The UK has virtually completed its move away from the production and use of coal – an astonishing transformation for an economy that once relied overwhelmingly on coal power. This is however a transformation that was never really ‘planned’ and the move away from coal started long before concerns about climate change achieved political prominence.
Until as late as November 2015, for example, there was no government commitment to phase out coal in UK electricity generation. But it was already happening, and some of the most rapid change was actually in 2016, triggered in particular by the impact of a ‘carbon tax’ which has tipped the economics away from coal to gas-fired generation. A handful of coal-fired power stations will remain on the grid for a few years to help meet peak demand, but to all intents the UK is already entering the post-coal era.
Whether this has been achieved without undue pain to coalmining areas is however deeply questionable. Job losses were for many years managed by a combination of redundancies and transfers to surviving mines. Redundancy payments, welfare benefits and early access to pensions provided support former miners, and careers advice and training was on offer. Most former miners have now reached retirement age.
The big problem for mining communities has been replacement of the lost jobs. The UK has a long history of efforts to regenerate areas affected by coal closures and there is clear evidence that this has delivered positive results in the form of new jobs. Nevertheless, there continues to be an imbalance in the labour market in the former coalfields, manifest in ongoing high levels of worklessness, particularly on incapacity benefits. And where new jobs have been created they have often been low-paid.