Business

Sirius Minerals: The people who spent thousands on a Yorkshire mine

Nigel Howard and Andrew Davies have both invested thousands of pounds in Sirius Minerals' shares Image copyright Nigel Howard/Andrew Davies
Image caption Nigel Howard (L) and Andrew Davies (R) invested thousands of pounds in Sirius Minerals' shares

For Nigel Howard, the chance to invest in the biggest mine to be built in the UK for a generation was too good an opportunity to miss.

The £4bn project - to dig up a mineral used in fertilising crops from underneath the North York Moors National Park - would potentially create thousands of jobs for a region with the highest unemployment rate in England and Wales.

So convinced was Mr Howard of its merits that the 76-year-old local man cashed in his entire £30,000 pension pot to buy shares in Sirius Minerals, the company behind the massive fertiliser scheme.

Now, however, like thousands of other individual investors, the pensioner finds himself stuck in a hole he can't get out of.

"It looks as if we're in dire straits with what's going on," said Mr Howard.

This week, Sirius Minerals' share price plunged by 60% when it was forced to pull plans to raise $500m.

The money was key to Sirius' future. Securing the funds would unlock a further $2.5bn (£2bn) in financing from US investment bank JP Morgan.

Sirius has embarked on a strategic review, and unless the company finds another way to raise the money in next few months, its future looks bleak.

"We can't do anything at present," said Mr Howard, who initially bought shares at 24p each. "We can't pull out because [the share price] is basically next to nothing."

Image copyright Sirius Minerals
Image caption Sirius Minerals has begun construction on the £4bn fertiliser mine project

Mr Howard said that before the Sirius investment "I was just content for a life of retirement and just enjoy my pensions. But I'm now down to the normal old age [state] pension".

Regeneration

The company has 85,000 individual shareholders. About 10,000 of these are located in areas surrounding the Teesside project, where many people no doubt invested because of the regenerative benefits for the North East.

At 5%, the region has the highest unemployment rate in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. Sirius said the project would generate about 4,000 jobs.

The plan is to develop the Woodsmith mine, near Whitby, to give the company access to a vast deposit of polyhalite, which can be used as a fertiliser.

Image copyright Sirius Minerals
Image caption Polyhalite can be used as a fertiliser for crops

The polyhalite will be transported along a 23-mile tunnel and conveyor belt to Teesside near the former Redcar steelworks, which closed in 2015 and cost 2,200 people their jobs.

When Andrew Davies, 59, and his friend were weighing up whether to invest in Sirius six years ago, the boost to the local economy was a factor in their decision.

"Lots of the locals were really, really happy because obviously it is regeneration of their area which is fantastic," he said.

"Because the share price at the time was quite low, we thought it had great growth, it would supplement our pensions and support a British company as well."

Fortunately, Mr Davies bought some Sirius shares when they were less than a penny and the highest he paid was 7p.

Still, he has put £60,000 of his money into the company. "I'm obviously very upset as to what has gone on," he said.

Conserving cash

It also emerged this week that the government would not provide a $1bn loan guarantee to Sirius. "The government in reality should be backing this," he said. "It is a massive boost for the country."

Financially, Mr Davies said it hasn't created difficulties for him. "Right from day one, I've made sure that my investments don't impair any of my pensions as such, because at the end of the day this was something that was to enhance my pension not to take a risk with my pension."

But he can't really do much with his Sirius shares.

Image copyright Sirius Minerals
Image caption The Woodsmith mine site near Whitby

In an effort to conserve cash, Sirius has slowed work at the site where 1,200 people have been working, the vast majority of which are employed by third party construction firms.

Sirius had hoped to start producing polyhalite next year. It has struck deals to supply 11.7 million tonnes of it a year to businesses.

However, it is yet to sink two shafts to a depth of 1,500 metres at the Woodsmith mine to allow for production.

The race is now on to find an investor to fund the next stages of development - or maybe even a buyer for the business.

Image copyright Brian Pieters

Mr Davies is going to hang onto his shares. "There is no point in selling them now at such a loss. You may as well keep hold of them now and believe the Sirius line that one day it will come to fruition."

Mr Howard said the situation is "very distressing especially for myself and my wife at our age".

He said "We know that buying stocks and shares is a gamble but this looked so, so good and they've already got massive orders in the pipeline from other countries.

"Personally, I don't think it will fail, I hope not anyway. I think we're just in for a rough, rocky ride for a few years."

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