Open-cast and shut case for reaching Fife pit reserves

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An announcement of a redevelopment plan for the abandoned Frances Colliery at Dysart in April 1988 was the trigger for years of argument over the future of the site.

Just weeks after the devastating closure of the Seafield Colliery in Kirkcaldy, which led to the loss of hundreds of jobs, British Coal unveiled plans for a £100 million upgrade of Frances, which had ceased operations in February 1985, turning it into an open-cast site for extraction of coal.

The planning application submitted would see areas around the site affected; several farms in the area would have to be reduced in size to allow to large areas to be used for extraction while driving a drift mine to reach the Frances’ reserves.

The proposal was met with a mixed response.

The promise of new industry and the 1000 jobs it would bring to the area was welcomed, whilst there was a storm of protest over the environmental impact and the land lost to locals, with one farmer calling the redevelopment “totally outrageous”.

Public meetings were held and over 400 residents from Dysart, Boreland and Coaltown of Wemyss attended to voice their disapproval, leading to the formation of an action group, determined to fight against the plans.

Jim Dumbreck, who stood to lose his mushroom farm to the development, said: “British Coal is going to ruin the environment and we are talking about good agricultural land which has provided jobs for many years.”

The group said that it had no objection to deep mining but objected to the open-cast on its doorsteps.

A bitter war of words was escalating, with angry miners hitting back at the protestors accusing them of spreading “half-truths and myths”.

It came to a head at a furious protest meeting at Dysart Community Hall in early May after British Coal officially submitted its proposal to Kirkcaldy District Council (KDC), seeking full approval.

Local election candidates and their supporters were shouted down, Ian Chalmers, National Union of Miners chairman, was refused entry and heated arguments broke out among the crowd, many of whom walked out.

Later that month Fife Regional Council said it would consider the application from British Coal and promised that objections would be taken into account before any decision was reached, which was initially scheduled for July.

Whilst the council mulled over the plans, fears were raised that British Coal’s long-term contract with the South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB) – crucial to the redevelopment – could fall through, with the SSEB only willing to commit for three years.

As the wrangling continued behind the scenes, British Coal presented its case to KDC, and said up to 1200 out-of-work miners could find themselves back in employment, with miners challenging NUM chairman Arthur Scargill to back the plans at its annual conference in Perth.

The saga dragged on over the summer until Fife Regional Council finally came to a decision in mid-September – “Yes”.

Councillor John McDougall, leader of the Labour administration on the Regional Council, said: “On balance, I think that we have taken the right decision in the best interest of the people of Fife.”

The ball was now in British Coal’s hands to push ahead with the project, but all those months of planning and rancour would ultimately come to nothing.

As late as 1995, when the pit was under the new ownership of Mining (Scotland), there were still talks of the open-cast site going ahead, but ultimately the project was shelved and the site was demolished, save for the Frances headframe which still stands as a tribute to Fife’s once rich coal industry.