Possibly one of the more unusual problems facing British Coal is what it should do with its many properties. Among them are six stately homes. The Vache, a listed mansion near Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, has been on the market for 18 months. For many years it served as British Coal's staff training college but has since become surplus to requirements. Branthwaite Hall, a 12th century ancient monument, was similarly put on the market when it lost its role as headquarters of Cumbria's open cast operations. It, however, has successfully found new owners. The four remaining houses are either still occupied by British Coal or leased out to tenants.
Yet how a nationalised industry came to be the owner of so many relics of an ancien regime is perhaps odd in itself. "Most of them came to the Coal Board as the houses of private mine owners when it was first transferred to public ownership," explains Tony Palmer, head of the property division. He also points out that at various stages in its history British Coal has owned a slaughterhouse and football club. Palmer's division was set up 18 months ago to maximise the financial return and employment prospects from the development of British Coal's assets. Understandably, given the current energy review, the fate of some 250,000 acres of non-operational land is also under review. "Our requirement of land will obviously be dictated by the future size of our operations," says Palmer. And that, still, is anyone's guess.