8. Plaid Cymru Debate: Coal tip and opencast mine remediation

– in the Senedd at on 8 May 2024.

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(Translated)

The following amendments have been selected: amendments, 1, 2 and 4 in the name of Darren Millar, and amendment 3 in the name of Jane Hutt.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:31, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

Item 8 today is the Plaid Cymru debate on coal tip and opencast mine remediation. I call on Delyth Jewell to move the motion.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8570 Heledd Fychan

To propose that this Senedd:

1. Notes:

a) that Wales has 40 per cent of the residual coal tips of the UK, which are a legacy of the exploitation of Wales’s natural resources;

b) that increased rainfall and extreme weather has the potential to further destabilise these tips; and

c) the anxiety caused for residents who live near disused tips, open cast mines and other post-industrial sites.

2. Regrets that the UK Government refuses to provide funding to support the long-term remediation and repurposing of disused tips, open cast mines and other post-industrial sites.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to urgently introduce legislation to establish a new body to set up a fit-for-purpose remediation programme for disused tips, open cast mines and other post-industrial sites.

4) Calls on the UK Government to urgently provide the necessary additional funding for the inspection and maintenance regime and bear the long-term financial responsibility for making disused tips, open cast mines and other post-industrial sites safe through proper remediation.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 5:31, 8 May 2024

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. In Wales, our landscapes wear the wounds of our exploited past: the coal tips that darken our Valleys and leave scars on the skyline. The history of coal mining is what shaped us; whole communities conjured out of grit and determination, villages and terraced streets built hastily as houses for the miners who were sent underground. Those men seldom saw the sun, and went home blackened and wheezing. So many of their lives were lost in those cramped, dark tunnels—lives spent in the gloom, whilst their spoils, the black gold they ripped from the earth with their hands, were taken up and loaded into wagons and trains and shipped to every corner of someone else's empire. The waste was left behind—not in tunnels, but piled on top of the mountains. The trash, the muck, all that was worthless, was gathered and heaped onto the hills above the pits, above our heads—not a hoard of gold, but of grime that still looms over us and litters the landscape.

More than 2,000 of these coal tips remain. Those with the highest risk come with the threat of landslips, more flooding, or even that they might burst into flames because of the combustible coal that's still caught amongst the spoil—the bits the owners couldn't prise out. How did it come to this? How was it that the wealth created by coal was stolen from our towns and used to line the pockets of pit owners and industrialists, leaving us with the rubbish and ruin? How did we come to be saddled with the guilts of dirt and dust? It was because our Valleys were exploited. Our riches were ripped from us, laying waste to the land and those who lived there. Our communities were savaged by that industry, and there remains no greater sign of that befoulment than the coal tips that watch over us, blocking out the sun, a final insult to the miners who dreamed in their days of daylight.

And today, a new industry is emerging: companies that come to the villages and promise to rid the people of these spectres, just so long as they can try their hand at prising out the coal from the rubble. These promises of reclamation come at a price, because before the land is restored to its former glory, it seems it must be ravaged and plundered again, and communities like Bedwas and Sirhowy could face years of soot and digging with only the pledge of a private company that what will come later will be worth it. Some companies make good on their promises, or part of them; others don't, claiming at the end of projects that not enough money remains for restoring, it's all gone on draining every drop of profit from the sites. It's no wonder some are distrustful, because our Valleys have been bitten before.

And it's not just the coal tips that are being ransacked; opencast sites across the coalfield are becoming the playthings of profiteers. East Pit in Swansea and Ffos-y-fran in Merthyr are the latest sites to be pillaged for their resource and abandoned when companies must make good on their promises. It is the effects of climate change, Dirprwy Lywydd, that pose the greatest threat to these sites—heavy rainfall that risks seeping into the soil. Of course, our communities must be protected. Of course, the risk these sites pose must be eliminated, but allowing new coal extraction to emerge for an illicit new industry to exploit our land should not be the answer. Making these sites safe should not be the responsibility of private companies. Our landscapes should not again be put at the mercy of moneymakers. Our Government must bring in new laws, not just for monitoring the sites, but overseeing their restoration, and that law must cover both coal tips and opencast sites.

I welcome the work that's happened to monitor and map the tips that exist. Legislation must go further. What is happening with the tips and opencast sites are not distinct phenomena. The same patterns emerge time after time—not just holes in the ground, but loopholes in law, allowing companies to dig for coal to be sold and burned. That doesn't seem like progress for our people or planet. But they must be made safe.

So, who should be called to account? At whose door should we lay a claim, lay the blame for this dereliction? The coal tips that litter our lands, the wounds that have never healed. Westminster denies all culpability for these coal tips, claiming devolution has washed their hands of their duty. But you cannot devolve the past. You cannot use devolution to avoid obligations or absolve you of the guilt of what has gone before. Wales's coal fuelled the spoils of empire. It fanned the fleets of other nations' wars. Obscene wealth was made from its profits. The first £1 million cheque in world history was signed with the blood of lost miners, but not a penny was spent in communities that paid for this loss with the men and boys who never came home. How can Westminster shrug off this shame? They cannot cling to this evasion and claim this Senedd, this Government that did not exists when the men laboured and died should pay to clear the wreckage.

