Pwyllgor Newid Hinsawdd, yr Amgylchedd a Seilwaith

Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee

09/05/2024

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Carolyn Thomas
Delyth Jewell
Janet Finch-Saunders
Joyce Watson
Julie Morgan
Llyr Gruffydd Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Alyson Austin United Valleys Action Group
United Valleys Action Group
Chris Austin United Valleys Action Group
United Valleys Action Group
Hugh Towns Cyngor Sir Gâr
Carmarthenshire County Council
Jason Prince Urban Transport Group
Urban Transport Group
Joseph Dooher Llywodraeth Cymru
Welsh Government
Lee Robinson Trafnidiaeth Cymru
Transport for Wales
Owen Jordan Cyn-aelod o'r Cross-Valleys Group
Former Member of the Cross-Valleys Group
Robbie Thomas Llywodraeth Cymru
Welsh Government
Stephen Rhodes Transport for Greater Manchester
Transport for Greater Manchester
Sue Jordan Cyn-aelod o'r Cross-Valleys Group
Former Member of the Cross-Valleys Group

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Andrew Minnis Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Elizabeth Wilkinson Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Lukas Evans Santos Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Marc Wyn Jones Clerc
Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:31.

The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:31.

1. Cyflwyniadau, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions, and declarations of interest

Bore da a chroeso i chi i gyd i'r Pwyllgor Newid Hinsawdd, yr Amgylchedd a Seilwaith yma yn Senedd Cymru. Gaf i groesawu yn arbennig Julie Morgan, sydd yn ymuno â ni am y tro cyntaf fel aelod o'r pwyllgor? Croeso, Julie.  

Mae'r cyfarfod hwn, wrth gwrs, yn cael ei gynnal mewn fformat hybrid ac, ar wahân i addasiadau yn ymwneud â chynnal y trafodion mewn fformat hybrid, mae holl ofynion eraill y Rheolau Sefydlog yn aros yn eu lle. Mae eitemau cyhoeddus y cyfarfod yma yn cael eu darlledu'n fyw ar Senedd.tv ac mi fydd Cofnod o'r Trafodion, wrth gwrs, yn cael ei gyhoeddi yn ôl yr arfer. Mae'r cyfarfod yn un dwyieithog ac mae yna gyfieithu, felly, ar gael—cyfieithu ar y pryd o'r Gymraeg i'r Saesneg. Ond cyn inni gychwyn, gaf i ofyn a oes gan unrhyw un unrhyw fuddiannau i'w datgan? Dim byd. Dyna ni. Iawn. Ocê. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Good morning and welcome to you all to the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee here at the Senedd. Can I welcome Julie Morgan, who is joining us for the first time as a member of the committee? Welcome, Julie.

This meeting is, of course, being held in a hybrid format and, apart from the usual adaptations with regard to holding hybrid meetings, all other Standing Order requirements remain in place. The public items of this meeting are being broadcast live on Senedd.tv and the Record of the Proceedings will, of course, be published as usual. The meeting is bilingual and interpretation is available from Welsh to English. But before we start, can I ask whether anyone has any declarations of interest to make? No. Fine. Okay. Thank you very much.

2. Adfer safleoedd glo brig - sesiwn dystiolaeth 4
2. Restoration of opencast mining sites - evidence session 4

Awn ni ymlaen, felly, at eitem gyntaf y cyfarfod. Wrth gwrs, y bore yma rŷn ni'n parhau i gymryd tystiolaeth mewn perthynas ag adfer safleoedd glo brig, a'r ffocws, wrth gwrs, ar safle Ffos-y-frân yn enwedig, ond yn cynnwys mannau eraill yng Nghymru hefyd. Ac rŷn ni'n mynd i glywed gan grwpiau gweithredu lleol sydd yn ymgyrchu dros adfer safleoedd yn ein cymunedau ni yn gyntaf. Felly, mae'n bleser gen i estyn croeso cynnes i'r tystion sy'n ymuno â ni ar gyfer y sesiwn gyntaf yma, sef Alyson a Chris Austin o United Valleys Action Group, Merthyr Tudful, a Sue ac Owen Jordan, sy'n gyn-aelodau o'r Cross-Valleys Group yn Abertawe. Croeso cynnes iawn i'r pedwar ohonoch chi.

Efallai y gwnaf i ddechrau, os caf i, a gofyn i chi, yn fras ac yn gryno, jest i sôn ychydig, neu i amlinellu ychydig, am rôl eich grwpiau chi mewn perthynas â safleoedd glo brig yng Nghymru. Dwi ddim yn gwybod pwy sydd eisiau mynd yn gyntaf, jest i ddweud tamaid bach am yr hyn rŷch chi'n gwneud. Alyson.

We'll move on, therefore, to the first item of the meeting. Of course, this morning we continue to take evidence with regard to the restoration of opencast mining sites, with a focus on the Ffos-y-fran site in particular, but also including other sites in Wales. And we'll first be hearing from local action groups that are campaigning for the restoration of sites in our communities. So, I am pleased to extend a warm welcome to the witnesses who are joining us for this first session, namely Alyson and Chris Austin from United Valleys Action Group, Merthyr Tydfil, and Sue and Owen Jordan, who are former members of the Cross-Valleys Group in Swansea. So, a very warm welcome to all four of you.

I will start, if I may, and just ask if you can briefly outline your group's role in relation to opencast mining sites in Wales. I don't know who wants to go first, just to say a little bit about what you do. Alyson.

Yes. We've campaigned against the social and environmental impacts of opencast coal mining as individuals and also as part of local campaign groups. We've campaigned against Ffos-y-fran for the past 20 years, and also the extension and Nant Llesg via the United Valleys Action Group.

Well, our role started when our house started to crack. We have circulated the photographs. There was a warning to the Coal Authority. The Groundsure report said,

'a "high potential for natural ground instability", vulnerability of adjacent residents and very high risk of flooding'.

