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24 September 2014
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March 2004
View from the top of a double-decker
pithead
Thirty years ago in West Yorkshire "there was no escaping the influence of coal."
Len Tingle, the BBC's Political Editor for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, looks back to a time when 120,000 families in West and South Yorkshire depended on coal and asks what the future holds for these communities.
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End of an era: The Miners' Strike

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As a lad I used to take the bus home from school in Wakefield to the pit village near Barnsley where I lived. It was a route which might have been paved in Yorkshire coal.

That impression wasn't just because of the umpteen pit tops and muck stacks it passed. From the upper deck there was a birds-eye view of the enormous range of other activities dependent on the mining industry. You could look over the gates of conveyor belt manufacturers, see stacks of pit props in yards, and watch hoppers filling power station coal trucks in railway sidings.

Even back home there was no escaping the influence of coal. There were four miners' welfare clubs in my village. Every football pitch, cricket square, and bowling green was subsidised by the National Coal Board. In the 1960s and 70s these would have been very familiar experiences to the children of more than 120,000 mining families across West and South Yorkshire.

bus interior
It's a very different view now from the top deck of the bus

More than thirty years later I occasionally travel the same route. It could easily be in a different country. Pit tops have been bulldozed and spoil heaps levelled. Smart housing estates have been built on the sites where the mining equipment manufacturers used to stack their products. One former pit yard is now the car park for a spanking new Morrison's supermarket. There's a B and Q and a McDonald's right next door. The area looks brighter, cleaner and far more prosperous.

The year-long strike to save the coal industry in 1984 clearly failed. The total number of surviving pits in the entire country is now fewer than the number I used to pass on that bus ride home from school. But if the economy and the environment are improving does it really matter that well over a hundred thousand jobs in the Yorkshire coal industry have gone since then?

It is not such a simple question to answer as there's still much to be done to overcome those pit closures. Unemployment remains high and many of the new service and light industrial companies induced to move into former coal fields have brought with them a relatively lower wage economy. Hundreds of millions of pounds of European aid have been spent but more is still required. Traditionally low achievement levels in schools are creeping up but still have a long way to go.

However, if the same level of recent progress can be maintained should we really care that the vast majority of the coal industry has been obliterated? Perhaps that's a question that can only be answered by a child travelling on one of today's school buses.

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