Nia Griffith MP is calling on the UK Government to provide resources to restore opencast sites which have been left as ugly scars on the Welsh landscape as a result of a decision taken by the Tory Government when the coal industry was privatised in 1995, which means that Celtic Energy was allowed to excavate coal, without putting aside any money in a bond which could then be used to restore topsoil and vegetation to the site.
Speaking in a parliamentary debate, Nia said,
“Thanks to the Welsh Government commissioning the review, “Research into the failure to restore opencast coal sites in South Wales”, we now have a clearer idea of the problem in Wales, which five large sites left without sufficient funds for restoration, in addition to Dynant Fawr in Tumble, a smaller site which Carmarthenshire County Council is now having to deal with. Whereas pre-privatisation British Coal, held a restoration lump sum in reserve to be used for restoration, at privatisation Celtic Energy acquired the British Coal open-cast operation in south Wales but it was not required to provide any restoration bonds. It is staggering to think that for the first 10 years after privatisation, 1995 to 2005, there was no effective mechanism to require the restoration of open-cast sites, but that is precisely what happened.
At the time of privatisation, Scottish Labour MP Jimmy Hood raised with the then Department of Trade and Industry Minister the issue of the enormous burden that was to fall on local planning authorities as a result of privatisation, and how right he was.
Here in Tumble, we have Dynant Fawr in Tumble which is a smaller site, not run by Celtic Energy, but by Carmarthen Mining Ltd has since been dissolved.. My local planning authority, Carmarthenshire county council, has released some of the bond to achieve some restoration and currently holds a bond of some £176,000, but that falls short of the full restoration costs, which the local authority believes could exceed £250,000.
Although the local authority required a bond and the operator was to pay into an escrow account, the bank was slow to alert the authority that payments were not being made. The lesson to learn is that although the local authority tried its best to get the right mechanisms in place, the situation is much more complex than it might at first appear. Making bonds work is not easy when companies disappear and play all sorts of dirty tricks.
The local authority now faces the situation that both the operator and the landowner have conveniently disappeared, so the job of managing the restoration is left to the county council. The money that has accrued from the bond is less than the council estimates to be ideal, so it looking to do the best it can with the funds available, but that still means a lot of officer time tied up dealing with the matter.. Carmarthenshire has also been looking at different ways of making sure that bonds are more effective. It is not that easy. You have to be certain that the money that is paid in is ahead of the restoration costs, and strike a hard bargain.
This is a highly technical area and, as the World Bank has said, a lot of expertise is needed to set up, control and run bonds properly, and to ensure that the restoration is done properly at the end. This is extremely costly and in the current economic climate local authority expertise does not just come from nowhere.
Hugh Towns, the head of minerals planning in my local authority is working with colleagues from Natural Resources Wales and from Neath Port Talbot, and he is also chair of the group of planning officers across Wales who come together on mineral issues to develop some guidance on making the bond mechanism as effective as possible. That could be incorporated into guidance such as a technical advice note for planners.
The way forward is very much to work together and do whatever we can, but we still need the money to restore the land in the communities that have suffered devastation from people just ripping them off for open-cast.
Former NUM president Ian Lavery MP argued it should be illegal to rip open land like a “proverbial sardine can”, take the coal and then simply leave the area a wasteland.Any director of a company … that produces coal, leaves it, should never ever be allowed to be part of an application in the future. That should be fundamental, it should be basic. They are blackmailing the local authorities by saying sorry we cannot restore this one, but if we get the opportunity for planning permission in another one then we will be able to pay the money. That’s happening.”
Business Minister Matthew Hancock has agreed to meet the MPs who took part in the debate to discuss the issues further.