That report never reached the councillors, and it did not reach us—we were not warned. Our house started to crack. I think the pictures I've circulated show the severity of the damage. It is an insurance write-off. For two years, the Coal Authority and the local planning authority denied that the cracks were happening and then they denied that it was anything to do with subsidence—two years. That house was very difficult to live in and was not insurable. AXA got a good solicitor and we finally got an admission from Celtic Energy—two years. We were advised to go to land tribunal; that was not a good idea. We have not had full recompense. We've had enough money to repair the house. Why was the existing legislation never enforced? I want to say, 'Never again.' I've come here to say, 'What procedures are in place to ensure that this does not happen to anyone again?' And the only way we can do that is by full restoration. We are now living under 14 million cu m of water, which is placed over an earthquake fault. There was an earthquake in 2018 before the void filled; it has now filled. The community council has written asking for a qualified engineer's assessment, and we're now asking for hydrologist assessments. This may well not be safe. There's a lot of water that can fall down that valley. So, never again, and full restoration. Thank you for listening.

09:35

Thank you. Can I ask, then, in what way the restoration that has happened on the site there differs to what was originally intended as part of the planning application?

The 2004 application was to restore the ground to the commoners. Now there's a big hole filled with a huge amount of water. Technically, it doesn't come under the Reservoirs Act, but I don't think that's a reason why we couldn't get a chartered indemnified engineer from the panel. Just because they don't have to doesn't mean to say we can't get experts in. I'm not convinced that's safe. I don't know when that earthquake's going to go again—it could be a hundred years, it could be next year. We don't know. We do think there are signs of subsidence, and some of the things—. The buttressing looks less than complete, and if the buttressing isn't complete, there is loose spill there. It could slip, and then tonnes of rubble fall into that void. It's only got a few feet to go before some of that water's coming down the valley. But we need expert opinions. We've written to the local authority and they've said we don't need it.

So, do you know whether there are ongoing discussions around restoration still within the local authority?

Our understanding is that there are not.

They had planned this lake—before the earthquake, they had planned this lake. They had planned a dive centre and a hotel, but they've now decided that the ground is too unstable, so there is this huge amount of water and nothing else. So, the hotel is not happening. I think it will never happen because the ground is too unstable.

Okay, and that's a cause of concern in itself, isn't it, really, for others living in the vicinity. Okay, we'll develop some of these themes as we go along, so thank you for that. So, I'll invite Janet now, then. Janet, do you want to come in with a few questions?

Good morning, and I'm really sorry to hear of your experiences. Other than the site that you live near or have been involved in, are there other opencast sites that we should be concerned about?

Maybe, Alyson, do you want to go first on this one, and then I'll bring Sue in?

Obviously, the issues at Margam and East Pit are well known, but, obviously, now Ffos-y-fran is happening—it's real time and it's happening now. We are faced with the issue that the owner has walked away from the site. He's saying that he's going to put in a reduced restoration package sometime during the autumn, possibly late autumn, and he's saying he doesn't have the money to restore the site. So, we are in exactly the same situation now as the East Pit and Margam people are finding themselves in, and, to be honest, it's worrying us. We're worrying ourselves sick over it.

09:40

It is. They were in advance of us, so we could see what was coming, which is why we jumped in very early with our campaigning for the restoration side of things, and we could see what was unfolding. We tried in 2004—. When did we start campaigning? Around 2004, we tried with the initial application to have a more robust restoration package put in place, but that didn't happen. But, when they sold the site in 2015 to Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, we had another opportunity there, and we made strong representation to the local authority, local planning authority, to put a more realistic sum of money aside, especially since the firm that was taking over didn't have the financial backing or the good name of the previous conglomerate that was working the site. We got the letters that were to-ing and fro-ing between us and the chief executive officer and head of legal in Merthyr at the time, and they refused to put anything in place other than the original £15 million, which was nowhere near enough to be making a dent in putting the site back.

Of course. Indeed, that's why we as a committee are looking at this, because why are we finding ourselves back in this position every time this tends to happen?

It seems to be a strategy that's well used by the mining companies and other companies. It's a strategy that's well used. They make their money and then they plead poverty and they walk away.

So, the company, they changed their name, did they not, halfway through.

They sold. It was sold in 2015 to a completely different company. They've changed their name several times along the way, just to add confusion to it, but from 2015 on—the end of 2015 on—it's the same company, who are now called Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd. Miller Argent were the previous.

Sorry, Chair, can I just ask a further question? There was a—. So, we took evidence last week that there was funding set aside, they said, in Companies House, for restoration, but then that disappeared. And I'm just trying to work out the timeline of when that happened, because I can't remember. So—

It was in 2021—

Yes. I'm not sure what was said at the—

Can we put this inside the perspective that the ploy of putting old mining sites into companies that have no assets and are simply there to relieve the people whose duty it is to deal with those assets is a very, very old one indeed? I dealt with a piece of ground in Neath some years ago, which, 200 years ago, was done exactly the same. The policy is neither new nor unremarkable. It happens. That's what mining companies do, and if you are going to have mining, as opposed to effective management of resources, that's what you're going to get. Simple as that.

Can I ask one further question? So, if a company wants to come in now and says they would like to continue mining and then restore at the same time, but they haven't got that financial backing to do it, would you—? Am I mad? Would you trust them? Sorry, tell me if I'm—. You know, would you trust them?

Well, it shouldn't be a matter of trust, anyway; we should have things in place. You shouldn't have to guess whether the person is trustworthy or not. You put things in place.

You should plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Can I just ask: do you have any direct contact with those companies? Have you had direct contact?

No, none at all.

If you would like to put on record the fact that I first wrote to Celtic Energy over East Pit in 2001, and, in 2015, I had had a single reply in those 14 years, that will give you some idea. The reply was that, no, I couldn't cut the hedge that was shading out my hedge at the bottom of my field. That's the only reply I ever had in 15 years.

09:45

Yes. We've never seen any of the mine owners, and the current mine owner doesn't even represent to the council.

I don't think the council have ever seen him.

Never met him.

It's a faceless thing, yes.

Well, we have the council coming in in a fortnight's time, so we can ask them about that.

Oh, yay. [Laughter.]

