Future of Coal in the UK

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:29 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 2:29 pm, 3rd December 2020

I thank Mr Holden for bringing this debate to the House. It is very important to be having it, in view of the crisis in the economy and the wider climate emergency.

As someone whose constituency office is located within the magnificent Redhills, the miners hall in Durham, I have the enormous honour of walking past the incredible large banners in the corridor on my way in. It is constant reminder of that proud history and what we owe to coal and the people who worked in the industry. That history is not just about the buildings, or even the gala, but runs through virtually every village in my constituency. So many families have mining in their blood. Being true to that heritage also means being truthful about that history, because the way the industry was shut down left huge scars right across the north-east. Many of the communities are still feeling the impact of the destruction wrought by Margaret Thatcher’s Governments. People will talk about the closure of pits under previous Labour Governments, and of course that did happen, but it was the reasoning behind Margaret Thatcher’s closures and the way it was done that really did the damage: remember that she called the miners “the enemy within”.

So far I have talked about the history of coal in the north-east rather than its future. There are two main reasons for this: first, we cannot plan a future without first understanding the past, especially the mistakes of the past; and secondly, I have to say honestly that I do not see coal as a fundamental part of Britain’s energy future. There are some interesting and worthwhile projects being pursued all over the country and in the north-east. Even in the steel industry, alternatives exist and could be developed if the investment was forthcoming. For instance, the electric arc process has much lower carbon emissions than the blast furnace process. Under development we have carbon capture technologies, the use of hydrogen to reduce iron ore, and using biomass instead of coal. Meanwhile, I have had fascinating discussions with researchers at Durham University about geothermal technologies. I am aware that none of these are definitive solutions, but we have to continue to invest in the research.

None of this is ever said to denigrate the past that I have spoken about, when coal seemed a beautiful thing that did not just power, cities, towns and villages, but fuelled our communities and gave energy to our movement. However, in 2020 we know that the future is not in the black gold—it is in the new green technologies that will protect our planet for centuries to come. Over the past few years, the Labour party has worked hard to develop a plan for a green industrial revolution that will transform our economy and energy infrastructure into one that places the planet and the worker at its heart while creating a million green jobs in the process.

The big issue is to provide a lasting foundation for a new energy economy, and we have to learn the lessons from the past. In the north-east, the biggest lesson is that we cannot decimate our old industries without anything to replace them. As a society, we did not invest in the north-east in those dark days after the closure of the pits, and we are still paying the price in the lack of investment now. While I acknowledge that there are very short-term needs for the steel industry and coal will still be used in the interim, we must look forward to develop new technologies, and fast, unless we are to fall back into fiddling while the planet burns—and that means genuine investment, not sticking plasters. Although I welcome this debate and the opportunity to discuss these issues, that is where our minds should be focused: it is the long-term solution and hope for our generation.