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Andrew Glyn

Up to sixty pits to go?

(October 1985)

From Militant, No. 771, 25 October 1985, p. 14.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SINCE THE miners’ strike the NCB has announced its intention to close 29 pits with a capacity of around 10 million tonnes and employing some 23,000 men.

A further seven pits are being merged, with losses of much of the 1,500,000 tonnes of capacity and 4,500 jobs involved.

Already then, the NCB has gone way beyond its plan, just before the strike, to axe four million tonnes of capacity.

But any hopes that this marks the end of what the NCB has in mind, and that if only these closures are accepted things can get back to normal, would be a severe mistake.

Ken Moses, technical director, has said that the board would attempt to stabilise production at 90 million tonnes per year. The closures already announced would bring colliery production down to this level.


But this would leave out of account additions to capacity, at Selby and elsewhere, which will average out at five million tonnes per year over five years.

With production set at 90 million tonnes this would mean a further five million tonnes of existing capacity would have to be closed each year, at least double the rate at which mines will exhaust.

So closure on ‘economic’ grounds would have to run at around three million tonnes per year.

By the beginning of 1987, the industry would have shed 40–45,000 jobs, involving the closure of as many as 60 pits.

The justification for this drastic cut in production is supposed to be the ‘market’. The NCB’s most important market, the CEGB expects to be using less coal as a result of nuclear reactors coming on stream, and the buying of some ‘surplus’ electricity from France.

The Financial Times International Coal Report suggested that CEGB purchases might fall by 15 million tonnes, a figure disputed by the NCB. In any case the major reasons behind the ‘market’ problem is the stagnation of the economy.

If production was ten per cent higher, demand for electricity would be higher and at least five million tonnes more coal would be burnt.

Added to this the CEGB is currently importing at a rate of some 10 million tonnes per year to build up its stocks.

It seems very unlikely that its imports (and those of BSC) will continue at a high rate. Using the economy to full capacity, and exploiting domestic coal resources, would soon remove the ‘market’ problem.

Even the massive closure programme outlined above would not eradicate the NCB’s losses. To do this would require further cuts of manpower in existing pits as work was speeded up and manning levels cut.

Perhaps another 25,000 jobs would have to go, involving a productivity increase of up to 20 per cent in two years (it has taken more than 10 years for productivity to grow that much in the past).


Adding these job losses to those caused by pit closures would mean the industry being reduced from 180,000 miners before the strike to around 115,000 by early 1987.

But the NCB’s ambitions evidently do not stop at breaking even. MacGregor has boasted of increasing output to four tonnes per man shift on every pit (an increase of about one third), with some producing substantially more.

On this basis the number of miners required to produce 90 million tonnes would be 100,000 or less. Ken Moses has backed this up by saying that if pits are to have “secure futures, they must produce coal at no higher than ... roughly £39 per tonne.”

At present only 75 pits are producing at £45 per tonne or less (excluding interest). Even excluding all those presently scheduled for closure, around 60 pits would have to increase productivity massively to stay viable (including 10 in Nottinghamshire).

Since a number of highly productive pits would be well below the £39 per tonne figure, hitting the target for the rest would mean that the NCB would be earning a huge profit.

The average price received of £44 per tonne, would leave the NCB more than enough to finance all its investment. Could the government be thinking of privatisation on this basis?

As repeatedly argued during the strike, however, considerations of profit and loss give no more justification for pit closures and running down manpower than does the state of the market.

The NCB’s financial calculations totally fail to take into account that the costs attributed to the pit include items, like HQ expenses (including MacGregor’s salary), which will not be saved by pit closure. As these costs, and surplus manpower, get pushed on to other pits these become ‘unprofitable’ in turn.

Social costs

Further, they take no account of the costs of unemployment, in terms of dole payments and taxes lost and which have to be borne by taxpayers. To close 60 pits would cost the government some £900 million per year. Two and a half times the ‘subsidy’ required to keep them open.

The NCB’s profit and loss take no account of the facts that importing coal makes the balance of payments worse, which pushes down the exchange rate, which cuts the living standards of all workers.

It takes no account of the fact that reserves of coal sterilised by closure could only be mined by future generations at much higher cost.

All these considerations, which are thoroughly economic, and which affect the rest of society as well as the miners and their families, are sacrificed on the altar of profit and loss. Their profit, our loss.

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Last updated: 3 November 2016