If you put into context the fact that Celtic Energy bought—or, more effectively, were given—a land portfolio that included several thousand acres that entirely surrounded our home, and that, in the 28 years since they bought it, they did not a single act of repair, maintenance or any other remedial work to that land, you can imagine the sort of condition it got in. You don't have to think about the opencast. Just think of the dereliction that that has caused, all around the village, all around our road, never mind the empty houses, the ones they whitewashed before the planning committee turned up. The sheer act of deliberate dereliction over an enormous area of land was what we had to live with, what we had to bring our children up with, what we had to—. In effect, we had to take the children out of the local school, because they were deliberately trying to get rid of us.

And so these are people who have no commitment to the local area whatsoever, and are—

Well, it appears that way, just by the evidence.

I would even question their commitment to being human.

Celtic Energy have put a community fund into Gwaun Cae Gurwen community council. Several years ago now—seven years ago—they put in a £100,000 community benefit fund, which we, as a council, allocate in aliquots of £5,000. We have asked for more. No luck. So, there has been—. Well, there has been that, and it has been helpful, but it doesn't make up—.

Yes. I don't want to say 'nothing'.

There we are. We'll come back to Janet, then. Janet.

Thank you. So, what do you believe is the key reason for the failure of appropriate restoration of these sites?

What, in the system, is letting us down, effectively?

Well, where to start, really? We're working with corporate bodies, companies. At the end of the day, they will make as much money as they can out of this; they're there to make money and, if they're allowed to do so, they will do it by any means. We have public bodies, Government bodies, in place to protect us from the excesses of these companies, and I'm afraid they've failed us—totally and utterly. You could say that the companies are immoral, and, well, I will, but that's what companies do; you have to expect it of them. What you don't expect is to have your Government bodies and public bodies standing alongside them and capitulating and being apologists for these companies. They should be standing with us, or between us and the company, on our behalf. We don't find that. We've never had it. Never seen it. And it's still continuing to unfold in front of us now. Something needs to be done, but we can't find out how these bodies are held to account, which we'll come to later, rather than go on now about it.

For two years, the Coal Authority refused to visit to see the damage for themselves. They refused to visit. Two years.

They refused to reply to us.

They don't reply.

They refuse to reply to correspondence. If I want to write to the Coal Authority, I have to write a letter for my consulting engineer and send it to him; he prints it on his headed notepaper and sends it to the Coal Authority. That's the only way that we'll get a reply. And when you're talking about the technical aspects of the restoration of the site, where, clearly, myself and my consulting engineer have some level of expertise, you can fairly say that, over the period of the development of the East Pit site under Celtic Energy, there was an information blackout, not just from Celtic Energy, but from the Coal Authority and Neath Port Talbot, the local planning authority.

So, why do you think that was necessary on their part, then?

I mean, you could potentially understand why the private company themselves wouldn't want to engage. Why do you think the local authority and the Coal Authority were reticent to engage?

09:50

Well, there's a very short answer, which is that they were all in bed together. Simple.

The Coal Authority's remit, as far as it extended, was for the protection of the mining interests of the mining company and nothing else, to the exclusion of everything else.

To maximise—. Yes, we were told that a few weeks ago.

The same went for the local planning authority. Under the 1990 planning Act, they had a duty of care to us. They failed to discharge that utterly. And when given the option to be deceitful—and that's the most charitable way I can deal with it—they chose to deceive.

Okay. I mean, you're entitled to your view, and that's absolutely right, and you're entitled to express that. I'm sure the authority would want to challenge that in some way, and of course they're more than welcome to write to us. But I'm just interested to understand.

We did give the authorities—the Coal Authority and the local planning authority—a chance to appear in court before the lands tribunal. We went to the lands tribunal naming the parties and what they had done to us. The two parties—the Coal Authority and the LPA—both turned around and said, 'We will try and land costs on you at the lands tribunal and we will therefore try and bankrupt you.' Simple as that. Sound familiar? Post Office. Exactly the same tactic.

I feel a bit daft asking this question now, but are you aware of any examples of best practice for opencast restoration, either from Wales or anywhere, that could help shape the future approach in Wales?

Is there anywhere where they get it right, basically, isn't it? That's what we want to know.

I think Tower has got it basically right, and they are actually doing a restoration. But Tower are different, they're not a corporation as such, they are the people that—. You know, they live there, they—

The miners came together to buy the mine, and I think that ethos and structure went through into the opencast mine as well. So, a lot of them live in the area, and have a moral and social conscience, I suppose, then, to restore the site. So, we have a different ethos, a different—. I can't think of the word. It's not a corporation, and I think the issues that we're all talking about here stem from corporations being able to run wild.

Yes. Any international examples? I know maybe that's a bit of an ask, but—.

That's not too difficult. I've been to a fair number of parts of the world where opencast mining for various minerals has taken place. If you go to Rio Tinto, which is obviously the first opencast mine in the world, it's still a big hole, as it has been for at least 500 years. If you go to South Africa, where they mined chrysotile asbestos, and talk to the industry there, they weren't bothered about putting anything back in the hole. If you go to Scotland, closer to home, you can find lots of holes in the ground where they simply haven't bothered to fill them in. But we do have a little bit of Welsh content there, because a former lecturer at the Welsh School of Architecture designed some pretty little bits and pieces to stick on hills of the spoil tips that they left behind. So, that might be Wales's contribution to Scotland.

I can't find a single example—. No, that's not strictly true. If you look at the ironstone mining that was carried out during and after world war two in rural Oxfordshire and in the limestone belt between Oxfordshire and the Humber, you will find effective restoration. The reason was that the opencast was very shallow and the spoil was put back as the work proceeded. There was a continuous programme of restoration. That was done under the aegis of wartime emergency powers and it was in an area where the soil could last a couple of years stood in a stockpile to actually be put back and be worth it. In the case of East Pit, where we are at the moment, Celtic Energy simply piled the top soil, such as it was, into a heap and left it for 15 years, at which point it had no organic matter whatsoever and was just yet another piece of waste.

I live in a heavily mined area in north Wales. The last open pit site was in the 1970s, but it's now woodlands. We call it black meadows, behind me, and it's gone now to woodland and water. It was heavily mined, and then there was earth there. I met a miner, when I was walking on the old railway line, so—. It's become a nature reserve now as well. There were six mines right just along that railway line, and so it's amazing, the biodiversity now, but because there was soil, I suppose, there—

09:55

Yes. And a matter of scale as well is, I suppose, an incentive.

