Moving on Seamlessly? Mapping the Fate of UK Coalfield Communities

By Dr Katy Shaw

2014-15 marks not only the anniversary of the biggest post-war labour conflict in UK history – the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike – but also the first birthday of the Justice for Coalfields campaign. With a total population of around five million, of which 3.75 million are in England, former coalfield sites constitute both a significant portion of the UK and a continuing source of tension for its government. For many former coal regions, the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and subsequent programme of pit closures signalled the onset of a terminal social, economic and political decline. The destruction of the UK coalfields threatened to destroy not only physical places, but the social and psychological structures built around these areas. In many communities, mining towns relied wholly upon their pit—without the pit there could be no town. As one anonymous contributor to fundraising magazine Save Easington claimed, “Easington without pits is a place without a pulse, with no pulse the heart is dead” . The mine was a living, breathing force of life and energy for such places, the provider of the drive and finance necessary to create and sustain a community.

The task of creating a new stable and sustainable economy for former coalfields is not an easy one. Over the past two decades there have been many attempts to regenerate former coalfields. In 1996 the National Coalfields Programme was established to clear England’s derelict pit sites and bring new jobs and investment. In 1999, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust – a charity covering England, Scotland and Wales – was founded to empower former mining communities and create employment. Later in 2004, the Coalfields Enterprise Fund was launched with the aim of brining venture capital to businesses in these areas. While some progress has been achieved by these bodies, the continued vulnerability of these sites was highlighted by the recession, exposing the fragility of recovery. Frustration at a perceived lack of progress in regenerating the coalfields has produced criticism of recent programmes. An academic study on the current ‘state of the coalfields’ by Sheffield Hallam University showed that there are still significant economic and social problems for the majority of coalfield communities. The report also claims that many voluntary community organisations in coalfield areas are now close to crisis.

Following the pit closure programme, journalist Ken Smith describes the resulting fallout as a “social blitzkrieg […] where drug addiction, chronic long-term unemployment, poverty, crime and other devastating social problems became rife”. Problems in coalfield communities include fewer jobs, higher unemployment rates, more people with serious health issues and greater numbers of people in receipt of welfare benefits. Regeneration of these areas cannot address economic aims without first addressing the social issues at their foundation. New jobs generation have tended to be low paid and unstable, in call centres or the unskilled service sector. Mainstream public services including health and education have and continue to struggle. As transport and travel services have gradually been withdrawn, economic isolation of these areas has been compounded, with little new investment in infrastructure, railways or alternative options. As a result, educational attainment, empty or poor housing stock, social exclusion, anti-social behaviour and community and family breakdown have come to characterise former coalfield communities over the past 30 years.

In response to these problems, the Labour Party launched its Justice for the Coalfields campaign in January 2014. Arguing that too much attention has been paid to strategic issues and approaches, the Justice campaign calls for a significant streamlining and rationalising of the many initiatives that ostensibly have short term approaches and limited impact on these areas. Encouraging greater partnership working between EU and UK government, local authorities’ lottery and charities, as well as community and individuals, the campaign proposes a wholescale review of transport, education, housing and health as feeding sources for broader social unrest and stagnation in these former sites of industrial prowess.

The Justice for Coalfields campaign and the fate of UK coalfield regions were subject to renewed interest recently, not only as a result of the thirtieth anniversary of the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike, but also due to the release of Cabinet papers that shed new light on this contentious period of our industrial past. The papers, declassified under the Thirty Year Rule, reveal that, despite denials from the then government, there actually existed a secret hit list of 75 pits planned for closure, with the resultant loss of 65,000 jobs. Those official government papers also revealed that during the 1984-5 strike, Conservative ministers sought to influence police tactics and put pressure the force to escalate the dispute. Controversially, they also prove that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher considered declaring a national state of emergency, and deploying the Army against striking miners.

An important stage in the Justice Campaign was achieved in October 2014, when MP for Barnsley East Michael Dugher presented a motion to parliament. The Opposition Day motion called for MPs to ‘acknowledge the economic legacy of the pit closure programme in coalfield communities’. ‘Justice for the Coalfields’ demanded three things from Ministers: to make a formal apology for the actions of the previous Conservative government during the time of the strike; to set out all details of the interactions between the then government and the police at the time of the strike; and to have a proper investigation – either by the IPCC or an independent body – into what happened at Orgreave ahead of the 30th anniversary in June. Following recent investigations into concurrent events such as Hillsborough, this final demand was augmented by an appeal for a formal apology and an ongoing promise of transparency in order to foster reconciliation between government and coalfield communities in and for the future.

The Justice for Coalfields motion and campaign are so significant because, as Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis suggests, their ‘aims and existence are as much about the present as they are about the past’. Positioning the 1980s at the heart of the problem, alongside the birth of neoliberalism, deregulation and globalisation, the legacies of the deindustrialisation decade mean that only be revisiting and understanding this period can society begin to move forward and address the scars that remain as a result of this time. Structural legacies – including 40 per cent higher unemployment rates and 30,000 fewer jobs in coalfield sites – remain vital to a wider process of healing scars and resolving issues. The fate of the children of the strike, subject to intergenerational cultures of worklessness, zero hours contracts and low skilled jobs, means that a lot of anger about what happened still exists today. The Bill offers a rare opportunity to redirect and reshape both a legacy of conflict and the future of significant sections of the UK.

The potential for change in these sites remains significant. As Robinson argues, “regions which have experienced the rise and fall of industrialism may be particularly well placed to construct a different future” . The crucial emphasis of the Justice campaign is on the plurality of futures generated from past time and space. Chronicling the consequences of changes in socio-spatial structures and transformations between work and residence, its aims are founded on an acute awareness of what has been, what is and what could be. For those involved, regeneration does not involve ‘moving on seamlessly’ or forgetting the past. Instead, as the Justice for Coalfields campaign highlights, any successful attempt to regenerate must position memory as crucial to advancement, re-establishing the identity of communities in the absence of any physical reminders of their past, and any programme that seeks to address these issues must first acknowledge the existence of a large population in transition, a population that has multi-generational experiences of industrial life and spaces.

For cultural critic Raymond Williams, the 1984-5 miners’ strike is all too often ‘represented as the last kick of an old order. Properly understood, it is one of the first steps towards a new order’. Regeneration of the coalfields of the United Kingdom requires a united approach. The Justice for Coalfields campaign and bill foreground this approach, highlighting a real future growing out of a palpable legacy. As the motion argued, ‘without Justice there can be no reconciliation’. Highlighting the significance and potential of the past as a source of power and illumination in the present, the campaign encourages a wider movement towards an appreciation of time and space, past and present to suggest that without the renewal of the lost living presence of the past—and a recognition of this living presence—it is impossible to move forward and build a better future.

1 Response

  1. david nicholson

    Great article i am going to print this and display it in the foyer of kellingley colliery to show what fate awaits if we close we are still fighting to stay open any support appreciated.

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