Coal Tip Safety

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning – in the Senedd at on 8 May 2024.

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Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

1. What is the Government's plan for making category C and D coal tips safe in South Wales East? OQ61055

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 1:30, 8 May 2024

Thank you. The Welsh Government has made a significant investment in the safety of coal tips, introducing a regular inspection and monitoring regime and by making £44.4 million available for maintenance since 2022. We will modernise our legislation through the new disused tips Bill, due to be introduced to the Senedd in the autumn.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you very much for that response.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

Coal tip safety is a massive issue in my region due to the heavy industrial heritage. It’s regrettable that the Westminster Government, both under Tory and Labour control, never made these areas safe for our communities when they had the chance. There is a proposal to extract coal from some of the tips at the former Bedwas colliery and to remediate them in the process. However, the category D tip that is closest to people’s homes—literally just outside the back garden of a long row of homes—is not being touched. This tip is apparently in private ownership. Cabinet Secretary, do you agree with me that land ownership should not be the primary concern when it comes to guaranteeing the safety of the people we represent? How is the Government working to overcome legal barriers for the sake of our former coal mining communities, and how is the Government assuring itself that any remedial work carried out in our communities is driven by safety and not profit?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 1:31, 8 May 2024

Yes, thank you very much. So, there’s a complex set of things to discuss there. So, the categorisation of the tips is done through the inspection regime. I can absolutely assure you categorically that it doesn’t make any difference who owns that tip. One of the things that the Bill that will be introduced to the Senedd this autumn and which I hope will pass—we’ll obviously go through the process and we’ll have some robust discussions, I’m sure—one of the things that that Bill is proposing to do is set up a supervisory authority for disused tips, not just coal tips, but all mineral tips—there are quite a few diverse tips in Wales—and that will be blind to the ownership of those tips. It will be a regime for disused tips.

There is a different regime for ongoing mining. One of the big things that we’ll have to do when we introduce the Bill is to make sure that the regimes marry up so that nobody—forgive the vague pun—slips through the cracks of them, and that the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, which governs the current mining operations, dovetails nicely with the disused operation. And at what point people swap between one or the other will be one of the things that the Bill deals with. So, we are very keen to make sure that it is ownership-blind and so on.

In terms of remediation, we have a very long way to go in terms of a remediation programme. Some tips, of course, have been remediated in Wales, but not many. We have had robust discussions with the UK Government about their contribution. We’ve asked them for £20 million to contribute to the inspection and maintenance regime at this point and to contribute to a study on what we would need to do in the future, and, unfortunately, they’ve refused to do that. I think it’s clearly a moral obligation by the UK Government to assist the devolved Government in Wales to help our people come to terms with their industrial heritage. There’s a rich cultural heritage of course, but it has a large number of other issues. And it’s about 40 per cent of the previous mining industry for the UK, whereas we’re 5 per cent of the population and 5 per cent of the budget. It seems to me there’s a clear moral imperative that the UK Government should assist us to come to terms with that heritage.

Photo of Natasha Asghar Natasha Asghar Conservative 1:34, 8 May 2024

Cabinet Secretary, I represent a lot of people who live near coal tips and, quite frankly, many of the communities do actually live in constant worry and fear. Ultimately, the Welsh Government is responsible for coal tip safety and has received, as you mentioned previously, millions of pounds to tackle this issue from the UK Conservative Government. And I feel that we need to see this Government going forward with legislation urgently to establish a new body that would then deliver remediation work of disused tips, opencast mines and other post-industrial sites. The Welsh Conservatives are ready to work with a new Government on this important piece of work and it did become apparent that just over £44 million has been made available for coal tip maintenance by the Welsh Government from 2022 to 2025, yet, as far as I'm aware, no plans have been announced for funding post 2025. I appreciate how you just responded to the Member for South Wales East, Peredur Owen Griffiths, but I just wanted to know, Cabinet Secretary, what happens when 2025 arrives and the funding ceases. Will a fresh package of measures be brought forward by this Welsh Government? Thank you.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Well, I think that's just a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Government does its budgets, frankly. We will be bringing forward the legislation in the autumn, as I have just said. The UK Government has not seen fit to contribute in any way to that, which is an outrage, in my view. I don't think that the communities that you represent, Natasha Asghar, should be feeling worry about the situation. We are the first country in the UK, the first Government in the UK, to have published the A, B and R category tip locations—we did that back in March. We'd already published the C and D tips. That's more information than anyone else would have anywhere else in the UK. Those tips are under an inspection and maintenance regime. They're not under remediation, because that would cost hundreds of millions of pounds, and, as I just explained in answering Peredur, we absolutely need the UK Government to step up to its moral obligation. There is no conceivable way that a Government for 5 per cent of the population of the UK should be dealing with 40 per cent of the industrial heritage.

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 1:36, 8 May 2024

I think that we should make an effort to reassure people in Bedwas that category D does not necessarily mean immediate risk, and that the tip is subject, because it's category D, to a very rigorous monthly inspection regime. That's all I'll say about Bedwas because I know that the Minister might have, in future, a mediating role in the planning process. But I'll ask more generally: we have to say that the opportunities for remediation come along rarely, and, when they do, we need to approach them, even if they come from the private sector, with an open mind, providing, and would she agree this is the case, they have to be subject to the same rigorous planning process as a public sector application would equally be?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Yes, absolutely. The planning system is blind to whether the application is from a public or private sector individual. I'm not going to comment on any individual planning application, but, in general, the planning system is blind to that, and we would of course expect any planning application that came forward to conform to all of the health and safety and longevity regimes that we expect, and also to conform with all of the policies of Government, as outlined in 'Future Wales' and 'Planning Policy Wales'. That is the same hurdle for everyone who brings forward a solution of that sort. We're also prepared to work with anyone who has a potential solution, but they would of course have to meet all of the requirements of the regime.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:37, 8 May 2024

Can I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary on the very careful and detailed work she undertook in order to be able to release to residents of South Wales East the location of those category C and D coal tips? Can she confirm that the Secretary of State for Wales reneged on a commitment to be a joint signatory of the letter than informed local residents of the location of those tips? When does she expect to be in a position to publish the location of tips in categories A and B? And what is her assessment of the chances that the Secretary of State for Wales can be brought to discharge his responsibilities on that occasion?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 1:38, 8 May 2024

Thank you very much, Mark Drakeford, for that. We worked very hard together on what was a very complex set of proposals. It was very important indeed, as I'm sure you remember, to be absolutely accurate in releasing that information. We went through a long process of verification of that, the accuracy of that information, because we wanted very much to ensure that communities got the right information and they had the right understanding of what that information meant, and what they should do about it, and I think that that process went very well in the end. The Secretary of State, very sadly, would not sign that letter. I have had a meeting with him subsequently. Most of the meeting was taken up with his understanding of how that happened and my understanding, which were entirely different. I had a string of e-mails with which I was able to evidence my understanding of how that happened. We have actually just released, just in March, the A, B and R category tip locations. That was done by the Welsh Government; it wasn't done in conjunction.