We've seen opencast mines and none of them are as close to the houses as ours is, and the MTAN 2 said that they should give us 500m. I know that was dismissed. I know—[Inaudible.]—fought for that, and it was said that it was advisory, not compulsory. So, to bring the cut within 150m of a house, that is the exception, not the rule. Because places in Scotland, maybe they've bought properties, but that's where I think we're a bit different. 

Diolch. Can I say at the start how much I admire the campaigning work that you've all done? I'm just so appalled that you've had to do it. My questions are going to be focusing on Ffos-y-fran. Chris and Alyson, you've talked a little bit already about the correspondence that you've had with Merthyr council. Have you had any response, since you wrote your paper to us, to your calls for the £15 million in the escrow account to be used to reinstate the water pumps?

No, I'm afraid. It's something that's a matter of urgency, obviously, to us, because it would be a fait accompli from the restoration point of view. They've switched the pumps off and they're allowing the void to fill with water. If that does fill with water, it will get to a point they won't be able to drain it, because the local water courses and drainage system wouldn't be able to handle the outfall. So, as a matter of urgency, we've been trying to get them to put the brakes on and, from our point of view, that would be put the pumps back on, at our cost, because that's why the £15 million was lodged in the escrow account, to make it safe and secure in the event of the mining company not doing so. But I'm afraid we, I can't get tell you how many times—several times, anyway—have tried to jolly this along, and they are quite content to let things happen.

You use the phrase 'fait accompli'. What would your view be about the suggestion that the restoration plan could now be amended to incorporate a void of water? What effect do you think that would have on the community?

That's not restoration.

Well, it's not restoration, it's avoiding restoration. The problem you've got, then, is you're accepting a dangerous structure. You've got the visual impact of the site being left, which looks like an opencast coal mine. The whole driver for this from the very beginning was it was a land reclamation scheme, and it was a land reclamation scheme by coal extraction, and the coal extraction was primarily to pay for the land reclamation. Any money that's left over was to go to the mining company, but it's been operated the other way around. It's been operated in reverse. They've taken their profits, put them wherever they put their profits, and now they are saying they haven't got the money to put it back. That's a fallacy. We know they have the money and can well afford to put the site back.

Our goal at the moment is to stop what's happening, just get those pumps switched on, and then we can talk, then we can work with things. We would not countenance anything less than we asked for in the first place. The people of Merthyr never wanted this opencast coal mine; we fought against it and it was forced on us. The only benefit to us would have been the restoration to public amenity, visually appealing, green belt land, grazing, et cetera, et cetera—what we were promised all the way through, from the very beginning.

And what have we suffered 17 years of opencast for? We were blackmailed into this. We were told at the beginning that every household in Merthyr would have to pay approximately £900 to—

A one-off council tax payment to pay for the restoration of this land, if they didn't allow the mining company to come in and do it.

If it wasn't done by private means.

And we've still got the leaflet that came through.

10:00

It scared the hell out of people. Merthyr is an area of deprivation and low income and unemployment, and that circular scared the hell out of people in Merthyr.

If you could share that, even if you just sent us a photograph of that leaflet, before the council appear before us, that would be—

Oh, yes. I've still got it. I meant to bring it today, but—

No, no. That would be very useful for us ahead of the next meeting, please.

By all means, yes.

And the gap, then, between what had been promised and what now seems to be potentially on the table—would you be concerned about—? Well, no. I won't lead you on it. What effect do you think it would have on the community and nearby residents other than the visual impact of there being a void of water?

We're living in constant fear. It hasn't been surveyed to see if it's safe. We don't know if it's safe. We don't know if that water is leaching. We don't know how toxic it is. We don't know if that water then will get into the water table. And nothing is being done to see how safe the situation is. 

Or to assuage our fears in any shape or form. The thing is, if that's accepted as a water-filled void, it will also be a dangerous structure for the rest of—well, in perpetuity. It's been a magnet to children. It's easy access as well. You can't secure that site. It's easy access from the front because it's at road level and they will get in. Children will, that's what they do. I did it myself. They can't secure that site to stop them coming in and you can't have security on site all that time. We wouldn't want it and we wouldn't accept it for those reasons.

Do you mind if I just interject briefly? We've had a note from Merthyr South Wales Ltd. Are you not being updated at all in terms of the water—?

They tend not to update us.

Okay. Because they do tell us in a note that there are daily checks on the water quality to ensure that discharges are within consent limits set by Natural Resources Wales. They go on to say that ground water levels are being monitored as well, and after one of the wettest winters on record, the water levels have stabilised, they say, around the levels monitored prior to commencing mining operations on the site, and the recent trend indicates a fall in water levels, but they are monitoring whether this might be a seasonal—. You know, they'll be monitoring throughout the summer as well to see. 

So, they're telling us that there is monitoring happening, of both quality and quantity of water, but clearly that's not getting through to local residents. 

I've been in communication with Natural Resources Wales. They tell me they are not testing the water quality, and the water quality testing is to be done by the mine owner.

It is. It is. But what they're saying is it's within consent limits that have been set by Natural Resources Wales, so they're not saying NRW are doing the work.

NRW are not doing it, for definite. If the mining company is doing it, as I say, this is the first time we've heard this. 

Yes. Their contract was to test the discharge water quality, and of course there isn't any discharge water because they've switched the pumps off. They were never contracted to test the water in the void itself.

Okay. That's an important point. Julie, yes, please.

When the pumps were turned off—. When were the pumps turned off? 

We don't know, because, again, from what we've already said, they tell us nothing. We found out through serendipity. Colleagues of ours went and flew a drone across the site to film the site, and that was the first we knew that it was filling up with water—from the filming of the drone. Apparently it was back in November of last year.

Last year, right. And just from the letter that you read out, Llyr—is that saying that the water is now at the level it was originally?

There was no water level originally.

