While the Westminster bubble has spent the last few weeks focusing on Tory sleaze and COP26, the Welsh have been facing a far more consequential challenge. The problem is the country’s coal tips: monstrously black, heavy slag heaps, omnipotent and ever-present reminders of the great industry that once dominated Britain’s economy and fuelled the furnace of the Empire.
Rarely do I find myself agreeing with the rabble rousing Rhondda socialist, Leanne Wood, but the former Plaid Cymru leader (who unexpectedly lost her South Wales seat in the Senedd election in May) sounded a prescient warning this month. She argued that unless action was taken to manage these tips properly, another Aberfan was ‘on the cards’. For once this was not nationalist hyperbole; it was a stark warning that has for too long been unheeded.
I was born in a mining community, near Pontypridd, where tinted black hillsides are an essential part of the landscape. And in Wales, Aberfan sends a chill down people’s spines. It was our darkest day in the twentieth century when children at Pantglas Junior School were crushed by a black tsunami of spoil, caused by a rain-saturated mountainside. The collapse of the spoil tip killed 144 people in total. Dramatised in The Crown, it would be easy to imagine these kinds of disasters, which were a recurring plague of mining in Britain, as a relic of the past. Especially since only a couple of mines – the Aberpergwm colliery and the Ffos-y-fran opencast mine – still extract coal in Wales
Alas, that is not the case. There has been a resurged interest in the legacy of Wales’s coal mining industry after a series of disasters were narrowly avoided in recent years. Most shocking was the collapse of 60,000 tonnes of colliery spoil above Tylorstown in February last year, triggered by heavy rainfall pushing the spoil down the valley. More bad weather is bound to come to flood-prone Welsh valleys in the future, which already face significant disruption from extreme weather. Communities like Tylorstown can never escape their hillsides’ looming spoil, dumped over decades of industrial work. As one local councillor told the Guardian last month, the coal tips remain ‘an albatross around our necks.’
Earlier this year, Cardiff’s devolved administration identified around 300 other tips in Wales that were ‘high-risk’ – meaning they are a likely danger to life or property. The joint Welsh and UK government coal tip safety taskforce, set up to monitor disused coal tips in Wales last year, found that the current legislation on coal heaps is ‘neither sufficiently robust or fit for purpose in relation to inspection and maintenance’.
There are plenty of options to remedy the situation and the Welsh government should take the lead. The Law Commission has recommended a new coal tips register, rigorous inspections of tips and a single supervisory authority to boost the safety regime of the industry.
But the be-all and end-all is usually money. The Welsh government has said, quite rightly, that it will support local authorities when it comes to tip safety and inspections, but first minister Mark Drakeford has claimed that over the next ten to 15 years, £500m to £600m will be needed to avoid further landslides, which takes into account the repurposing, reclamation and remediation of disused coal tips.
This is a huge sum for the devolved administration, but tip management is currently a devolved responsibility. The UK government has hammered this point home, saying it has no obligation to stump up the money. While this is constitutionally correct, as the first minister says the bill should really be paid by the Treasury. Wales has suffered for centuries at the hands of its extractive economy – with natural resources including water, energy and coal used for the benefit of England. Our partial self-governing administration does not deserve to be punished for the pre-devolution legacy of coal mining, especially when 40 per cent of the UK’s abandoned coal tips are in Wales.
An extra £60m a year from Whitehall is not much to ask for, considering it will directly save lives that could be lost and avoid damage to communities up and down the country.
In Tylorstown, it was widely reported that the area only received £2.5 million from the UK government for the tip clear-up after obsessive lobbying led by the local MP Chris Bryant. The total cost of the remediation was estimated to be £18 million.
Bronwen Maddox of the Institute for Government has suggested that Downing Street could secure support for the Union by footing the bill for coal tip management. The valleys have never truly been fervent breeding grounds for Welsh nationalism, but urgent funding from the UK government would show Wales that its centuries long contribution to Britain has not been forgotten. Even more significantly, this would allow mining communities across the country to feel safe again, at a time when more and more fragile tips are in danger of collapsing.
The Prime Minister has an unrivalled opportunity to demonstrate that levelling-up is not just for the English regions but also the coalfields beyond Cardiff. Money is often dismissed as a politically cheap way of buying loyalty. Communities in Wales, however, badly need this money – arguably even more than cities in the north of England. With enough central government cash, and coal tip safety measures put in place by Cardiff Bay, it’s not impossible to prevent future slag heap disasters.
Harold Macmillan was right to describe miners as ‘the best men in the world’. It is long overdue that we recognise their contribution by making the mining communities they lived in safe. All Wales is waiting for is a British prime minister to get out his wallet.