These tips are not some benign industrial heritage as the Tory amendment suggests. They are not relics to be cherished and maintained. The tips are a threat to our communities, present and growing. With every drop of rain that falls on our hills, high-risk tips become less stable. The time on the clock is running short, and Westminster must be made to pay for what it has done.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:38, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

I have selected the four amendments to the motion, and I call on Joel James to move amendments 1, 2 and 4 tabled in the name of Darren Millar.

(Translated)

Amendment 1—Darren Millar

In sub-point 1 (a), delete 'the exploitation of Wales’s natural resources' and replace with 'Wales’s industrial heritage'.

(Translated)

Amendment 2—Darren Millar

In point 2, delete 'regrets that the UK Government refuses' and replace with 'believes that the UK Government should continue to work with the Welsh Government'.

(Translated)

Amendment 4—Darren Millar

Delete point 4.

(Translated)

Amendments 1, 2 and 4 moved.

Photo of Joel James Joel James Conservative 5:38, 8 May 2024

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to move the amendments in the name of Darren Millar. I want to start by saying how disappointed I am with Plaid Cymru’s intention to continue and further encourage the narrative that Wales and the Welsh were entirely victims of exploitation during the industrial revolution. Ultimately, the truth is that our natural resources were used to help enrich us, and whilst it's undeniable that some of our mines were owned by English and Scottish industrialists, many of them were actually owned by Welsh-speaking people from humble backgrounds. David Davies of Llandinam is one such example, who started off first as a railway builder and then as a colliery owner. Can I also remind Members that Lucy Thomas, owner of the Waun Wyllt Colliery in Troedyrhiw, considered to be the mother of the Welsh steam coal trade, was instrumental in helping to establish the reputation of Welsh coal on the London market? And there are countless other families, such as the Mackworths, the Talbots, and William Lewis, to name but a few, all bringing in jobs, wealth and purpose to our country.

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 5:39, 8 May 2024

I just wanted to say that Senghenydd is in my constituency, which was the site of the Universal Colliery disaster in 1913 in which 439 people working the pit were killed. I think that does actually support the argument made by Plaid Cymru that it was exploitative.

Photo of Joel James Joel James Conservative

It's always unfortunate when people have died during colliery disasters, and I know my family themselves have suffered in such things, but I still maintain that we were not exploited.

Let us be clear that Wales has experienced considerable development in the last 200 years, almost entirely because of coal, copper, tin, steel and iron. This has produced the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea, which otherwise would not have existed; likewise, towns such as Barry, Merthyr, Llanelli and Port Talbot. The fact we have devolution today, I believe, can be directly traced back to the increases in population, the growth of our economy, and the creation of civic nationalism that occurred as a result of our industrial legacy, and our use of our natural resources at a time in history when they were at their most valuable. That said, however, we have a legacy of disused spoil tips in Wales that need to be addressed, and I think it is absolutely right that the Welsh Government are proposing legislation to focus on it, especially since they chose to adopt the responsibility for this and everything that came with it at the start of devolution, 25 years ago.

May I remind the party opposite that the Welsh Government pick and choose the responsibilities that they wish to have legislative power over, and still happily refuse to take responsibility for several other fundamental aspects that affect people in Wales, such as the water industry? So, it's a very difficult sell to say that it should have legislative power over coal mining and coal tips but then expect the UK Government to pay for it. What I think Plaid have totally failed to understand here is that they're so caught up in their own alternative reality that they cannot comprehend their own narrative. They say on the one hand that the UK Government should contribute to the long-term funding of our coal tips, but then on the other hand are advocating for complete separation from the United Kingdom. I firmly believe that the Welsh Government has the resources at its disposal to pay for this. It's going to spend £20 million a year on 36 more politicians in Wales, and our Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, has said it can pay for itself if the Welsh Government can, and I quote, 

'improve our performance by a minuscule amount'.

So, in reality, if the Welsh Government, in their own words, improves their performance by another minuscule amount, they can more than cover the costs for maintaining disused coal tips in Wales.

In terms of managing coal tips in the long term, there are big opportunities to actually deal with the issues, and without the need for public funding. I think this is something that should be fully engaged with. ERI, a company based in Wales, are able to carry out all the remediation works on disused tips, make safe all groundworks and restore biodiversity to the site, by effectively recovering and selling coal taken from it. This not only removes the dangerous coal element of the tip, which can catch fire; it also removes the dangers of slippage and helps eliminate the issues of water run-off. And of further benefit, legislation to do this has already been enacted in the Mines And Quarries (Tips) Act 1969.

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I'd like to say that having been born and brought up in south Wales, and having family that stretch right across our Valleys, I know how important it is for them and those who live in our former mining communities that this is dealt with once and for all. With Wales seemingly only getting wetter, these disused tips will become an ever-increasing risk. Like before, Wales can grasp the technology and talent that it has to remediate these tips, and I would therefore strongly ask the Chamber to support our amendments. Thank you.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:43, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning to formally move amendment 3, tabled in the name of Jane Hutt.