It couldn't work in the mine if it was wet, so what they had was a sump. They dug a sump, which would have been a pool of water, a pond, and they pumped from that. So, all the water that had gone into the mine ran into the sump, and they pumped it out, so it was always dry. So, any water in there is over and above what the mining company would have worked with.

And we've seen recent photographs of what it looked like before and what it looks like now, which is quite a striking difference, really. 

Are you concerned that Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd could either abandon the site or, well, go into administration?

They could always do that, and could always have done that, because as companies and corporations do, they set their business up so they hold virtually no assets at all. They've got parent companies, shell companies. They lease their equipment from there, they lease this from there, they lease services. Their land is in one company. Their money goes through the parent et cetera, et cetera. This is not unusual for corporations, by the way—it's just that we've looked at this and seen it with mining companies, obviously. So, at any point they could collapse it with no cost to themselves, really. 

10:05

I don't know if they own a box of tea bags there, to be honest. It's been set up deliberately to walk away. 

That is understood. This is not unusual. So, the local authority would have understood this from the beginning and would have known the position that they were in. We know. We're laymen an we knew it, and we were trying to get the chief executive officer to take it on board and understand that this situation is tenuous, then. 

Again, prepare for the worst—

Exactly. You need to put realistic safeguards in place, robust safeguards. This company can move at any time. It was very much the same with the previous company, but it was a conglomerate and both sides of the conglomerate were large corporations with—

Blue chip. 

You could say blue chip, and lots of money and names to protect. So, although we were trying still to get a safeguard put in place, we weren't as worried with the previous company. We thought they would follow through. What we never saw coming was that they took the money and then walked away by selling the company to somebody else. That company didn't have a name to protect or to worry about. They didn't have the large sums of money behind them. So, it was a shaky situation from the off.

Thank you for that. In your paper, you question the restorations costs of £125 million, and you said that that figure is unverified, unsubstantiated and inherently untrustworthy. Could you talk us through that—?

I own a thesaurus. [Laughter.] 

I enjoyed those. Could you talk us through why you would query it? 

Yes. It's a difficult one because this is quite an expansive and complex response. I'll try and sum it up. I'll come at it sideways, if you don't mind. There are two reasons, then, why this company is saying that it can't restore the site. One of them: they can't afford to do so and they've put no money aside other than the £15 million that they were asked to put into that escrow account. The other one is that it costs too much to put back. So, the first one is easily proven by going through Companies House and looking at their finances. Now, we are not the people to be making statements on that here, but others who are better than us have been through Companies House and seen their finances and seen hundreds of millions coming out of the business in I'll say profits, but you don't like the term 'profits'—money made from the company. 

And distributed elsewhere.

And distributed via their parent and other companies. So, they can well afford it. That's the one facet of this. So, even if that £125 million were true, they can afford it. When they signed up to buy this out, their contract says it's a land reclamation scheme, you put the land back, anything left over is yours, not vice versa. But the £125 million was a figure that came out of the local planning authority, and by pressing them over a period we found out that it was one of the planning officers that had come up with that figure as a desk exercise. Now, that officer works out of Carmarthen, and has a minerals planning speciality as such, but still he's a planning officer. 

In 2014—sorry, I'm leaping around this—the Welsh Government estimated the cost of final restoration at Ffos-y-fran at £50 million plus. In 2018 its estimations were at £60 million. So, we were hovering around that figure, and even that figure was questioned. But we've got a little bit of elbow room in that. That's the same figure that was being used right throughout until April 2023, when the planning committee sat in Merthyr, on the extension of Ffos-y-fran, and rejected it. What was raised there, suddenly, was the £125 million—I think it was £75 million to £125 million. It was dropped in, out of the blue. It's not been evidenced, nobody has said how they've arrived at that figure—it was just thrown in like a hand grenade into the mix. And the mining company was saying, 'We've put no money aside other than the £15 million', even though the £15 million was just a security bond, it wasn't the cost of the restoration. The cost of the restoration was to be borne by the mining company, and that was their remit—they had to deliver on that.143

But we've leapt from £50 million to £60 million to £125 million, with nothing in between, with no evidence to back it up. I would have expected that to have gone into a report. The data that the planning officer would have had to have used to come up with a figure for the estimate would had to have come from the mining company themselves. They couldn't have got the data anywhere else. He's not an engineer, he's not a civil engineer, he's not a quantity surveyor. Everything would have come from the mining company. The mining company has a vested interest to present the figure as unachievable and unaffordable. And they weren't challenging that data, they weren't challenging the input. I'm in no better position than him to have come up with a figure, but looking at the evidence that's available to us, it puts doubt onto that figure. The mining company, back in the 2021 accounts, in the risk section, were saying that they have put contingency aside for the restoration of the site—all is well and money is aside. Those are the last accounts that they've filed. The latest accounts are late and overdue. We would very much like to see them and subsequent ones.

10:10

So would we. Thank you very much. Now to my final question. Actually, I'd appreciate hearing all of your thoughts on this, please.

No, no, Chris, not at all. The first few questions were very much focused on Ffos-y-fran, but on this final question I would really like to hear everyone's thoughts, please. Firstly, to Chris and Alyson, if the Ffos-y-fran site is abandoned—. I know; plan for the worst, hope for the best. But if it is abandoned, who do you think should be responsible for ensuring that it is restored and that it's made safe?

The Welsh Government gave the final planning permission for this site. It was called in, and they gave the final permission. They need to take responsibility for it, alongside the local authority. I don't think the local authority should be on their own with this. They weren't the ones to give the planning permission—it was the Welsh Government. So, the Welsh Government should be working alongside the local authority, and I think we need to have independent people coming in, to look and see what can realistically be done. And it needs to be community led as well; we need to be consulted on this, and we need to be asked, 'How do you feel about this? How would you feel about that? Would you be willing to accept this?' That's how we feel.

That's the crux of it, really: restoration should be community driven anyway. We're the ones who have to live with it after the event. We didn't want the thing in the first place, but at least what we inherit we want to have influence over, and we're not getting it. But, yes, as Alyson said, it's the Welsh Government. And to be honest, the local authority wouldn't have the money to go anywhere near this. We'll leave it at that; I'm sure we'll expand on it later.

