BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Pit closures still blighting Gwent

South Wales Argus: SWA_BM_1046_03 (3429885) SWA_BM_1046_03 (3429885)

COAL mining areas in South Wales continue to be blighted by the effects of the huge job losses caused by pit closures throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and still require support to help them recover, a new State of the Coalfields report concludes. ANDY RUTHERFORD looks at former mining areas in Gwent.

HIGHER unemployment, poorer health, a greater dependence on welfare benefits – in a way such findings for England, Scotland and Wales’ coalfield areas, compared to other parts of these countries, should come as no surprise.

Barely a month goes by without a new or updated set of figures demonstrating that, for many of these areas, economic and social deprivation is more pronounced and and more stubborn to deal with.

But the conclusion of the State of the Coalfields report, issued by Sheffield Hallam University ‘s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research – that these areas still require support – is a sobering one, especially given the fact that most of the pits that were lost immediately before, and during the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, have been closed for a quarter of a century or more.

The report, focusing on the fortunes of 16 coalfield areas in England, Scotland and Wales, acknowledges that progress has been made in many areas in the years following pit closures. However the economic downturn from 2008 has halted proposed regeneration, or negated much of the good work one to try to boost communities.

In Gwent, deep mining was over by the end of the 1980s, the area’s final two collieries, Marine at Cwm, and Oakdale, closing in March and August 1989 respectively.

They were two of five Gwent pits, out of 17 across South Wales, to close within five years of the end of the miners’ strike, in March 1985. Though a handful across the region remained into the 1990s, all bar Tower Colliery were closed by the end of the 20th Century.

Though the numbers of those employed had reduced considerably from individual pits’ heydays, each closure cast several hundreds into the ranks of the jobless.

Already areas with histories of higher unemployment and poorer health, the latter due to generations of people working in heavy industry, coalfields suffered spikes in such figures, the consequences remaining apparent today.

Many South Wales Valleys areas, including those in Gwent, have higher incidences of respiratory and heart diseases, and cancers, lower life expectancies, higher rates of unemployment, and a greater level of welfare benefits claimants.

Blaenau Gwent, which in addition to coal mining had a significant steel industry workforce for decades, has among the worst death rates for such diseases in Wales, indeed the UK, and even when jobless totals and rates have fallen in periods since pits closed, these have remained among the highest in Wales.

The Sheffield Hallam report reveals that, of the coalfield areas studied, South Wales reports the largest proportion of people who consider their general health to be bad or very bad (9.8 per cent), and who consider that health problems impose a lot of limitations on day-to-day activities (14.9 per cent).

The South Wales coalfield area also had the highest Disability Living Allowance claimant rate (10.7 per cent of the population), as measured in August last year.

In 2012, the number of jobs in the South Wales coalfield area per 100 residents of working age was measured at 41, among the lowest, and way down on the Great Britain average of 67.

In the aftermath of the demise of coal mining, billions of pounds have been pumped into regeneration projects in coalfield areas, including many millions in South Wales.

Landscapes have been realigned as pit spoil heaps have been removed or reshaped to house new industries, highway and rail links have been improved, and grant aid and other support has helped bring private investment to areas formerly reliant on mining.

But when whole communities and groups of communities are hit by sudden mass job losses the effects, concludes the report, can last for years. Add global economic downturn, albeit many years later, and the fragility and long term nature of recovery in these areas are thrown into harsh spotlight.

The Sheffield Hallam report, Economic and Social Conditions in the Former Mining Communities of England, Scotland and Wales, can be found atshu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/state-of-the-coalfields

l Many former coalmining communities struggled to adapt to the harsh reality of pit closures and in the intervening years, though jobs were often created in new industries on former colliery sites these were and often remain, far fewer in number compared to those lost initially.

Economic boom and bust in subsequent decades have also seen hundreds of jobs created and lost, with many people having to seek work further afield. This travelling has often involved daily trips to and from Newport, Cardiff and other major regional centres and this can change the feel and function of small communities.

Leon Gardiner, deputy mayor of Caerphilly county borough, who lives in Argoed, near Markham, and who worked at both Markham and Oakdale collieries, believes communities such as Markham remain close knit, but their dynamic has changed.

“People now have to travel further to work, get up earlier, and it changes places like this, because they spend more time away,” he said.

“There isn’t the feeling and companionship that there was when the pits were open, and in many ways the blight is still there.

“Communities like Markham still bear the scars and I don’t believe the government works hard enough for these areas.

“All of these places had miners’ institutes and they were very popular, but Oakdale’s is now down at the museum at St Fagans.

“There are jobs around and there is potential at Oakdale Business Park and at Croespenmaen to attract more businesses, but a lot more could be done to help equip young people with the skills they need.

“Governments, whether Conservative por Labour, never spent what they should have spent, to restore these Valleys.

That’s one reason why we still have higher unemployment and people struggle to find work, and many of these communities will never be the same.”

l In the 25 years since Gwent’s last pit closed, former colliery sites have enjoyed mixed fortunes in terms of regeneration.

Markham colliery closed earlier – in 1986 – but the site, across the A4048 road from the village, remains undeveloped, though plans are in place.

Planning permission was granted late in 2011 for the development of a country park, and the site’s purchase was pursued by Caerphilly council through the Heads of the Valleys Initiative.

Among the proposals for the site are new paths, cycle- and bridleways, fishing pools, a visitor centre, tree planting programme, picnic areas and nature trails, and possibly a rural skills centre.

A couple of miles away, at Oakdale, the colliery site is being transformed into a business park that already has a variety of tenants.

General Dynamics UK has a presence there, along with businesses in fields as diverse as confectionery, nutritional research, packaging, and scaffolding.

Recently, two 130-metre high wind turbines have been installed on part of the site, with the potential to power 2,400 homes a year.

The 400-acre business park site took six years and £10m to reclaim, and Caerphilly council believes it has the potential to provide 5,000 jobs and inject up to £100m a year into the local economy.

A small business centre and more offices are planned for the site.

More than 700 miners lost their jobs when Marine Colliery, at Cwm, near Ebbw Vale, closed in March 1989. The site was cleared and reclaimed within a few years, but has remained unused.

The development of a rail freight facility is a possibility for part of the site.

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