(Translated)

Amendment 3—Jane Hutt

Delete point 3 and replace with:

Notes that Welsh Government has made available over £44 million to local authorities to maintain and improve coal tip safety since 2022, has introduced a regular monitoring system for Category C and D tips, and will introduce new modern legislation for disused tips in the autumn.

(Translated)

Amendment 3 moved.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru

Before I start, I just want to say, as the granddaughter of miners, I think that contribution by Joel James showed a terrible lack of understanding of the industrial history of Wales, and of the community that he purports to represent. Our industrial past is—

Photo of Joel James Joel James Conservative

I'm the grandson of miners as well. 

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru

Well, you should perhaps talk to your ancestors.

Our industrial past is etched in the landscape of the area in which I live and that I represent. Across my region of South Wales West, there are more than 900 disused tips, with the highest number of any local authority area—over 600 of them—being within Neath Port Talbot, the county where I live. The overwhelming majority of these are deemed lower risk, but 41 are within the higher risk categories.

Neath Port Talbot bears the scars of centuries of coal mining and quarrying. These are not just scars in the landscape. The environmental hazards left behind have scarred communities, like Godre'r Graig in the Swansea valley, where, due to an assessment of the risk of the quarry spoil tip to the village school, children have had to be educated in portakabins in a school miles away from the village since 2019. The school has now recently been demolished, causing absolute heartbreak in the community. The council have applied for funding for its replacement, and I hope the Government does the right thing by the community with that request.

Our motion makes reference to the anxiety caused for residents who live near disused tips, opencast mines and other post-industrial sites. I can attest to the fact, from meeting with residents who live near East Pit in Tairgwaith, that this anxiety is real and it weighs heavily on communities and is unacceptable. And I want to focus in my contribution on the legacy of opencast mines. 

Water-filled voids left by opencast mines are a great and long-standing concern to residents who live in the former coalfields. And, as we heard, the recent well-publicised example of Ffos-y-fran near Merthyr Tydfil, where water is starting to collect in the void left by the opencast mine, has caused awful concern recently. I've raised both in questions in the Chamber and in letters to the Minister for climate change my concerns about the risks that need addressing in regard to East Pit, which affects the communities of Tairgwaith, Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen and Cwmllynfell, where 40 million cu m of water have now collected in the void left by the former opencast mine. 

Celtic Energy Ltd profited from coal mining in the East Pit opencast for many years, causing dust, noise and house subsidence to nearby residents, but the original plans for restoration were not realised. And in East Pit, the recent earthquake in 2018, which measured 4.6 on the Richter scale, increased residents' long-held concerns regarding the risks of leaving this huge body of water on an active earthquake fault at about 150m above the valley floor, with loose rubble sides, no constructed dam to retain the water, because these mining voids were never planned geologically, structurally or hydrologically surveyed to hold millions of tonnes of water. Residents close to East Pit want to see surveys and reports from qualified, indemnified chartered engineers and hydrologists, and measures taken to address these risks. They are also asking whether all buttressing and stabilisation recommended in earlier reports to the local planning authority have been completed. They are concerned as to the dangers of anyone falling into this void. Nobody could survive. The amenities agreed in planning applications have not been built. 

Welsh Government must intervene to ensure action is taken to safeguard communities who have been left to deal with this serious environmental aftermath of opencast mining. The calls in our motion for the establishment of a new body to set up a fit-for-purpose remediation programme for sites such as East Pit, together with the necessary funding needed for inspection, maintenance and proper remediation, would really provide peace of mind and justice for these communities that have borne the brunt of the health and environmental risks posed by opencast mining. 

The lack of proper planning and infrastructure to address these risks is not just a matter of safety, but one of historical and social justice. It's just unconscionable that communities already burdened by the legacies of coal mining are left to bear the brunt of these environmental hazards and safety risks. So, as we look ahead to upcoming Welsh legislation, it's imperative we centre social justice in our approach to the restoration of these post-industrial sites, such as those in my region. It offers a critical opportunity to address these issues and ensure that proper measures are taken to restore and mitigate the risks posed by the water-filled voids and other hazards. And it's really essential that we listen to the voices of affected communities and work collaboratively to find solutions that prioritise their safety and well-being, because they've just been fobbed off and ignored for far too long, for years. They deserve fairness, justice and redress. They deserve to have that which was taken from them, the very landscape in which they live, returned to them.

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 5:48, 8 May 2024

I'd ask Joel to come and visit Senghenydd mining memorial museum and the garden there. The garden was designated as the national mining disaster memorial garden of Wales by Mark Drakeford, in a previous role, and Dawn Bowden as well. And I have to pay tribute as well to the committee—Lindsay Whittle as chair and Gill Jones as secretary, and all the volunteers there who are keeping that memory alive. And, Joel, I don't want to criticise you directly, but I think you did do a disservice to that community who suffered 439 men killed in 1913. It was a disaster beyond comprehension in the modern day, and it was because of that exploitation. And I think, if you go along in October to the annual memorial service—I think you came along, Mark, and you saw the people standing there in the rain, a huge number of people from the village. So, you can see the history behind our industrial—let's use the word 'exploitation'.