Thank you so much. And briefly, if I may, Sue and Owen, not just with Ffos-y-fran, but looking at the map of how this has happened in other sites as well, do you feel that there should be a body that has ultimate responsibility for when something goes wrong? Because with each of these cases, it seems that different authorities—. Chris had said earlier, 'The authorities have failed us'. Because there is an ambiguity about who has responsibility and you're getting passed from pillar to post, should there be a body or an authority who can intervene and can go in, for example, and turn the pumps back on, just so that there's no ambiguity about whose responsibility it is?

10:15

We were shunted from pillar to post as our house was cracking. Nobody would come; each said it was the responsibility of the other. So, the short answer is 'yes'. The Coal Authority did not appear to me to have the competence to say, 'This is going to happen', because they had that report and they didn't act on it. So, I think if we had a devolved Coal Authority, who's ultimately responsible—. But I totally agree with what Alyson said: you wouldn't have a school governing body without parent governors. We need to be there, because we're the ones who have the scars. We know what it's like to find a six-inch crack in your living room and people saying it hadn't happened, and if it has happened, it's nothing to do with them. The first thing we need is these assessments in all the cases—Margam, us. The first step is to get these engineers and hydrologists in. That's the first step, and then, longer term, to look for a Welsh coal authority. 

I've got a paper trail of us trying to land responsibility with NRW, the CA and the WLGA recently, and we have given up. Nobody will accept responsibility for anything.

Can I take that on, in this case? Going back to the affairs at East Pit, I presumed NRW meant what it said on the tin, so I tried to involve NRW almost from square one, at the same time as I was involving the Coal Authority and the local planning authority. They didn't even make the pitch, never mind waited for the kick-off. They just simply said, 'It's nothing to do with us' and walked away. As simple as that. And if the answer is a sort of pan-responsible body to do this, I can fairly and honestly say that I have absolutely no faith whatsoever in any of the organisations that I've had the misfortune to encounter in the last decade. This appears to be endemic, and these bodies appear to be set up and simply are there to draw their own salaries and to evade the responsibilities and duties that are placed upon them. What else can I say, when people actually refuse their duty?

When I called the Coal Authority to their duty, under sections 38 and 39 of the Coal Industry Act 1994, they refused it—as simple as that. It wasn't a case of, 'Oh, sorry, we missed that'; they actually drew the line of responsibility for the East Pit site in a zigzag around our house, so that they didn't have to file a notice under section 39 of the Coal Industry Act. They deliberately did it. And when they realised they were caught short, they then adjusted the line to say, 'This is the area of responsibility to transfer to Celtic Energy'. Celtic Energy, of course, had denied it was anything to do with them all along, despite having evidence that it was exactly their responsibility.

And the local planning authority took the bottom out of the barrel, because they actually commissioned a report to substitute, in the planning committee in 2015, for the Groundsure report, which warned of the danger. They had a report from James Associates, who are Celtic Energy's engineers, who said, 'It's okay, guys', so they put that in the planning committee report. I only eventually found the actual Groundsure report after our house came to pieces, and it was hidden nicely, document number 403, in the body of documents that were numbered, not named. I had to open every single one to get to it, and when I got to it, there it was in large red type, saying what the risks were, and it was a high risk. It wasn't any sort of low or medium, it was a high risk, and it was there in the summary to the report. There was no question of you not being able to see it. It was a complete negation of those people's duties to us.

That's why we suffered loss. There was no need for us to suffer loss at any point in time. There was no need for us to have had this thing imposed on us. And it's not just for a decade; this actually goes back to 1981 when Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for Wales, wrote to me and said, 'You can't have an inquiry into the East Pit because we're repealing the piece of legislation that gives it an inquiry.' What sort of faith can I possibly have in a political process that tells me that from square one, and goes on to do it year after year, decade after decade?

10:20

Bearing in mind that the Opencast Coal Act 1958 was actually only due to have opencast for 10 years, and here we are still debating it.

Thank you. We take everything you say on board and we take it seriously. I'm just conscious that we have 20 minutes left and there are a number of areas that we wish to cover, which, no doubt, you'll share your thoughts on. So, Janet, briefly, can we come to you for a couple of questions?

Thank you. I can see time's moving on. Do you think Welsh local authorities have the necessary minerals planning expertise to ensure appropriate restoration of opencast sites?

One word answers are fine. There's no problem at all with that. We are aware of the arrangement, of course, that Merthyr have with Carmarthenshire, and Carmarthenshire will be before us next.

I think we can say it on the level that they have the minerals planning expertise that they can call on, but what they tend not to do, as we found many times in the past, is to go outside that little bubble. They won't bring in civil engineers, quantity surveyors, hydrologists or hydrogeologists to confirm what they've been told by mining companies in this instance, or external companies. They tend to defer to the companies themselves for this information. They can't challenge it then, because they don't have the level of knowledge in those key specialist areas to challenge it. So, they tend to run with what they're being told.

If the question is does Carmarthenshire have the expertise, the answer is very likely 'yes', because they refused East Pit. But our experience is how can they have had the expertise at the time when they chose to ignore the document warning and let the house actually crack up? How can the expertise have been in place at that particular time? What the expertise is now I don't know, but Carmarthenshire did have the expertise at that time because they refused. They said it was going to cause subsidence. They were right.

We can pursue some of that—. Very briefly, Carolyn.

Who would be in charge of enforcement? Would that be Carmarthenshire as the mineral planning authority, or the council, Merthyr? And who would be in charge of holding the money for restoration? Would that be Merthyr?

Merthyr will have the direct responsibility. They would be the planning authority that grants the permission for the operation. The money would be held on behalf of both parties. An escrow account works that way. So, you have a third party that manages the account, and then you have a legally binding statement that says, 'This money will be released to one party or the other, dependent on whether these points have been met.'

In our case, of course.

Did Welsh local authorities take on board the recommendations of the Welsh Government's 2014 report on failure to restore opencast sites, and adapt their approach accordingly?

No. That was an easy one. Obviously not, because it's estimated at £50 million.

