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Debate – Restoration of Opencast sites

I was born and raised in the mining communities of the Amman valley. Those communities were built around the coal industry, with villages developing around underground pits. In my formative years, apart from the Betws drift mine and the Cynheidre drift mine in the neighbouring Gwendraeth valley, those underground operations had all but ceased, apart from a scattering of small private mines. However, open-cast mining affected all the communities I am proud to represent in the industrial half of my constituency. I remember the noise of the huge machines that worked on those sites and the dust that accumulated when the weather was dry.

Opencast Debate

Today, someone who drives up Mynydd y Betws, past the Scotch Pine, and looks down at the lower Amman valley will see an extraordinary sight: a giant former open-cast site which swallows the communities of Ammanford, Llandybie, Penybanc, Tycroes, Capel Hendre, Blaenau, Caerbryn and Penygroes. The industry was advanced around these communities in staged developments, and life went on much as usual in the villages I just mentioned. The scene resembles a giant US plain or a Russian steppe, with a patchwork of villages within it, linked by roads. It is completely out of character with the rest of the Carmarthenshire countryside developed by the agricultural industry. The view from Mynydd y Betws symbolises the failure of the restoration processes of the open-cast industry to return the environment to its previous state.

In 2009, Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Bethan Jenkins held a debate in the National Assembly for Wales regarding open-cast restoration. She called for a report into the failure to restore open-cast sites in Wales. During the debate, Plaid Cymru called for the guidelines issued to local authorities, minerals technical advice note 2—MTAN2—to be overhauled. Four years later, the Welsh Government finally commissioned a report, and “Research into the failure to restore opencast coal sites in south Wales” was published in April 2014.

The report identifies the Coal Industry Act 1994 as a fundamental problem where restoration is concerned. The report’s authors, ERM, suggest that prior to privatisation there were few issues concerning restoration, apart from the quality of the completed sites, and certainly no question as to whether restoration would go ahead or not. The fact that restoration protocols were not watertight in the Act reflects the carelessness and haste in which the Act was composed and passed through Parliament. The Act should have contained many more measures to protect coal communities, and has parallels with the debates on fracking that we have had recently in this place.

The status quo, where the law effectively permits operators to walk away from sites that they have no inclination to restore, can no longer remain an option. The Welsh Government have had to increasingly commit resources to public inquiries because, as the report suggests, the expertise to determine open-cast applications does not necessarily exist within mineral planning authorities. The Welsh Government should consider bringing determination of open-cast planning applications under the direct control of Welsh Ministers. Doing that would reduce the resources committed by local government, would allow particular expertise to be developed in one place and would help end the different interpretations of Welsh Government guidance which operators and their lawyers have been so adept at exploiting.

Let us consider the example of East pit in the upper Amman valley, which borders the villages of Brynamman, Rhosamman, Cefnbrynbrain and Ystradowen in my constituency. The latest planning application proposed the creation of a lake in the current void after use. Neath Port Talbot county borough council, as the responsible mineral planning authority, has had to contend with the Reservoirs Act 1975 and the Mines And Quarries (Tips) Act 1969. As the report suggests, mineral planning authorities cannot realistically be expected to retain such expertise in-house, and that is before we get to the vexed issue of the Commons Act 2006. The question has to be asked: at a time of swingeing cuts to local authorities with already stretched resources, can a mineral planning authority properly discharge its duties if it does not command the expertise to do so?

Bonds and enforcement are also topics covered in the ERM report. It notes that the Dynant Fawr site, which engulfs the communities of Drefach and Cefneithin in my constituency, is not adequately bonded or assured. The Dynant Fawr site poses a problem to the planning authority because it has been abandoned in an unrestored state and insufficient bond is reported to exist to meet the cost of its restoration. Carmarthenshire consultees to the report felt that the transfer of ownership of operating sites may cause problems for planning authorities, in that they have difficulty in making effective contact with the new owners or getting adequate responses from them.

Early disposal of restored sites to multiple owners, sometimes on completion of basic restoration or at the commencement of the aftercare period, has also been a problem. That was the big problem in Gilfach Iago site in my constituency. There was no bond and the operators sold the land in parcels before the restoration process was completed. Promises to restore roads linking the villages of Saron, Blaenau and Penygroes have not been kept. Promises to replant trees and hedgerows also were not kept, resulting in the plain effect I referred to earlier and devastating the natural habitat of much wildlife. Carmarthenshire county council has taken legal action against the operators, Celtic Energy, at a cost to local taxpayers, yet the operators have been able to escape fulfilling their obligations although the local planning authority won the case. It is an insult to local people to be treated in that way, given what they have had to endure to accommodate the industry.

We need more than fine words. The Welsh Government can and must deliver meaningful action to protect communities. The UK Government should also be ready and willing to assist by sharing expertise, supporting the devolved Governments in tackling the issue and helping fund restoration work not completed largely as a result of the loopholes left by the coal industry privatisation legislation, supported by this House. That fund should be funded by contributions by the UK Government and open-cast operators, and the trustees should include members of communities affected by open-cast operations. If we do not get that, given that these planning issues are devolved, the Welsh Government should set up a national open-cast fund based on historical and new contributions to repair the damage caused by the failures of the past.

I did want to make a far more detailed speech, but time has escaped me.