I'd like to touch on something that Delyth, Sioned and Joel mentioned, which is remediation, and Delyth spoke about private companies coming in and making a profit from remediating, and I know you were referring a little bit obliquely to ERI. Joel mentioned them directly: ERI, the company that is looking to wash the coal and remediate the land. I would say I’m keeping an open mind the moment. I want to see how the planning process progresses, I want to see what happens. The Minister won’t be able to mention it because she would have an intervention role should there be an appeal, but I would say, I think as politicians, because we’ve got those four category D tips in Bedwas, we need to keep an open mind about any opportunity or avenue we have to remediate, but at the same time we must ask, as you said, those sceptical questions about what they are doing with the money, how they are benefiting. And of course, Rhianon Passmore has Ynysddu in her constituency; the people there are concerned about the traffic that goes through the village as well. So, those questions need to be asked. But the question is: would ERI do anything different to what a public authority would do in remediating the land? And I haven’t come to the conclusion yet, but I feel that there isn’t that much difference, because their promise is to remediate as they go along, so they would remediate the land as they go along, as the work progresses, rather than—. This isn’t Ffos-y-fran, this isn’t ‘leave it as a disaster zone and exploit the land’, this is a company that is saying, ‘Yes, we’ll take the coal as a by-product and we’ll make a profit, but we are there to remediate the land.’ And the example they give is Six Bells in Aberbeeg, as the example of something they’ve done before.

Now, I’m not advocating them yet; I want to see how the planning process plays out, but I think Joel makes a point that ERI could play a role in that. I would be sceptical that a company like that could do the whole of Wales, all the tips in Wales. I think that’s highly unlikely, which is where we come back to the UK Government making a proper commitment to resolve these issues, even if they said where the private sector couldn’t resolve it, we need that proper commitment and it’s absolutely justified to say that this occurred prior to devolution and therefore it is the UK Government’s responsibility. I think that is absolutely the right thing to say in that regard.

So, I think we’ve got to take steps now to understand that category D tips—I think we need our communities to know—are not in imminent danger of slipping, so I’m not worried. Bedwas tip has regular inspections, as was said at question time, every month, but as the impacts of climate change come in, as that becomes a bigger problem, I think we cannot look the opportunity to remediate down. I think we’ve got to take that opportunity because there is a danger in the future that those tips could become less stable.

So, I don’t think I’ve got an easy answer. The motion doesn’t really present an easy answer, but, certainly, what you’re calling for, particularly with regard to the UK Government, I fully support.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 5:53, 8 May 2024

I also represent South Wales Central, and my contribution will be very different from the other Member that represents South Wales Central.

I visited Big Pit recently. Some of you know that I used to work for Amgueddfa Cymru, so I used to go around a lot, but I actually took the time, went round the displays, and reminded myself of some of the stories that are told there, and actually how important it is that we have Big Pit, and how we should ensure that every child in Wales is able to visit Big Pit, and hear for themselves the impact, at the time, of this industry but also the continued impact on our communities. They tell the story so powerfully of those tragedies that you so powerfully mentioned, Hefin, the impact of the loss of life, and also the impact on the women that had to work incredibly hard and were affected by the coal dust then, affecting their lungs, and dying an early death because of the very, very hard work. So, yes, many people lost their lives, but it wasn't just down in those coal mines.

I also had the opportunity last week to visit the Albion tip above Cilfynydd, with Beth Jones who works for RCT council on tip safety along with local councillor Hywel Gronow. It was really insightful to hear from Beth the work that has been done on the tip and is planned, and better understand the complexity, but also the scale of the work required to keep our communities safe. It will be 130 years in June of this year since the Albion colliery disaster, which at the time was the worst mining disaster in history, leaving 350 children without fathers. Cilfynydd only exists because of the Albion colliery. So, it is really something that we need to be mindful of, and when you look at the images that we all saw following the extreme weather of 2020 of Tylorstown tip and the landslip there, the terror local residents felt seeing the tip exposed and moving was something that struck everyone in Wales. The horror that people felt, thinking, 'Please, don't let this be another Aberfan.' It was a stark reminder of our industrial past, and the continued risk posed by residual coal tips, and a stark reminder why works and investment are essential.

I would like to welcome the investment that has been made by the Welsh Government, and seeing the work going on in my region, it is absolutely appalling, in my view, that the UK Government has not played its part in helping to fund the work. This is a legacy that predates devolution, and it's only right that they provide the long-term investment required. I don't think there's any point saying that there are advantages of being part of an union that doesn't take its responsibility seriously. Frankly, for the people who are living in the shadow of these coal tips day in, day out, in the light of climate change and knowing that the weather is becoming more unpredictable, the scale of what is required is greater than the Welsh Government, I believe, can deliver alone without that further investment.

