UK Coal and the pension problem

The start of a wider change?

When the National Coal Board was privatised in 1994 to become UK Coal Plc, the government must have thought that was the end of its involvement in the business and, as a consequence, its expensive defined benefit pension scheme. One wonders, therefore, what rumblings in the Houses of Parliament have resulted from the recent restructuring of UK Coal, which has meant that the expensive pension scheme has been taken back into the public fold by transfer into the Pension Protection Fund (the PPF).

It is not that long ago that the Pensions Regulator, established by the Pensions Act 2004, was pushing firmly against what is known as "scheme abandonment", that is, a restructuring of a business extracting the pension scheme from the ongoing enterprise. At first glance, the restructuring of UK Coal may look like a reversal of that approach, but the detail of the restructuring suggests otherwise.

The UK Coal scheme is unique in many respects in that it is protected by legislation (the Coal Industry (Protected Persons) Pensions Regulators 1994) and comes with a lot of baggage. The desire to protect beneficiaries of the scheme must have been high on the agenda during the regulator's review of the proposal, together with the objective of saving jobs for the 2000 employees of UK Coal.

The restructuring proposal involved the transfer of the business into two new companies: one to hold the mining element of the business and the other to hold the brownfield development side. UK Coal's initial proposal involved all contributions ceasing once the scheme had gone into the PPF, with the scheme taking an equity stake in the brownfield development side of the business. This would have resulted in the effective dumping of all accrued and future liabilities of the scheme on the public purse with UK Coal continuing to trade, deficit free. It will come as no surprise that this proposal was rejected by the regulator.

UK Coal pleaded that the size of the scheme deficit (£900m on a buy-out basis) meant that if the PPF did not take the scheme in full, it would be forced to enter into an insolvency procedure, putting 2000 jobs at risk.

However, it appears from the regulator's report under s89 Pensions Act 2004 that during discussions, a potential creative solution was developed that improved the insolvency analysis and which meant that UK Coal would avoid an insolvency process and continue to fund the scheme through the PPF, thus improving the position for scheme members.

The end result has not let UK Coal off the hook and should not be seen in any way as a precedent, as the solution reached was very specific to the circumstances at hand and the fact that the regulator and the PPF were involved from the start. No dividends from the mining company to its shareholders until the scheme is fully funded and the scheme having a 75.1% equity stake in the brownfield development company means that the scheme controls the lion's share of the economic interest in the whole business.

This is certainly not a scheme abandonment and will be welcomed by all stakeholders in the UK Coal scheme. Although unusual for the PPF to take on a scheme when the business is continuing to be profitable, it should be encouraging to other businesses which may need to look for flexible ways to deal with a scheme deficit. And, of course, the beneficiaries of those schemes who can perhaps be more confident that the PPF will not simply give in to companies threatening insolvency if the PPF does not take on their pension liabilities.

Jessica Walker is a senior associate in the Restructuring, Bankruptcy & Insolvency group at Mayer Brown.

This piece first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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