Tag Archives: Brassed Off

But What About…? Part 3b: The Coal Industry, Part 2

If you haven’t read The Coal Industry, Part 1, you should go do that. I’m not sure that this post will make a lot of sense without it.

Hindsight is 50/50. The perspective about a decision at the time it is made, and the perspective from later on, are obviously different. I think that there are aspects of an “at the time” viewpoint that we lose when looking at things after the fact. And I think there’s likely to still be quite a lot that is hidden from either perspective. So things are a lot less clear than the notion “hindsight is 20/20″ would imply.

Yesterday, I talked about a bad situation that government had gotten itself into. It bought the coal industry in the late ’40s, and by the ’80s the industry was no longer viable. The government seemed to be in a lose-lose situation, and chose a “lose” course of action

Could this have turned into a win?

I think so. But given my “hindsight” paragraph above, I’m not saying “they should have done this, they should have done that”. I’m not second-guessing those who made a difficult decision. I’m not even saying that anything I suggest would have been a guaranteed success. I’m giving suggestions that would give a chance of a win. That might not be good enough for some, but it’s a lot better than the guaranteed lose that we got, or the guaranteed lose we’d have had if the government propped up the dying industry.

A RADICAL START

So the mines were losing money. Land as such has value, but that fact didn’t mitigate the money suck. Selling the land off could recoup some money, but let’s get more risky.

1. Gift the land and facilities to those who worked on-site.

Historically, management and workers had not got on very well. Make everyone (at least those that want to) equal partners. Anything they choose to do going forward, they all have the same vested interest. Anyone who doesn’t want to join in, doesn’t have to.

While the government wouldn’t get money from giving away the property like they would if they sold it, it also would stop being a big money-sink.

2. Exempt the property and new owners from tax, for a time.

How much time? 5 or 10 years, somewhere in that range. Should give them time to get something going.

Like the water analogy from the other day, while the miners may have been paying taxes, they were also paid by taxes, so a net loss on the system. Initial taxing would be taking money that isn’t there. So this would be a better situation for the government (no loss), and for the new owners (the former employees, less drain while setting something up).

WHAT THEN?

I called that a radical start, and it is. The miners would have a lot of responsibility thrust on their shoulders, but they wouldn’t have been shafted.

Continuing business-as-usual coal mining would have been futile, so I hinted that they might want to set up something else. But what? I have some ideas, it’s not an exhaustive list. I think if miners and managers had control and had sat round the table and brainstormed ideas, they could have come up with something even better. I don’t believe for a minute that there weren’t some creative and entrepreneurial minds that could have been put to good use. So, some ideas:

1. A museum

Other kinds of mines have been turned into museums. Sygun Copper Mine in Wales and Geevor Tin Mine in Cornwall are two off the top of my head. A coal mining museum could have become a profitable business, too.

Now, would a museum on its own be enough to sustain that many workers? I suspect not, but other avenues of income could of course be pursued.

2. Educational institute

Presumably, all these people working in the mine knew a thing or two about mining. What better way to teach mining and related topics, than with a hands-on course? Have some classroom subjects, sure, go into the mine for some hands-on stuff. Observe the engineering in action. Practical coursework. You could get a world-class institution out of this.

3. Storage facility

These days, an abandoned mine or missile silo might be used for secure off-site data backup and storage. Refit a tunnel to be climate-controlled. This might be a case of hindsight, but looking this sort of thing up, I found this was going on in the days of storing reels of tape.

Which leads to me thinking, if the coal industry hadn’t been on life-support as long as it had, perhaps more TV shows could have been saved from the mass junking that the BBC (and the various ITV stations) did. May have only caught the tail end of it (the BBC stopped in 1978), but ooh, what could have been.

4. Music

This may seem a bit out of left field, but there were coal mines with brass bands (see Brassed Off). I have Welsh mines linked with Welsh male voice choirs, in my brain. Perhaps the stereotype is inaccurate, perhaps there’s some truth there. Concerts and CDs could have been another income stream (you could function-stack it with the museum idea).

5. Authentic sound effects

Record the ambient noise in a mine. Perhaps not the actual blasting close up, but equipment running, miners talking. This kind of sound effect gets used in TV and film. Could royalty yourself a bit of money by recording a bunch of sounds and making them available. Sound effects CDs of all varieties are sold. So why not add this one to the list?

6. TV/movie sets

May be an occasional use, but hey, if you want tunnels, we got the finest! Black “alien planet” terrain, we got that, too! (There are times when Doctor Who could just move in, ha ha.) There are places that get an income from this sort of thing.

7. TV show

Related to 6, collate every anecdote and humorous situation you can from all the people who work there. Pitch it to ITV (at this point, it’s not going to be the Establishment BBC, is it?). And it function-stacks perfectly with 5 and 6.

CONCLUSION

There was a great deal of untapped potential in the situation. I think that “in the box” thinking is difficult to break out of, and even if there was some entrepreneurial genius working deep in the pit, that genius would have faced enormous hurdles to influence any decision makers. Not that I think things would necessarily have been better in a company, management and boards can be just as entrenched in a mindset (so can workers, for that matter). It would take some humility, “Look, guys, the writing’s on the wall for this industry, can any of you think of anything we can do to get some cash coming in?” The suggestion of giving the mine to those who worked in/at it is the best that I could think of to maximise the chance of profitable brainstorming.

Had the government not taken control of the coal industry, I believe that layoffs and closures would have happened over a much longer period of time, which would have softened the impact on the “safety net” (social security). The pit closures started somewhere between 1981 and 1984 (I suspect earlier in the time frame), full privatisation happened in 1994. The last deep coal pit closed in 2015, open cast mining is still going on. Unemployment rose above 10% in 1980, and dipped below that in 1987 (source for unemployment figures, source for other dates).

More conventional methods could have been employed, like diverting funding to retrain the workers, which only works if there’s a job to go into: some places the coal industry was keeping everything else afloat.

If some of the above worked, plus whatever the mine workers came up with, then perhaps government interference would have brought about a better result for everybody than if they’d stayed out of it in the first place.

The way things happened, though, I don’t think the case could be made for that at all.

Come back next week for something different.