selby complex made losses of £30m each year. Nevertheless, Selby has sold every tonne of coal produced: at its peak, in 1993-4, output was 12m tonnes with a workforce of 3,000 miners, plus a fluctuating group of contractors. Last year, with 2,000 miners, it was 5.5m.
"Since the geology has not been as kind as was envisaged when the complex was planned, production costs were substantially higher," says Stuart Oliver, UK Coal's spokesman, "and much higher than the proceeds we've been able to obtain as coal prices have fallen dramatically since privatisation a decade ago."
He also thinks that the original attempts to minimise the effect on the surrounding land by not having too many access tunnels to take out the coal might have contributed to Selby's demise: "If there were more access points, it would have been more economic as the number of pits reduced."
Thatcher's Britain, the politicisation of the Coal Board, contracts for cheap imported coal, Heseltine's closures, privatisation, lack of subsidy and the subjecting of an essential energy to market forces have all played their part in the downward spiral. Now many in the area who had once resisted the incursion of the pit are mourning its passing. The closure will affect more than 150 other businesses.
It was not, after all, "a job for life". Brian Callaghan, responsible
for recruiting the original miners, is troubled about that. "I feel
very sad with myself, encouraging them to take this opportunity of a lifetime.
One attempt to pick up the pieces is the Riccall Regen Centre, whose smart building with glass rotunda was opened in 2000. It runs training courses, a nursery, a social club and a programme of activities that range from pantomime to a fruit and vegetable show. Its existence is due largely to the efforts of Alison Seabrooke, its chief executive, who came to the area in 1991 when her husband Mark joined the Selby pit. She saw the writing on the wall some time ago and, when Whitemoor closed, was part of a taskforce that went in to provide guidance: "I remembered coming up with Mark in 1990 and sitting in the pit canteen, and talking about a 25-year future. It seemed so odd to be standing in the canteen telling the miners what was on offer for their future after the mine had closed."
Richardson is full of regrets: "There were key moments when something
of the original spirit could have been retained to the benefit of nation
and industry. It's very strange. I was here soon after the birth of the
Selby coalfield, when they were just scratching the ground, and I will
be participating in the funeral. I could get quite emotional about that."
· Copies of Up Sticks and a Job for Life can be bought through