And to be reviewed periodically—

When the mining company sold to the company that's running it now, in December 2015, that report had been available for over a year—18 months if my maths is correct—and they didn't tailor that safeguarding amount, that fall-back amount, from £15 million upwards, and we were absolutely crying out to them, 'You have to put a more realistic sum in.' As I say, we can evidence it.

Let's be clear about this: this isn't a matter about cost. The costs that have been bandied around here are pure fantasy island. If I were to put my quantity surveying hat on and start to try and discuss the aspects of how do you price the restoration and the backfilling of a void with any of the so-called mineral planning officers or responsible planning officers within the local planning authorities, and I'd then mention the words 'SMM7', they would probably look at me completely blankly, because they've probably never heard of that standard method of measurement in quantity surveying. But I can just reach behind my desk and bring the books out. I can do a civil engineering calculation. I can do a hydrodynamic assessment. I can do these things. I can't get sensible replies from people, because I know they're not going to tell me the truth—when, in East Pit, for example, they put the censors that would monitor the movement on the east wall—the movement that would eventually destroy our house—they put the censors where they knew the movement was not going to take place. How can you have any faith in people who do that? And when you actually get to the bottom of things, like with the Coal Authority, they simply refuse to reply, because you know that they have been caught, and they actually refuse to answer questions. We had Lisa Pinney on Zoom, and she just sat there and refused to answer the questions as to why she had done what she had done.

10:25

Okay. Well, we are hearing from a number of different groups and organisations and individuals over the course of this work. Some have agreed to appear before us, others have not. Listening to what you are saying today, I would invite them again to reconsider whether they want to attend, but also I would invite any others who've been referenced and they feel that they have a view to express to write to us as a committee as well. I think that would enrich our—

Can I say, as a quick one line there, knowingly when they went for a reduced £15 million, when they knew it was £50 million, they put the public purse at risk, which is something that is derogatory and can be challenged, if you ask them why they did that?

Bear in mind—

We've got to move on. Maybe we can come back to that. Joyce. Thank you. 

Good morning, and thank you for your detailed paper. My question is about the role of the Welsh Government and what role you think that they ought to play, alongside the Coal Authority and Natural Resources Wales, in securing that restoration that you're clearly looking for and that we're asking you about.

We had a visit, going back to 2017, from a special rapporteur—the United Nations special rapporteur—and he was very concerned that Government at all levels lacked accountability. They lacked definition on clarity, and nobody wanted to take accountability for things that they could be responsible for. So, I think the Welsh Government needs to have strong accountability. It needs to have strong clarity, and we need to know who's responsible for what and who to turn to when we've got problems.

That is where we've failed recently. I've been just going around—ring around, ring around, ring around, and they're all—. We've read the Acts—we've read the Acts of legislation—for who's responsible for what, and it's quite clear to us where it falls. But they just pick caveats, they pick interpretations. It's an ambiguous wording, and we can not lie responsibility on anybody whatsoever. And I think the first thing that should be done is to put clarity into these Acts of legislation, into these MTANs, where you can actually understand, 'This is the person that's responsible for this. This is how we approach them. This is how we challenge them when they don't provide or don't meet the responsibility'.

So, what you're saying is, as things stand—and we've heard it all morning, but, just for the record—that when it comes to making people accountable, it's near to impossible, as I'm hearing you say. 

It is impossible, yes. 

So, in terms of the role of the Welsh Government, local authorities, NRW, what you'd like to see is a clear statement—

A clear statement. 

It's not difficult, really. They'd expect it of us. It was always expected of me in work. Why can we not expect it of our public bodies?

So, what mechanisms should be put in place to ensure community involvement and input into the restoration, given MTAN 2, which emphasises the importance of consultation? 

Well, it's already in place. 

The problem is the lack of will to use it.

10:30

Yes. This is the other thing, and it's a facet of what we just said to Joyce now—it's trying to identify, and then get people to act on it, have we got enough legislation. I'm not sure whether we have or haven't; it's difficult to determine. Have we got enough information? If you haven't got any, you don't know what you haven't got, half the time. But, yes, I think it's down to will. I do believe that this is all in place and can be actioned, but there is no will whatsoever, certainly with our LPA.

Yes, our local authority treat public consultation like, 'Eugh. It's a necessary evil and I don't really want to do it'.

It's a tick-box exercise at best. You can imagine that we make quite strong representations in the consultations and we find that the planning application comes out from consultation very similar to how it went into consultation. We make representations, other bodies do, other campaign groups do; it remains largely, if not completely, unchanged after it comes out of that process.

So, I don't know what the answer is, I think, is the answer. 

Well, indeed, yes, and that's something for us to recommend to the Government. Janet, back to you, I think. 

I think this is another obvious-response one. Are changes needed to legislation and policy to ensure successful site restoration?

No. There aren't any changes needed to the legislation. The legislation is entirely adequate; just enforce it and make sure that, with the processes, there's enforcement. That is the whole political process. From those people at the bottom who are responsible for administration to those at the top who are overseeing the whole process, it is their common duty and responsibility to act within the law as it's now set down. There is no need for new legislation whatsoever. 

Okay. And who do you believe is responsible, then, for enforcing and making sure that this happens?

'All of the above', I think, is the answer to that.  

That's the political process. The people at the top. Ultimately, it's the First Minister of Wales and everybody in the pyramid below them. It's their duty to do these things.

It's not just Wales, though, because the Coal Authority is involved in this and they are a Westminster-reporting body. So, that's another thing to bear in mind, I think—Westminster is influencing this still, even though it's a devolved issue.

I think that's the nut we're trying to crack, because quite often it becomes a political football, where some Members believe it's the UK Government and that, even though we're devolved, this is something that the UK Government should have picked up at the time of the—. Or, some believe that it's the Welsh Government because we've had 25 years of devolution. 

I think Jan Adamson has put in some excellent evidence to this committee on the role of the Westminster Government, and how they were encouraging these opencast sites. And when we went to the public inquiry, we were told—. We said that there was a risk to our house at the public inquiry, and the inspector, who came from England, said, 'The country needs the coal.' So, I think we need a Wales-led coal authority. We need a devolved coal authority, and I think that, on that authority, we need a seat for the victims, because we've been through it. We know what can happen. Thank you.

