Thatcher’s Energy Legacy: the Phoenix for a low-carbon economy? A personal reflection.
It is a more than averagely interesting week in politics; not least because the death of Baroness Thatcher has opened such emotional debates around a woman who was both heroine and villain; visionary and autocrat. One of her most divisive legacies was the deconstruction of the coal industry - so how did it feel at the time and how should those decisions be perceived in our fight for today's low carbon economy?
Margaret Thatcher first came to power when I was a 16 year old Convent girl in Cheltenham, studying for O’levels with little political perception. I clearly remember the power strikes of the early 1970’s which seemed to so vividly epitomise the era; huddled in the cold doing my homework by torchlight and even shopping in candlelit supermarkets. If felt bleak and Dickensian. There was deep anger and unrest in the air.
When I eventually went to Trent Polytechnic it was 1983 and the miners’ strikes were in full flow. Moving from middle class Cheltenham to the grit of Nottinghamshire was an immediate culture shock and eye-opener. I took my first degree in photography; it was a reportage/socio-documentary course, so we were all eagerly exploring the world and trying to make sense of the times through the lens. It felt like an especially aggressive political era. I took photos in Handsworth in the wake of the riots and visited mining villages where families were surviving on thin air; determined not to let Thatcher win and fighting for their right to jobs. I was met with a mix of suspicion and candour “Eh up duck; which p’per are y’from?” Students were no threat so I was able to carry on taking pictures of empty streets and desolate faces – all the more evocative in the black and white of the day. There was little need for colour film.
Even at that young age as I wandered the streets of villages like DH Lawrence’s Eastwood, Rainworth and Ollerton, I wondered what these people were actually fighting for? Did they really want jobs that necessitated unspeakable working conditions, abhorrent long-term health risks and extreme physical danger? I felt they were clinging onto the hope of ‘jobs’ not necessarily mining jobs – but there was little differentiation.
For me, Thatcher’s great mistake was to present the economic case for mine closure in such a way that those communities felt totally victimised. There were few options for people who were so immersed in generations of mining. Communities that for the most-part didn’t exist before and defined themselves singularly by the culture of mining.
Nearly twenty years later, still based in Nottinghamshire, my work as a strategic marketing consultant had taken me into projects around sustainability and I was part of a public- private sector team funded by SRB2 (Single Regeneration Budget) to look at ways to stimulate economic development in the ex-coalfield villages of north Nottinghamshire and north Derbyshire. It struck me how little had changed in those intervening years. Most of the villages, though the mines were long closed, had an air of futility and sadness. High Streets were barren, lined with charity shops, bookmakers and bargain booze outlets.
Whilst I felt strongly that these people deserved better, I could see from an economic development standpoint that trying to resuscitate these communities was probably a hopeless task. There have been regeneration successes in parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, south Wales and the north-east, but that has mainly been attributed to enormous inward investment. There was no longer a queue of American and Japanese corporations clamouring for enticements to breathe new life into faded economies.
I wondered if people, rather than the corporations, had been incentivised to relocate to more viable areas, if that would have been a better solution? Many of these villages are not located in areas that new businesses or even existing ones, would want to move to, even with incentives. They exist because of their historic resource, not because they are strategically well-placed. It may seem like a harsh view, but over the centuries, workforces have had to be mobile – yet there seemed to be a feeling that the world ‘owed’ these communities and needed to bring the jobs to them so the resentment smouldered on. That was until I came across Sherwood Energy Village; a notable example of vision in the midst of hopelessness.
A group of ex-miners led by local councillor Stan Crawford, acquired the 90acre Ollerton mine for £1 from British Coal and set about raising the £5m from European funding to remediate the site and create a truly sustainable community with a business park, housing, leisure and community facilities as part of a zero carbon masterplan. This audacious, award-winning concept created a truly comprehensive live-work solution. Center Parcs was one of the first companies to occupy the site with their new headquarters and in the early days, the business park flourished. Sadly SEV went into liquidation in 2006 due to funding issues trying to get the zero-carbon housing development off the ground. It was simply too far ahead of its time and housebuilders, who are now clamouring for Code for Sustainable Homes exemplar sites, simply did not understand the concept of ultra energy efficient homes.
There was something very neat about a zero-carbon development on the site of an old coalfield. The idea that ‘energy’ was still at the heart of the community; but the opportunity to envisage ‘new energy’ and not the soul-destroying toil of coal extraction suffocating the souls of the workers and the lungs of the planet.
Now based back in Gloucestershire, I’m very much part of a drive to create a more sustainable county and am especially delighted to be Sustainability Advisor to Gloucestershire College, as they design a new low carbon, state-of-the-art further education campus which will be the focus of the regeneration of the Cinderford mining community in the Royal Forest of Dean.
It is my hope that this education and training hub will become the focal point – not just for an exemplar educational estate, but very much in Stan Crawford’s vision – to show how ‘new energy’ can rise Phoenix-like from a decimated community providing better jobs, in viable, sustainable and future-proofed sectors.
So to Mrs Thatcher I say, it was absolutely right to terminate the declining coal industry; but the way you went about it was absolutely wrong. We are now in an era of massive innovation and investment in new technology and low carbon solutions – so let those ‘energy communities’ have their day again and let them become the new energy hubs of the future.