We need to ensure that there's continuity of investment, that it's not short-term funding, and that's really key in terms of the retention of specialist staff as well. I know that many, many authorities are finding it difficult to recruit the number of staff required to deal with these tips, so we need to ensure the funding is there to ensure that people working in the public sector aren't tempted away, either, by the private sector wages associated with tips, so that we can keep our communities safe.

The reclamation and remediation of coal tips does create employment opportunities within our communities. Only last week, just over 100 jobs were lost in RCT as a result of Everest going into administration, and nearly 500 jobs were lost in October as a result of UK Windows and Doors also going into administration. I therefore hope that the Cabinet Secretary is having discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for energy and the economy on this matter, and I'd be grateful if you could please provide an update regarding such discussions, either in responding today or in writing following the debate.

It's clear that the legislation is needed. The Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act dates back to 1969. We need legislation that reflects the reality of today, but I think our plea has to be to work together to ensure the funding is in place, the UK Government works with Welsh Government, and that our communities have any advantage of the clearing of these tips. They are a blight on our history.

Photo of Rhianon Passmore Rhianon Passmore Labour 5:58, 8 May 2024

The communities of Islwyn are truly stunning natural landscapes that bear the scars of Wales's industrial past. Residents in Cwmfelinfach and Ynysddu in the Sirhowy valley in my constituency have made it very clear to me, in large numbers, their great concern about plans to re-wild the former coal tips at Mynydd y Grug in Bedwas. So, I stand as their representative to share some of their legitimate concerns today at how their community will be affected.

The Plaid Cymru debate as tabled majors on the need to remediate these former coal tips, and we all deeply understand the need for this, as the tragedy of Aberfan is deeply rooted in our Welsh consciousness and soul. That is why the Welsh Labour Government has committed £44.4 million capital investment and also provided £3 million of funding to the Coal Authority to undertake key activities to support the Welsh Government programme. And, as has been said, the real and glaring omission here in this arena is that the UK Tory Government will not, to date, contribute financially to the funding of long-term remediation of disused coal tips. Thus, a situation develops where people become suspicious that a company such as ERI Reclamation, the only company in the UK undertaking this unique form of coal tip reclamation, and which is entirely privately financed, is motivated by profit rather than public good. This cynicism is understandable as the coal-mining history of Wales is one of a people and a landscape plundered for profit by outsider capitalist forces.

I met with ERI Reclamation on 27 February to hear what they had to say and to express my constituents' concerns. There is yet to be a submission of any formal planning application by the company, so when and if one is submitted, I will study it closely and listen to the concerns of my constituents to submit my own representations to the local planning authority. Whilst we want to see coal tips removed and remediated, it cannot and should not be at any cost.

A cause of real concern to Islwyn residents is the suggested use of the haul road that passes through the Sirhowy valley country park. The company itself has stated that their proposals will see the haul road used more frequently than it was by Natural Resources Wales during its recent felling works. There is a legitimate local concern that, as part of the plan, the preferred route would use 18 to 20 lorries a day travelling down from the Bedwas coal tips down an existing forest track through the Sirhowy valley country park and past a COVID memorial park. This cannot be simply dismissed. The plan by ERI Reclamation could take anywhere from five to 10 years to complete, and the residents of Cwmfelinfach are right to express such deep concerns at such potential disruption to a very much-loved country park for a decade. So, I will be asking ERI Reclamation to reconsider their preferred route in removing 500,000 tonnes of coal to sell for their profit. I will ask Natural Resources Wales to protect and maintain the Sirhowy valley country park for the benefits of citizens who seek to enjoy the natural landscape, whether that is to walk, cycle or horse ride, as they do now.

And so, Dirprwy Lywydd, these communities, long suffering in this ward of Ynysddu and Cwmfelinfach, deserve the UK Tory Government to come forward, to step up to the plate of the industrial past laid many moons and even centuries before the existence of this democratic place, and before devolution. It is imperative that the UK Government come forth and be responsible for the remediation of Wales's former coal tips, and for the extensive financial cost that will ensue, and to ensure that the green and pleasant land involved is there for all of our future generations. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 6:02, 8 May 2024

I want to reflect a little bit more on what Hefin and Rhianon have said and talk a little bit about my thoughts about the ERI proposals. I understand, Cabinet Secretary, that you won't be able to comment on that, but I think there are principles and precedents that might be of interest, and for us to hear some of that thought process when you respond.

