Plans are underway to open a co-operative drift coal mine in New Crofton, which could help create other co-operative enterprises in the area.
The mine will be developed and managed by a workers’ co-operative, New Crofton Co-op Colliery, and will be operational for 17 years. The planning application was approved by Wakefield Council’s Planning and Highways Committee, but now it has to look at options for raising capital, which could include a community share issue.
Throughout its lifetime, the co-operative intends to give back to the community by investing over £10m in local projects. Some of these projects could include the development of other co-operative businesses, a similar ethos to Mondragón in the Basque Country.
The mining project was initiated by a group of architects, engineers, hydrologists and geologists, under the guidance of Bill Birch, who teaches mining courses at Leeds University. It will be situated to the south east of the village of Crofton and is expected to produce 200,000 tonnes of coal each year. Developing the mine will take one year with a further two years added to the of the project to completely restore the site.
The site was originally used by British Coal to store and then load coal onto the nearby railway. The team initially looked at developing an opencast coal and fire clay mine on the site, an initiative in which Mr Birch was involved, but that never became reality. Three years ago he came up with the idea to continue that project as a co-operative.
Jonathan Clarke is one of the founding members of the co-op. With over 15 years experience working for co-operative development agencies, he says he joined the New Crofton Co-op Colliery because he was attracted by the idea of creating a Yorkshire equivalent of Mondragón Corporation, now the largest business group in the Basque Country.
“The whole project is inspired by Mondragón,” he explained. “It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Mondragón. We haven’t got that industry of cohesion in the UK. That’s what’s driving us forward. It is about creating a fairer economy in the area. In reality, the coal mine is a red herring, it is the first part of a bigger project.” He added that the core aim of the project was to create a federation of co-operatives that would continue to exist after the mine closes.
Mr Clarke is in charge of the business side of the project. With a background in environmental science, he has been helping to develop social enterprises across the UK and is also currently involved in two community wind projects.
The co-op needs to raise £13m to open the mine, but Mr Clarke says finance is not an issue now that their planning application has been approved. He thinks financing a coal mine would not pose any risks to investors. “We are pretty confident we’ll get this sorted out,” he said. They are also considering offering the public the opportunity to invest in the mine through a community share issue.
Local communities in Crofton, Havercroft, Nostell and Wakefield will all benefit from the mine, says Mr Clarke. The project could generate around 50 jobs while 50% of profits will be re-invested in the community. The main objective, he says, is to ensure that the money from the mine stays local.
“What we are trying to do is replicate Mondragón, using money from the mine over the next 20 years to invest in new co-ops and try to build a local co-operative economy. We believe in fairness, and are trying to create a fair model where people get a share.”
So far the public has been supportive of the project, particularly mining families who see this as an opportunity to secure jobs. Last year three public information events were organised, which attracted around 200 people from the local communities. Only one person spoke against the initiative.
Local MP for Hemsworth, John Trickett, welcomes the plan to create a co-operative coal mine – the first one of this kind in over two decades. He said: “It’s quite excellent that it’s going to be a worker co-op. It’s an excellent model, a model that has been there for a long time but has never been more relevant.”
But environmental concerns have been weighing on the minds of organisers. Coal is used to produce around 40% of the world’s electricity and the government is encouraging investment in new projects. However, according to Greenpeace, if these new coal plants are built, carbon emissions from coal are expected to rise 60% by 2030, undermining international efforts to tackle climate change.
“Coal is not the best environmentally friendly fuel to use, but it’s better for us Yorkshire people to use Yorkshire coal, rather than imported coal from other countries with much lower health and safety regulations,” added Jonathan Clarke.
Mr Trickett, who is also deputy chair of the Labour Party, added: “We want to move to a carbon-free economy but at the moment we’re burning coal mined all over the world rather than in Yorkshire. If we are going to burn coal we might as well use local resources.”
He explained that a full environmental impact assessment revealed that the site hosted around 65 species of birds, various reptiles and some rare fauna, but that these were going to be fully protected: “We need to be doing whatever we can to use renewables and allow communities to be part of this.”