Michael Heseltine: “Freemarket Nimby”
A delegation of budding entrepreneurs recently investigated the possibilities of an opencast mine in Michael Heseltine's back garden. Johnny Minor, one of the delegates, reports on the possibilities of coal-extraction from Hezza Manor.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 57.
Michael Heseltine MP, First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister, is notorious for (amongst other things) closing 31 of the last modern deep mine pits, throwing whole communities on the scrap-heap on the grounds that there was “no market” for their coal.
Curiously, a “market” seems to have been found again. In coalfields all over the country, even in places where mining ceased many years ago, licences have been granted for opencast extraction of coal near the surface, against the opposition of local councils and local people.
Opencast involves ripping up acres of fields and woods, including the open spaces around pit villages which contribute to their character and have served generations for recreation. Heavy earth-moving plant creates shattering noise; wildlife is exterminated; huge quarry trucks roar through streets, causing damage and menacing pedestrians; the area is blanketed in coal dust, which penetrates into homes, increases respiratory diseases, especially amongst children, kills plants and makes the garden washing-line useless. Neither does it employ many redundant miners. Non-union labour, bussed in for low wages, is one of the ways the opencast conglomerates make their bucks.
All this is a long way from the scrupulously maintained splendour of Thenford House, a multimillion pound mansion set in 600 acres of beautiful park and farm land, where Hezza rolls out his doss-bag at night. Yet the opencast threat hangs over him too.
A planning application to rip up the sward between his bedroom window and the ornamental lake in the middle distance is currently being considered by Northamptonshire County Council, and has been duly posted on official notice-boards in the village. Only two obstacles to the cost-effective extraction of coal from this valuable site remain. Heseltine’s consent will be needed before work can start. Would the Deputy Prime Minister wish to stand in the way of progress or try to avoid the necessary nuisance suffered by others? Surely not?
The other niggling doubt concerns the identity of the applicants who have devised the scheme. It turns out to be MSG Associates. The ‘MSG’ stands for Miner’s Support Group and the ‘Associates’ are a front for No Opencast, a campaign uniting coalfield communities, including redundant mine-workers and Women Against Pit Closures, with environmental activists, land campaigners and supporters from around the country.
Hezza appeared at a window, livid but ludicrous in lavender pyjamas. “I thought we’d sorted out this trespassing,” he ranted at the constabulary.
There have been actions at several opencast sites and members of Leeds Earth First! have been charged under the CJA for chaining themselves to the plant at the hugely destructive Garsforth site. The villagers of Thenford may have some doubts, but MSG Associates are earnestly pursuing their scheme. A ‘site visit’ in May attracted national publicity and is thought not to have exactly delighted Mikey.
He was even less pleased when, just back from holiday, he found that mining had actually begun at 5am on a quiet Sunday. A little in advance of the planning consent, let alone his consent - of course, but what are such bureaucratic quibbles to go-getting entrepreneurs?
Activists from Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and London, complete with helmets, head-torches and luminous jackets, had roped off a site in front of his bedroom window, erected contractor’s signs on behalf of “Heseltine Opencast Mining pic”, and started digging. The disturbed turf was used to form two huge slogans reading “NO OPENCAST!” on nearby slopes. The local police were bemused and, apparently, waiting for a lead from the First Secretary of State. Despite two hours’ banging and shouting outside, he was still in bed - or pretending to be. A yacht siren was brought, and that did the trick!
Hezza appeared at a window, livid but ludicrous in lavender pyjamas. “I thought we’d sorted out this trespassing,” he ranted at the constabulary, “clear them off!” However, four cops were unable to clear off 60 determined but peaceful “opencast miners” and they simply retreated to the terrace to guard the mansion against anyone wishing to use the toilets. Another CJA failure! Rumour had it that a rave in the area that night had stretched police resources.
Opencast operations continued with songs and discussion, whilst a spade served as a bat in a raucous and lengthy game of cricket, in which the yacht siren played a frequent but undefined role. The media arrived in force and a collection for campaign funds even elicited contributions from two policemen.
After six hours it was decided to end the operation for the day as everyone was exhausted. Departure was organised, NUM style, “in good order”. A banner-waving parade skirted the mansion and circled the crunchy gravel to deliver a final loud message at the Deputy Prime Minister’s imposing front door before marching out through the main gates. Police numbers had increased to a dozen by this time, but they had missed an important opportunity; only a few hundred yards away, the campaigner’s vehicles were parked and police were desperately trying to scribble down registration numbers as people drove off in different directions.
The most inspiring aspect of this action was the wide range of people taking part and the links made between them. Equal numbers of men and women turned up, a large proportion of them over 50. Ann Scargill and Women Against Pit Closures were joined by No Opencast activists from various places, London squatters and trades unionists, and an inspiring van load of EarthFirst!ers. The spirit of the event was summed up at the end as the Leeds crew, sporting dreads, painted faces and colourful clobber piled into their battered hunt-sabbing transit. Mick, staunch socialist and NUM veteran, now co-ordinator for No Opencast in Barnsley, still neat and trim in windcheater and slacks, saw them off with “Good luck, comrades. See you at ‘t next meeting”.
Note to Entrepreneurs: Anyone can apply for planning consent to do anything on any land, provided proper notice is given to the owner. The application then has to be publicised to see if anyone objects and considered by the council planning committee before a decision is made.
Note to Tory-haters: Next time you see Hezza raving on TV, don’t switch off, don’t smash the set. Just narrow your eyes and envision the lavender pyjamas!
Opencast Mining - Ursula Wills-Jones looks at the implications of the high-profit low- employment replacement to deep pit mining - Squall 11, Autumn 1995.