I think my main worry regarding the matter extends beyond the immediate scope of the motion before us today. While we're discussing the pressing need for remediation of coal tips, a troubling development looms on the horizon with the proposed coal-extraction project in Bedwas near Caerphilly. We've heard about ERI, Energy Recovery Investments Limited, who, under the guise of reclaiming coal tips and coal tip safety, are planning to extract coal from the Bedwas colliery site over a period of seven years, with a possible extension. The potential implications of the project are far-reaching and alarming, with many questions yet to be answered satisfactorily to alleviate the concerns of local residents. With the proposed haulage road that we heard from Rhianon about there, operations associated with the Bedwas coal-extraction project raise concerns and questions about transport, safety and congestion, with an estimated average of 90 heavy goods vehicles per week. The increased traffic poses a risk to road users and exacerbates existing congestion issues. Additionally, construction of a new haul road and widening existing tracks raises questions about the loss of valuable green spaces, and could further disrupt local ecosystems. It's imperative that we consider the broader implications of these transport logistics and prioritise the safety and well-being of our communities in any decision-making process 

The main question at hand is not just the environmental impact of this specific project, but the dangerous precedent that it could set. With over 300 at-risk coal tips registered across the south of our country, and no budget to pay for their remediation, the question is: is Bedwas coal tip a testing ground for remediating the remaining coal tips across the country?

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 6:05, 8 May 2024

I completely take that point. I think that's a really reasonable and good point to make, and also the issue that Rhianon raised about the road going through. I'm not here to advocate for ERI in any way, and I'm as sceptical as you are, but one thing they have done and which is in your region is the Six Bells project, in which they've taken a tip away, flattened the land and turned it into a country park area. I just wondered what your opinions were on that, just so I can be informed, really, because it's obviously not my constituency.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

I've been talking to ERI, and I know Delyth and I have had meetings with them, and there are questions around that and their involvement there. So it's something, again, where we're asking lots of questions, and we'll keep digging down until we get the answers that we need. So, we’ll keep digging. [Interruption.] Yes, certainly.

The proposed project in Bedwas raises questions and may present a clear and present danger to our environment and our communities. It risks opening the floodgates to further coal extraction projects under the guise of remediation efforts, undermining the progress made towards transitioning to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. Furthermore, there may be an attempt to rebrand the mined coal as reduced-carbon coal. Now, this would be nothing short of misleading. The company’s claims of displacing imported coal fail to answer the broader environmental impacts of coal extraction and combustion.

There are real gaps in the answers provided to date, and, at this point, because of those gaps, there does not seem to be a satisfactory solution. It seems to be a regressive step backwards in our efforts to combat climate change and protect future generations. It’s imperative that we ask many searching questions to guard against attempts to revive the coal-mining industry through the back door. We cannot allow short-term profit motives to outweigh the longer term well-being of our communities and their environment. We must uphold the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and reject any project that threatens to undermine them.

In conclusion, justice for communities in Wales demands robust scrutiny and detailed questioning to ensure the remediation and repurposing of disused coal tips and other post-industrial sites is done in the safest way possible. We must remain vigilant against attempts to revive the coal-mining industry by stealth. As representatives, we need to prioritise the long-term well-being of the people we represent, the safety of our communities, and the sustainability of our environment. We need to ensure that we listen to the voices of the affected communities and make sure their interests are safeguarded. Only by doing our jobs properly and scrutinising these projects properly can we truly honour our commitment to the well-being of present and future generations. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:08, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning, Julie James. 

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I thank Plaid Cymru for bringing forward this very important debate, and Members for their contributions today? Wales does have a proud mining heritage, but its legacy has undoubtedly left us with over 2,500 disused coal spoil tips across Wales, which make up 40 per cent of the disused coal tips in the UK, as noted in the debate motion. 

We know that climate change is bringing more frequent and intense patterns of rainfall, as this winter has demonstrated only too clearly. The shifting weather patterns mean there is potential for the destabilisation of the disused tips. Everyone here is familiar with the Tylorstown landslide in February 2020, which you very eloquently said brought into sharp focus the legacy with which our communities live. I absolutely understand and share the anxiety felt in communities near coal tips. This is one of the drivers behind our publication of the location data of all category C and D tips in November, and the remaining A, B and R tips in March. We now have a single source of truth as to where those tips are, which is one of the first of its kind, and firmly places Wales as a world leader in this field. The Welsh Government provided a significant package of supporting information to communities to support the publication, and that support, I'm very pleased to say, was well received. But if anyone does have remaining concerns about any tips, they can still contact the Coal Authority hotline. The contact details are available online and very easy to find, as I checked just before the debate. We do not want people to live in fear. The whole point of the publication was to alleviate that fear, and it's an important context.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 6:10, 8 May 2024

I absolutely support the sentiments behind the motion that's in front of us today. The amendment we've tabled is a nuance, I think, about the forthcoming legislative programme because it's already scheduled and coming in the autumn. Otherwise, we'd have just been supporting the motion. We absolutely support its sentiments. 

We established the coal tip safety programme in 2020, and it is making good progress. Since 2020, there's been a significant increase in coal tip inspections and monitoring in Wales. We've commissioned the Coal Authority to undertake ongoing inspections until our new statutory regime is in place, and they've undertaken over 1,500 inspections to date. To support this work, the Welsh Government has already made, as many people have acknowledged, £44.4 million of capital funding available to local authorities since 2022. And I'm very pleased to report to Members that the recent winter inspection round concluded in February and no major concerns were raised, despite the inclement winter weather. I do think it is important to reassure communities that those inspections are thorough and vigorous, and that those inspections have not revealed anything to be worried about.    

