Life in the Parish

Surveying the sad remains of a once proud industry - 
The economic impact on UK shortsea ports resulting from the demise of the China clay industry in Cornwall serves to illustrate the damage that can be wrought by Corporate takeovers
(author)  Michael Grey
appeared 8 October 2010 on "Lloyds List"
J. Mosman, OPC WE TOOK a drive through the ‘Cornish Alps’ the other day, on holiday in the western regions of this realm. These, of course are the great piles of spoil from 150 years of digging by the china clay industry, which have changed the Cornish landscape, leaving it scarred by huge pits over that tower these mighty man-made cones of residue.

You have to admit it is not the most beautiful part of the county, with the upland villages, which once housed thousands of workers, showing their decay in the same way you can see life deteriorating in those grim pit villages of the north of England, where coal mining has been replaced by a void of welfarism.

There is still china clay being worked here. We watched spoil being thrown onto the hillsides (why they cannot simply put it into the great holes in the ground from previous workings one cannot imagine), but the industry is in retreat.

Four years ago, when we were last in Cornwall, the Port of Par was one of the busiest shortsea ports around these shores. Today it has effectively ceased to exist, and the clay produced around it chugs along to Fowey to be shipped out.

But even Fowey, which can take bigger ships, has seen its trade decline as Imerys, the French company that bought English China Clays, sources more of its product from South America, Canada and other places where production is cheaper, as is transport, in handysized bulkers rather than shortsea vessels.

Well, you might retort, that’s globalisation for you, and the fact ECC was the biggest employer in Cornwall — of many hundreds of people who have lost their jobs after the French takeover in a region where employment possibilities are scarce — is just part of the collateral damage that always occurs as such developments take place.

You might say this illustrates once again the extraordinary facility of long-range shipping, which enables stuff to be dragged halfway around the world to delight consumers with its low price — and you would be right.

But by curious coincidence, on the evening of our excursion to the country north of St Austell, I was reading the much-criticised words of Vince Cable, the Cassandra of the ruling coalition, and his remarks about unre- strained capitalism. He was really getting it in the neck from the newspapers I prefer to read, but, transposed from the febrile streets of the City to the residues of a major British industry in a remote part of England, his words acquire a certain resonance.

Among the Cadburys, Krafts and other better known examples of foreign takeovers (or takeaways as I have heard them called), we didn’t really hear much about the way Cornwall’s biggest employer was carved up by its new owners. Sure, there was an economic rationale — for the new owners at least and the ECC shareholders who pocketed their pelf, but as with so many of these takeovers, in human terms the damage was huge.

We do not hear much these days of Jeremy Bentham, whose skeleton is preserved in the University College London he founded, and his moral and utilitarian philosophy, which centred around the revolutionary notion that all actions are acceptable, provided they promote the happiness of the greatest number of people. These ideas sit uneasily alongside the no holds barred global capitalism of today. But I wonder whether old Bentham’s bones rattled a bit when Cable made his speech at his party conference.

Morality aside, the statistics of takeovers that have genuinely increased wealth (aside from those shareholders, lawyers, arbitrageurs and others who immediately gain), do not provide a satisfactory rationale for them. We can all think of takeovers (many in the shipping industry) that have been an unqualified disaster, and maybe Vince has a point.

It is not exactly an original thought that those who buy such industries as I was looking at in Cornwall ought to be forced to clear up some of the mess left in the detritus of abandoned industry. Why on earth not? Why, when we have such vast tonnages of spoil and overburden sitting malevolently upon the landscape, are we still busily digging holes in our land for sand and gravel extraction?

Where I live in West Sussex, battles are regularly fought to prevent quarrying and to stop lanes being bunged up with lorries carrying the stuff away. What is wrong with the Cornish Alps, all of which are close to the sea, the transport of which could rejuvenate small ports and could provide employment for many?

Ah, you might say, it is more expensive than digging up half of the Weald for gravel extraction. Well, you have answered my question yourself, and the alps of Cornwall await your pleasure. Go figure, and when you have figured, go dig. ......................................................................................................................... *it has been pointed out that transportation costs would erase any profit from using the china clay tips as a ready source of gravel - but some day, that might not be the case. It was also pointed out that the industry will never be completely closed, since Imerys does not want to face the possible cost of repairing the ecological damage done during the prosperous years.



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