The final whistle has blown on several recreation grounds in former Yorkshire mining communities. But can more be done to avoid others suffering a similar fate? Chris Burn reports.
For generations, they were at the heart of the proud communities they served - recreation grounds run and operated by miners and the base for a huge variety of local sports teams. But after surviving for decades after the privatisation of the coal industry and the closure of the pits that once sustained their existence, a growing number of such facilities are now closing in Yorkshire and falling into disrepair.
However, views differ on whether the loss of such facilities is merely a sad but inevitable sign of the times. National charity the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation (CISWO), which oversees hundreds of such recreational sites across the country, says when facilities can no longer be self-sustainable, closure is the unfortunate inevitable result.
But officials from the National Union of Miners argue CISWO could be doing more to keep the grounds open. They also say that if sites do have to close and land sold off, money should go back to that specific local community rather than into the general CISWO accounts, as is the case currently.
Three sites to have closed in recent years in Yorkshire are in Grimethorpe and Dinnington in South Yorkshire and Sharlston, near Wakefield, in West Yorkshire. There are more than 40 miners’ welfare schemes operating in Yorkshire but Chris Skidmore, chairman of the Yorkshire NUM, says a number of them are existing “hand to mouth” and struggling to afford to make repairs.
“It is a chicken and egg situation. You can’t move with the times if you haven’t got the funds to do it. There will always be a need for recreational facilities - it is getting people inside and using those facilities. In essence, if they don’t get extra funding then it will be the same as any pub, any organisation, that if it doesn’t get used and promoted then it falls into disrepair.”
CISWO was established in 1952 and initially focused on developing the social infrastructure of coalfield towns and villages. But after the privatisation of the industry in the 1990s, the Government proposed establishing CISWO as a charity which should concentrate on personal welfare work for sick and elderly miners. As part of the organisation’s responsibilities, it also took on the running of hundreds of recreation grounds owned by British Coal, which it leases out to the local miners’ welfare schemes at “nominal rents”.
In recent years, CISWO made a “strategic decision” that it would not offer grant aid to welfare schemes running recreation grounds and would instead focus on providing support services to individuals. The charity says it has finite resources and in 2015 drew up a three-year plan to reduce expenditure by £600,000 so as to prolong the charity’s expected life-span from the estimated nine-and-a-half-years to 15 years.
Alison Turner-Mills, estate manager for CISWO, says the charity has to be careful about where it directs resources as it focuses on supporting miners and families suffering with issues like ill-health, disability or poverty.
“Just under 10,000 individuals were supported through our services in the last year. This includes advice, guidance, advocacy and grant assistance for individuals. The organisation also provides some support for independent mining charities and aims to preserve recreational facilities in former mining communities for current and future generations where this is feasible and viable.
“Miners’ welfare schemes are charities in their own right. CISWO offers support to welfare schemes regarding governance, and ensuring that the assets of individual welfares are used for the best charitable purpose. CISWO does not offer grant aid to these charities but can advise of other funding opportunities available. However, ultimately they need to be self-reliant and sustainable.
"Welfare schemes have closed for a variety of reasons, including no longer being financially viable, or no longer being needed by that local community due to changes in the demographic. CISWO will look to preserve recreational land for use by local communities where it is needed and financially viable.
"Where this is not the case, for example where no tenant can be found, or where the land is no longer needed due to additional facilities in the area, we may consider disposing of the land and using the proceeds to fund our personal welfare support for individuals.
"Of course CISWO do not wish welfare schemes to fail but they are standalone charities which need to effectively manage their assets in accordance with their charitable objects.”
She says in the cases of Grimethorpe, Dinnington and Sharlston, there are different reasons why each site is yet to be put to a new use.
“In the case of Grimethorpe, following closure of the original welfare, the recreation ground was let to another charity. Unfortunately after several years trying to involve the local community but suffering numerous incidences of vandalism, that charity could no longer continue and the lease was surrendered back to CISWO.
“CISWO were approached by other bodies interested in taking a lease of the premises but unfortunately once the costs of running the ground were known they were no longer interested. We do have another interested party who may reopen the recreation ground for sport but unfortunately, the process has been delayed, again due to issues of vandalism which have cost CISWO significant sums to resolve.
“At Sharlston, the trustees surrendered the lease back to CISWO following closure. We are currently considering the best use of this land.
"Dinnington Miners’ Welfare Recreation Ground was transferred to CISWO by the Charity Commission. The site has previously been leased to Rotherham Council, but they decided not to take a new lease and since that time CISWO have been considering the best use of the land in the future within the priorities of the Local Development Framework, taking into account the needs of the area.
"As with many planning matters this can take a significant amount of time to progress through the process which is beyond CISWO’s control.”
But while Mr Skidmore accepts the need for CISWO to support individuals, he does believe there is scope for the charity to reconsider its support for welfare schemes. With the company’s latest accounts showing it has a fund balance of over £29m, he says that at the very least money from the potential sale of such sites such as Grimethorpe, Dinnington and Sharlston should be ringfenced for spending in the local community.
“The number of miners is declining. Nationwide, about 7,500 die every year from industrial-related diseases. But in order to keep the values of the community spirit you need people who understand how things came to be. If a welfare site does have to close then the proceeds from the sale of the land should come back into the community.”
Spending did not match rental income
CISWO received more than £220,000 in rental income from recreation grounds in 2015 - but spent less than £15,000 on direct support costs for miners’ welfare schemes.
Its latest accounts show CISWO received a rental income of £222,432 from such sites in 2015, slightly up on the 2014 total of £184,167. However, operating costs for recreational sites under its control, including ones that have closed, did reach £173,611 in 2015 - of which £93,621 related to staff costs. The accounts show £14,624 was spent on support costs for miners’ welfare schemes.
In the same year, more than £860,000 of grants to individuals in need were handed out.
Currently any land sold by CISWO sees 80 per cent of the proceeds going to the Coal Authority, a non-departmental Government body. But from next year this charge will no longer be applied, although CISWO says it has no intention to change its current policies or practices on the sale of land.