Our inspections and maintenance regime has established itself as a robust operating process, but of course we want to futureproof the system and ensure we keep pace with technological developments within the new statutory regime. And that's why we're undertaking a programme of technology trials across more than 70 category C and D tips. The outcomes of the trials will inform the long-term technology and monitoring strategies of the future management regime. Meanwhile, through longer term remediation and reclamation, Welsh Government policy is to identify potential opportunities to turn disused tips into beneficial assets for communities. Not only will this deliver on our core safety objective, but it can, as many Members have pointed out, bring economic benefits, new skills and more employment to areas that need it. Ultimately, the best option will depend on each specific tip, including the hazard status and receptors, such as the communities that surround it. Tip reclamation and remediation can offer valuable opportunities to respond to both the climate and nature emergencies by building an ecological network and improving ecosystem resilience. For example, the remediation of the Tylorstown landslide includes the creation of a wildflower meadow from the debris removed from the tip. So, I do think it's important to understand what can be done. 

I just want to reiterate something I said in questions this morning, with the Llywydd's indulgence just for one moment; I don't want to repeat everything I said there. I'm not going to comment on a particular planning or pre-planning application, but the process through which that has to pass is vigorous. It includes all of the issues that all Members have brought up today, including disruption to local communities. It engages the Welsh Government's coal policy, in my view, and it will have to go through those processes vigorously. I'm not going to comment at all on its merits or otherwise, but just to reassure Members that that process is in place and vigorously enforced.

I also want you to know that we are following closely the developments at Ffos-y-fran with some concern. I confirm that the Welsh Government and our public sector partners are working in collaboration with Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council to ensure the safety of the community, to provide reassurance and to ensure that the site is restored in line with the original plans. We are already closely monitoring the situation, and I've arranged to meet the leader of the council on Thursday 13 June. I actually met with Dawn Bowden, the local Member, just today as she wanted to share some of her concerns. In the meantime, I've provided assurance to Merthyr council that the Welsh Government is available to provide help and support where possible, and that includes providing funding to ensure that independent assessments on potential flooding concerns and environmental impacts are carried out. I will be reinforcing that message when I see the leader very soon. 

More broadly where funding is concerned, the Welsh Government has made clear our commitment to playing our part in the long-term resilience of our coal tips. However, the case for the UK Government to contribute too is clear and compelling, and, at this point, I feel I absolutely have to address Joel's speech, which I was, frankly, appalled by. I'm sorry to share personal details here. My maternal grandfather died of black lung. He died in June 1940, three weeks after he had learned that his eldest son had been killed on HMS Glorious. He left my 38-year-old grandmother with six children to bring up and no compensation of any sort, and the fact that some rich Welsh families built some stuff in our cities is no compensation for that at all. Words fail me as to the rest of that speech so I think it's best left there, but there are long, long legacies of exploitation throughout all of our communities, in each one of our families. My father too was a miner. He also died of cancer, almost certainly because of his mining history. I can't prove that, but it's almost certain. That will be the case in many families across Wales. To say that that isn't exploitation beggars belief, quite frankly.

The presence of these coal tips long predates devolution, and it is really disappointing that the UK Government refuses to acknowledge its moral responsibility in helping to fund this remediation programme. We raise it at every opportunity; my colleague Rebecca Evans and I have raised it many times with various Secretaries of State—they do revolve rather a lot. Each time a new one comes, we raise it again. The previous First Minister lost no opportunity to raise it; I'm sure the new First Minister will lose no opportunity otherwise. It is the moral responsibility of the UK Government to remediate the legacy of the industrial heritage of the whole of the UK, not just the bits that it likes. But underpinning all of this work is the development of the disused tips Bill, which will provide a much-needed modernisation of the legislation surrounding coal tips. The disused tips, mines and quarries Bill will reform outdated laws around tip safety and give greater security to the people living in their shadow. It will enshrine in legislation a long-term sustainable and fit-for-purpose regulatory regime for disused tip safety. It will be led by a newly created public body solely focused on the work, and the work is developing at pace to set up the new body, so it can hit the ground running as soon as the new regime commences.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 6:16, 8 May 2024

You mentioned in quite a bit of length there about what the Government is doing in relation to Ffos-y-fran, and now you're talking about the new forthcoming legislation. Will that include other opencast mines, such as the one I mentioned in East Pit?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

So, one of the things we'll have to do is to make sure that the various regimes dovetail together, and it will be a matter for the committees in scrutiny to make sure that we've done that as well. So, an opencast mine that's operational is not a disused tip; obviously, it's being used. And then the transition between used and disused are ones that we'll have to look at carefully, to make sure that, as an opencast mine stops being an opencast mine, it transfers into the new regime in a seamless way and with all of the right operators and players playing their part in that transition. So, it will be very much part of the discussion on the new Bill to make sure that the edges of those two regimes match together. There is also an overlap with the environmental governance body that we will be bringing forward shortly thereafter. We need to make sure the regimes fit together and every one is picked up in one of them, as appropriate.

