How the North East’s former coalfields are coping more than 25 years on

During the heyday of coal-mining, Ashington in Northumberland was considered the “world’s largest coal-mining village.”

The town had a working pit and was part of a corner of the county where the industry thrived with sites also at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Blyth and Ellington.

However, by the end of the 1980s, things had changed.

By 1967 Newbiggin Colliery had closed and – with Margaret Thatcher in power – in 1986 Bates Colliery at Blyth was shut down with Ashington following suit two years later.

Men were left out of work with 64,000 jobs lost across Britain as Thatcher’s government went to war wth the miners.

Today, the former Ashington mine is the home of a business park with a large pond at its centre.

It looks pleasant enough.

But has the restoration of the site seen the revitalisation of the town, and Northumberland’s former coalfields as a whole?

The local MP – who is a former president of the National Union of Mineworkers,  a charity set up to regenerate Britain’s former coalfields in which 5.5 million people live, and academics commissioned by that charity, certainly don’t think so.

30 years on from the 1984/85 miners’ strike which followed the announcement that pits were to close, The Coalfields Regeneration Trust commissioned Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research to takes stock of social and economic conditions in former coalfields.

The report for the charity, set up to “champion coalfield communities, generate resources to respond to their needs and deliver programmes that make a positive and lasting difference,” revealed deprivation, ill health and poor employment, with just 50 jobs for every 100 people of working age, 11.7% of people reporting long-term health problems and 14% of adults claiming out-of-work benefits.

Labour MP for Wansbeck,  Ian Lavery, whose constituency covers Ashington and Newbiggin, says it is a familiar picture locally.

He said:

“The stark thing from the report is that it shows that despite the attention in these former coalfields towns and villages up and down the country, there is still huge problems in terms of the high unemployment, the high youth employment, the low wage economy.

“Sadly the North has got the highest level of unemployment. We have got associated problems.

“Lack of business opportunities, and there is wide scale child poverty in the towns and villages which is something we should not be looking at in this day and age.

“Some of my wards in my constituency child poverty is 40 per cent.”

Mr Lavery, who has lived and worked in a mining community all his life, has called on the powers-that-be to address what he has deemed a lack of investment in the former coalfields over the years.

There is a whole number of problems arising from that report, that local authorities and the government need to take a look into that report and make sure more investment is made.

“I believe the North East has been left behind. We have not had the resources aimed at other industries.

“I would call on the government to scrutinise what has happened in the North East. Where it has went wrong and make a pledge to put it right.

“We are a cash rich nation, to have children in poverty is a political choice. Money is being spent on different projects.

“My simple project would be to eradicate child poverty.

“We can not have kids can not go to school because they have not got enough food in their bellies.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for that level of poverty in areas in any region.

“What needs to be done is there needs to be more investment in the coalfield communities, there needs to be more job opportunities, more business investments, better skills and knowledge and more job creation.

“If we get that with decent terms and conditions, the rest will follow in line.

“The government need to look at how best to assist the North East region, to eradicate the problems which are clearly identified in this report.”

He felt Northumberland County Council is doing its best to help, given its limited financial clout.

“I think the county council the last couple of years, they are doing their damnedest.

“They have tried to put a lot of things in place.

“They are absolutely cash strapped because of the cuts to local government. They have not got the finance they once had.

“A lot of the service Wansbeck (District Council) provided are not being provided any more.”

Since 2011, the trust has created and safeguarded 911 jobs and secured full or part-time employment for a further 2,921 people living within the coalfields communities throughout England.

Since it was established 15 years ago, programmes delivered by the trust have benefited hundreds of thousands of people in the British coalfields, including helping more than 21,000 people into work and over 187,000 to gain qualifications and new skills.

Chairman of the charity Peter McNestry said:

“We welcome Ian’s support and absolutely agree that additional finances are required if we are to make a difference in these areas.

“We have come a long way in the last 15 years but the recession had a disproportionate effect on the people living and working in the coalfields meaning they continue to need our support, guidance and funding.”

He added:

“The coalfields simply want the opportunity to get back on their feet. An entire industry ceased to exist, which employed directly and indirectly most of the people living within these areas. We cannot just turn our backs and walk away. “These towns and villages could thrive and make a positive contribution to the country if we give them the chance.”

The government said its investment in the trust is proof of its support for former coalfields, with over £200m given to the body over the last 15 years, and money ploughed into the areas from other sources.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Long term economic planning has helped to secure a better future and deliver much needed growth.

“We have given over £220 million to support to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust since 1999.

“They have been moving to a self-financing model and the trust now has a strong portfolio of investment and an opportunity to concentrate on the areas where they really add value.

“Regeneration is essential to building a strong and balanced economy, which is why we have given extensive support to many of these areas with the £1.4billion Regional Growth Fund, Local Enterprise Partnerships and City Deals.”

The county council said it is working to improve the former coalfield areas, drawing in investment from elsewhere in addition to spending money of its own.

The authority said its top priority, along with the hoped for dualling of the A1 North of Morpeth, is to secure around £65m to re-open the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne rail line to passenger services.

Furthermore, the council is leading the project for a new £30m South East Northumberland Link Road.

In addition, Arch, the authority’s county development company, is leading creation of a ten year investment plan for Ashington.

This could see a potential £74m ploughed into the town and bring 1,000 high-quality jobs.

Arch is also leading the delivery of a new £20m leisure and community facility at Ashington while the council is proposing to move its headquarters from Morpeth to the town.

The authority furthermore cited its support for the opening of a new £120m Akzo Nobel factory at Ashington.

It also highlighted the new £8m Blyth Workspace building being led by Arch, the first part of the town’s Enterprise Zone.

The council has furthermore secured £600,000 for preparatory work on the former power station site at East Sleekburn which could host 500 new jobs.

The authority also highlighted the £1m being invested at Lynemouth by the Big Lottery Fund and its setting up of a poverty issues task and finish group.

Coun Dave Ledger, deputy leader of the county council, said: “The council is putting former coalfield communities at the heart of our future plans for growth as part of creating a balanced economy across the county.

“I believe there is real cause for optimism in the former coalfields and increasingly we can look to a future that is not defined by but always remembers and celebrates the legacy of our industrial heritage.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal,  17 Nov 2014

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