A Cumbrian coal mine? There’s a time and a place!

(Photo: CCL)

By Jack McKenna – Contributor

In the 1980s, Thatcher’s boys in blue ran riot in mining communities in Northern England, stripping away centuries of industrial culture and community spirit. Almost 4 decades since a horseback cavalry, batons and shields were a regular sight on the journey to get a morning paper, the windows have remained bordered up, food bank usage has reached tenfold, and our high streets are lawless jungles that have forced families afar, leaving communities unrecognizable from their glorious industrial past. Just last week, Michael Gove announced that Whitehaven, in West Cumbria, will be the site for a new coal mine. Despite the claim of ushering in a new era outside of the EU, in good old fashioned Tory fashion, there is a catch: the coal mined in Whitehaven has already been rejected by European steel manufacturers, and, need I say more about the state of steel-making over the last 12 years. It does beg the question, why wasn’t this introduced 10 years ago, and why wait till a poll deficit to announce it?

It’s a cold evening in 2015, Middlesbrough are playing Manchester United, in the midst of 9,000 Teessiders, a chant rings out; ‘Cameron, wherever you may be, you’re not fit to run this country. You shagged a pig, you made it squeal. Now get off your arse, and save our steel.’ A fortnight ago, Europe’s largest blast furnace turned off its power, 2000-3000 men made unemployed, almost 200 years of steel-making consigned to death. Redcar became synonymous with destitution – the town went from industrial prowess to being the textbook definition of depravity and decline. It did not have to be this way, there was another way.

At the time of writing this article (12th December, 2022), MAKE UK – the representative for British manufacturers – released their latest report, and it makes for damming reading. In the report, it was outlined that; manufacturing has been down by more than 4% from 2021, investment in the negative figures for the first time in nearly two years, GDP forecast to contract in 2023 by 0.9%, and manufacturing output in manufacturing flatlined in the last quarter, causing a further detriment to expanding new skill opportunities to younger people (MAKE – UK, 2022). The future looks bleak for UK manufacturing under the current trajectory. Not only do businesses lose out; workers, families and communities will not be able to recover in these times of economic uncertainty. But more so, this will start raising questions around what a Tory vision outside of The EU looks like, and it is safe to say that Britain’s potential is not being unleashed whilst Sunak squats in Number 10, but more ‘levelling up’ is rendered useless, and its use as election leaflet material is proven.

The pursuit for a wave of progress in our manufacturing sector could have been sailed many Prime Ministers ago. Instead, Number 10’s occupier many moons ago, David Cameron, decided to bank Britain’s industrial workforce for political success and a referendum. From leaving Britain’s labour market vulnerable, to underfunding, and to wage stagnation as well as warming to his backbenchers, communities in Redcar paid the price for Cameron and Osborne’s recklessness. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is still yet to turn on a light. Steel, high speed rail and nuclear energy are all necessities to grow our economy whilst not being a detriment to the environment. So why are we seeing no signs of growth? Why aren’t we seeing no signs of investment into our communities who are still recovering from an event that happened in the last century? When will we see Sizewell C opening up? If I knew the questions I would spare you the article, but a question – is not only yet to suffice – is yet to appear.

When you think of NIMBYism, you’d be right to concern your mind with a Neighbourhood Association from Berkshire, consisting of an average age of 65. However, I digress, I would rather come to the assertion that we have all been victims of NIMBYism for the last 12 years – this not a NIMBYism of a Hampshire grandmother, but the NIMBYism of the ivy-tower libertarian polity who yearns for a Singapore-Upon-Thames. The Neighbourhood Association sits at the heart of government, and has done since 2010. This is why we have seen little progress in growth and output. Sod it if we see our local communities lose out on money, sod it if we see what was the site of dockyards degenerate into lawless jungles, sod it if our young people can’t find work, and sod it if the social ladder disintegrates into sawdust, and for this reason we are a nation of craft no more. Centuries ago, Vikings pillaged and plundered everything that stood on the fields of this land of hope and glory; now it is our own governing glass that have pillaged our industrial communities, removed all aspects of hope and glory, and resold it as scrap metal to the rest of the world.

The path could have been twofold; yes, coal can be used to heat and create steel, mining and sourcing our own supply is very advantageous, but to quell the environmental concerns someone who is blissfully unaware to how steelmaking can be sustainable would display the answer also lies in electricity. Using the common sense that we could have went out on a limb and only have hoped our government had used, most European countries have adapted with the challenges poised to the planet, and have taken steps to decarbonize so that there is no halt to or flat line in output; economy is still growing, profit is still being made, and workers are not only still in jobs but also getting paid more. The option and opportunity to build electric arc blast furnaces was blatantly looking us in the eyes, but as always British ignorance reigns supreme. If our governing class actually wanted to unleash the British potential they speak of, Redcar would still have a blast furnace, and more jobs would be created alongside 3,000 that were there at the time of production.

But this is the same problem we have seen arise from the introduction of Freeports last year; too little, too late. Yes, of course, skilled employment is always welcome, but when you no longer have access to a goods market then it makes sense why these projects would attract scepticism, and be rendered useless. Our politicians, especially in the last 12 years, have been hooked on short-termism just so they could write election leaflet material (obviously, with the recent polls, this has been a success with the electorate). But more so the money from these short-term, miscalculated projects serve no use to the local supply chain; the profits don’t get re-invested back into the local supply chain, and the vulnerability of the UK labour market allows for these jobs to be consequential to employment in the long term retrospect. This will most likely be the case with the new West Cumbrian mining project that is most likely to serve as an export mine, free trade has not been too kindly to us in an era we were told would be of ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’ – either we have poor luck, or we just have poor politicians bargaining on our behalf.

My scepticism of such a project does not come from a lighthearted environmental concern or the concerns shared by The Neighbourhood Association. It comes from serious impatience and bitterness. Yes, there is an argument that the jobs this will provide for a community like Whitehaven will be immense – this we should welcome, but more so I would gleefully welcome long term investment in skills and employment than this sorry attempt to improve upon a poll deficit. Like the aforementioned tangent about electricity and steel now being more popular, it does not surprise me that the UK are lagging behind the rest of Europe when it comes to manufacturing, but it shouldn’t be this way – instead we ought to boast about our industrial present, and future, as well as our industrial past. Though I’m a fan of re-balancing our export to import ratio, this is not what manufacturing advocates like myself had in mind. Instead of using the energy derived from this mine to heat our own homes and to craft our own materials, we are simply dishing it out to other countries – that is the Tory way; make a quick book, bargain the nation, care about the consequences when Labour are in government.

Will we ever see long term meaningful employment in communities like Redcar and Whitehaven? Will we ever be able to boast of the British industrial prowess ever again? Maybe so, but when the sun goes down on the end of the last decade of Tory power, then the sun will rise upon Britain’s manufacturing sector. Maybe we will see the removal of The Neighbourhood Association as well, but as young people, you and I ought not to be too optimistic – wishful thinking only disappoints.

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