So, I just want to conclude that we agree our coal tip communities should, can and will deserve to be safe, now and in the future. That's the ultimate priority for both the programme and for the Government. We will use all the levers at our disposal to progress the programme at pace, while capitalising on the opportunities to respond to our climate and nature emergencies. I continue to be grateful to our key partners for their support in delivering and progressing this work, particularly the Coal Authority and our local authority partners, who already put of lot of work in. But, Llywydd, I am going to call again on the UK Government to acknowledge its own role and play its part in the remediation of these tips across our communities. But, in the meantime, I look forward to introducing the Bill in the autumn. Diolch.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you to everyone who has taken part in this debate.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

Well, diolch, Joel, though I must take contention with what you said. Our workers were exploited, whether by pit owners or, indeed, iron masters. Near Merthyr you'll find the grave of the industrialist Richard Crawshay. The only words on his grave are 'God forgive me'. He knew, just as pit owners would have known, how he would be judged when he went to meet his maker.

Now, I thank Hefin for the intervention that he made there citing Senghenydd. The women whose husbands were killed in that disaster were only paid half a day's wages, because the explosion happened before their shift had ended. It is not an alternative reality to say that these men and their communities were exploited.

Diolch, Sioned. Sioned reminded us of the scars in the Swansea valley still being felt today, including in schools, and the anxiety felt by residents. With opencast sites, she talked about water-filled voids. Now, the climate change committee heard recently from Climate Cymru about Ffos-y-fran, and they talked about staring into the void. Now, usually, we'd use that phrase for an existential crisis, but there's no existential remote threat facing these communities; it is real and undeniable. Hefin spoke about, again, not just what had happened with Senghenydd, but some of the concerns that a number of Members have about what might be happening in Bedwas. I know you, like me, will be concerned about some of the higher risk tips, where the private companies aren't as interested to go in and what's going to happen with them, of course. My argument is still that I don't think that this should be the responsibility of private companies; it should be on Government, and indeed Westminster should be paying towards this. The hole that's been opened up here, both literal and metaphorical, is because of Westminster's failings.

Heledd reflected on how the stories that are told at Big Pit are not just, again, of the miners, but their families, and the lung conditions that miners' wives suffered from because they washed their husbands' clothes. Heledd talked about the Albion disaster. There's a line of graves in Llanfabon cemetery of unknown men who were killed in the Albion disaster, unable to be identified. These miners were exploited, Llywydd, the named and the nameless.

Now, Rhianon spoke about her constituents' worries about what's happening, again, possibly, with Sirhowy, a concern that companies motivated by profit could again exploit landscapes. Coal tip reclamation should not cost our communities again. Peredur spoke about these proposals as well and how there is a concern that coal extraction could happen under the guise of reclamation, and concern that it could set a precedent for what could happen across the coalfield.

Diolch to the Cabinet Secretary for your comments as well. I agree that publishing the data has been very, very valuable—a single source of trust, as you put it. I would still press the Government to include opencast sites in the upcoming legislation. The phenomena of coal tips, opencast sites and how they're treated, they are linked. And I am so sorry about what happened to your family. Thank you for sharing that. Those will be stories that will be shared across Wales, and they matter and we must remember them, because we must learn from our history.

For decades, no law was made to manage the risk that the tips posed; no thought was wasted on what could go wrong if the spoil started to slip until that fateful, terrible day in 1966 when muck and slurry fell onto the school at Aberfan, taking the lives of 144 people, 116 of them children. That nightmare awoke some from their slumbering, but nobody lost their job, no-one was called to account. No—the shadow of Aberfan did not extend to the corridors of Westminster. They chose to look the other way, and that shame will never be washed from their hands, nor will the muck or the sludge from these tips be scrubbed from them until they reckon with what they have done. They made a desolation of our landscapes and called it progress. Progress that was never passed to miners, though their spirit, Llywydd, it was never dulled.

I've been proud in recent years to work alongside former mineworkers who were robbed of their pensions, another scandal over which Westminster has presided, and the slogan those campaigners have adopted is an emotive one: 'With the last breath of broken men.' No, the miners' spirit was never dimmed. I said earlier that our Valleys were shaped by coal mining, not just the landscapes, but our people, the determination of the miners to make communities that were better for their children, building miners' halls and libraries, hosting meetings and eisteddfodau. I think often of Harri Webb's words, of the old men of Dowlais reminiscing about the men coming out of the cwbs at Caeharris station, men, they said, with 90 per cent dust who could hit top C as if it never existed. The sacrifices those men made, the horrors they endured, and still, with their last breath, they sang. 

It is for their honour and their memory, the miners who died and those who survived it, that the past's sins must at last be atoned for. The legacy of mining has been brutal. Clearing the tips is one thing that can compensate, to allow Westminster to get one thing right for the miners at last, cleanse the wounds left on their lungs and our landscape, and pay the miners' children their charge. If any decency or virtue is left to them, they would do this, and pay at last for the wrongs of the past.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:24, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections. We will therefore defer voting until voting time, and unless three Members wish for the bell to be rung, I will proceed directly to voting time.

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.