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Rebutting Rhetoric with Facts: Ex-Mining Regions Suffer Higher than Average Unemployment and Poverty

With Keir Starmer saying that the Prime Minister had shown his ‘true colours’ over comments about coalmine closures, which were met with outrage, Byline Times analysed the extent of inequality being endured by ex-coalfield regions

Boris Johnson onboard the Esvagt Alba during a visit to Moray Offshore Windfarm East on 5 August 2021. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images/Alamy

Rebutting Rhetoric with FactsEx-Mining Regions Suffer Higher than Average Unemployment and Poverty

With Keir Starmer saying that the Prime Minister had shown his ‘true colours’ over comments about coalmine closures, which were met with outrage, Byline Times analysed the extent of inequality being endured by ex-coalfield regions

More than half of ex-mining local authorities had higher than average unemployment rates at the end of December 2020, data analysed by Byline Times can reveal.

Ex-mining parliamentary constituencies also suffer higher than average UK levels of relative and absolute child poverty, according to HMRC and Department for Work and Pensions data for 2019/20.

An analysis of 53 ex-mining constituencies found that 30 had higher than average rates of child poverty, while 22 had higher than average rates of absolute child poverty. 

Byline Times‘ investigation comes after the Prime Minister was criticised for his comments that mine closures under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s had “given the UK a big early start” in fighting climate change. Although said jokingly, the remarks appeared to make light of the suffering endured by mining communities during the strikes and pit closures that led to people enduring extreme hardship and hunger, as well as violent clashes with police. 

Labour Leader Keir Starmer said that the comments revealed Boris Johnson’s “true colours”. 

“For Boris Johnson to laugh when talking about the closure of the coal mines is a slap in the face for communities still suffering from the devastating effects of Margaret Thatcher’s callous actions,” he added.

The data analysed by Byline Times suggests that, four decades on from the miners’ strikes, ex-coalfield regions still face issues around unemployment, child poverty and under-investment. 


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High Levels of Unemployment 

Byline Times analysed the unemployment figures for 42 local authorities that contain ex-mining communities, based on a list of ex-coalfield regions complied by Sheffield Hallam University.

The analysis found that 22 ex-coalfield local authorities had higher than UK average unemployment rates between January 2020 and December 2020. 

The area with the highest unemployment rate was South Tyneside, at 8.2%. This compares to the UK average of 4.6%. South Tyneside had four working pits, the last of which closed in 1993. 

The north-east had some of the highest unemployment rates. In Sunderland, where pit closures led to 31,000 job losses, unemployment remains at 6.8%. Durham County’s last pit closed in 1994, today the unemployment rate is 6% – 1.4% higher than the UK average. 

In Wales, the unemployment rates in ex-mining communities tended to be lower than the national average, with the exception of Merthyr Tydfil at 5.5%.

However, according to research by Sheffield Hallam University in 2019, “the South Wales coalfield has an exceptionally low job density, high numbers on out-of-work benefits, poor health, extensive deprivation and has largely been by-passed by the growth in warehousing jobs”.

Scotland’s ex-mining local authorities also reported higher than average levels of unemployment: East Ayrshire’s unemployment rate was 5.2%, while in Fife it was 4.8%. Midlothian was below the national average, at 3.6%

Ex-pit local authorities in Yorkshire and the Midlands also reported higher than average unemployment rates: Doncaster’s unemployment rate is 5.3%; Barnsley was 5.2%, and Mansfield was 6.2%. Further south, Stoke-on-Trent’s unemployment rate was 5.3%, and Newcastle-under-Lyme was 5.8%

Those in work in ex-coalfield regions are more likely to be employed in manual or call centre positions than elsewhere in the UK, and earnings were lower than the UK average for both men and women. Residents were also less likely to have a degree qualification than the UK average. 

Sheffield Hallam University’s 2019 research found that “coalfields still have vast numbers out-of-work on incapacity benefits – 276,000 in November 2018, equivalent to 7.8% of all 16 to 64 year olds”. It also found that the number of employee jobs in the area per 100 residents was lower than the UK average – 55 compared to 73, and significantly lower than in London. 

It also argued that the unemployment figures in former coalfields is actually higher than official figures suggest, due to what the authors call “hidden unemployment”. This refers to people who “could have been expected to be in work in a genuinely fully employed economy”. The research said that, when figures are adjusted to include the hidden unemployed, “unemployment in the former coalfields is not only much higher, at an average of 7.5% of all adults of working age, but also the gap between the coalfields and the most prosperous parts of the country is larger”. 

Child Poverty

Using data published by HMRC and Department for Work and Pensions, Byline Times can reveal that a majority of ex-mining constituencies have higher than average rates of relative child poverty, while a number also experience higher than average rates of absolute child poverty. 

Each year, the Government publishes a survey of income poverty called Households Below Average Income (HBAI), which sets the poverty line in the UK at 60% of the median UK household income. If a household’s income is less than 60% of this average, then the HBAI considers the people in it to be living in relative poverty. Absolute poverty is where a household’s income is less than 60% of the median as it stood in 2011.

Stoke-On-Trent Central, Stoke-on-Trent North, and Rotherham all reported the highest rates of relative child poverty, at 36%, 35% and 35% respectively. Stoke-on-Trent Central also had the highest rate of absolute child poverty in the areas analysed, at 30%. 

Unsurprisingly, areas with high levels of unemployment also had high rates of child poverty. South Shields, located in South Tyneside, had relative and absolute poverty rates of 31% and 27%. Sunderland Central’s child poverty rates were 28% and 24%. 

High rates of child poverty are not confined to the ex-coalfields. For example, Bethnal Green and Bow in London has a relative child poverty rate of 31%, while in Glasgow Central it’s 43%, and in Birmingham Hodge Hill it’s the highest in the country at 53%. 

However, according to Sheffield Hallam’s research, “overall, 42% of coalfield neighbourhoods are in the most deprived 30% in Britain”.

The UK national average relative and absolute child poverty rates are 19% and 16% respectively. 


Many of the ex-coalfield local authorities were disproportionately impacted by austerity measures imposed since 2010 by Conservative-led Governments, including via cuts from central Government to local authorities. 

This is in part because less well-off areas are more reliant on grants from central Government to make up their budgets, while wealthier areas can raise more revenue from council tax. 

According to data published by the Centre for Cities, Barnsley was the worst hit, with 40% cuts on day-to-day spending between 2009/10 and 2017/18. This compares to a national average of 9% cuts. Barnsley’s unemployment rate was 5.2% and the rate of relative child poverty in Barnsley Central and Barnsley East is 25% and 27%. On the same metric, Doncaster has seen day-to-day spending cuts of 30%, as has Wakefield

Durham County has seen an overall budget cut of 55% since 2010, while in Sunderland the cut in the local authority’s “core spending power” was 30.1% – that’s 9.6% harsher than the national average. 

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