I'd just add that we've got letters from the DTI and the Minister urging the First Minister to make sure that Ffos-y-fran goes through promptly, after devolution. So, what goes on behind the scenes, I'll leave that one to you—that's yours.

Yes, thank you very much. Thank you, Janet. Can I just ask, then, a couple of questions from me, just to conclude? There is, of course, legislation being developed by the Government around coal tip safety. Do you not believe that maybe elements of this, potentially, in relation to opencast, should be included in some of that legislation? There's talk of setting up a body for guarding against, or protecting—

Absolutely. There is no difference whatsoever and, to be honest with you, when I say 'no difference', from what we've seen of the first private application down in Bedwas to remediate the tips down there, it will become an opencast coal mine because of the incidental coal agreements that are still in place with the Coal Authority. They will be remediating the tips by taking the coal out of them and using the coal to fund the operation, but at an 8 per cent to 15 per cent return of poor quality control, the business case doesn't really add up. But it is sitting over, I believe, the Brithdir seam, but there is a coal seam up there, and if they dig down to put in their lagoons, their haul roads and all their workings, and they uncover or reveal any of the coal on that seam, they will apply for an incidental coal agreement to mine that coal. They may even be obligated to do so by the Coal Authority, because that coal is a coal reserve and you're not allowed to sterilise coal reserves in this country. That would go through planning for a safety reason. It would go through as remediation of the tips. Any security bonds would be small based on the task of remediating the tips, but it would turn into an opencast coal mine with an open-ended period of mining, with no security bond in place that covers that work. This is the future of coal in Wales, I'm afraid. And with the coal policy of 2021, saying, 'No new coal', I'm not too sure where Wales is moving on this in the middle of a climate emergency.

10:35

Well, you've taken the next question out of my mouth, actually, because I was going to ask about where, surely, those are contradictory positions.

They are absolutely contradictory, but this is the new coal age, for decades to come. We need to have the drains up on what is happening with the coal tips. The policy is such that those coal tips are just to be inspected regularly and only a handful of them would actually need remediation. But if Bedwas goes ahead, it would set a precedent for processing all coal tips in Wales like that, or at least the Cs and Ds, and there are 80 Ds, as I remember.

So, it needs to be looked at.

Indeed. That's a very important point and something I know that committee members are keen to pursue.

So, finally then—we have, literally, two minutes left—if I could just ask, as I mentioned earlier that Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council are appearing before us on 22 May, if you could be this side of the table, what would you want to ask them?

Why won't you talk to us? Why don't you do your job? We are not idiots, we are not fools. We know what we're talking about. We know what we want. We know what we're asking of them, and we know what their responsibilities are. I don't know what is going on. We've had an acrimonious relationship with them from the off. We've had 20 years of trying to get them to listen, respond, do the right thing and have failed. I think you might have to shrink that question down.

No, no, we'll have plenty of time with them, don't worry. Thank you for that. Sue.

Final thoughts: as I've said in my written evidence, this does not address the health impacts, particularly the health of the unborn child, of pollution in general. I could give part of my lecture on this. Please think of the health of the unborn child in all future reports. I'm happy to help—I've sent you some references. Thank you.

Thank you so much. And on that note, can I thank the four of you for your excellent evidence this morning? We invite people here to give us their views. You've certainly pulled no punches today and I'm grateful to you for that. We always welcome evidence, as I say, and robust evidence, as well, is more than welcome. There have been certain accusations and assertions made, but what I always say is that anyone who feels that they should have the right of reply, then we're more than willing for them to write to committee and, in certain situations as well, appear before us to give oral evidence. So, that invitation to Merthyr South Wales Ltd and others remains on the table. Thank you for your time. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

The committee will now break for 10 minutes and reconvene for a 10:50 start. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:39 a 10:52.

The meeting adjourned between 10:39 and 10:52.

10:50
3. Adfer safleoedd glo brig - sesiwn dystiolaeth 5
3. Restoration of opencast mining sites - evidence session 5

Croeso, bawb, yn ôl i gyfarfod Pwyllgor Newid Hinsawdd, yr Amgylchedd a Seilwaith yma yn Senedd Cymru. Rŷn ni’n symud ymlaen at ein ail sesiwn dystiolaeth y prynhawn yma fel rhan o’r gwaith yn edrych ar Ffos-y-frân ac adfer safleoedd glo brig yn gyffredinol, ac yn ymuno â ni ar gyfer y sesiwn yma mae Hugh Towns, sy’n uwch-reolwr datblygu a gorfodi gyda Chyngor Sir Caerfyrddin. Croeso atom ni. Rŷn ni’n ddiolchgar i chi am wneud amser i fod gyda ni. Mae gyda ni rhyw 50 munud ar gyfer y sesiwn yma, felly awn ni’n syth i mewn i gwestiynau os ydy hynny’n iawn. Ac mi wnaf i ofyn ar y dechrau, os caf i: beth ŷch chi’n meddwl yw’r prif resymau neu’r rhesymau allweddol am y methiant yma, mae’n ymddangos beth bynnag, i adfer safleoedd glo brig yng Nghymru mewn modd priodol?

Welcome, everyone, back to the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee here at the Senedd. We're moving on to our second evidence session this afternoon as part of our work looking at Ffos-y-fran and the restoration of opencast mining sites in general, and joining us for this session is Hugh Towns, who is senior manager of development and enforcement with Carmarthenshire County Council. Welcome. We're very pleased that you've made the time to be with us. We have around 50 minutes for this session, so we'll go straight into questions, if that's okay. And I'll ask first of all: what do you think is the key reason, or the key reasons, for this failure, as it seems, to restore opencast mining sites in Wales in an appropriate way?

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Bore da. Dwi’n mynd i siarad yn Saesneg yn swyddogol. Dwi’n gallu siarad Cymraeg, ond Saesneg byddai’n well i fi.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning. I'm going to speak in English. I can speak Welsh, but I'd prefer to speak English.

Ie, dim problem o gwbl. Mae hwnna'n ddewis i chi. Dim problem.

No problem at all. That's your choice. No problem at all.

The main issues go back to privatisation of the coal industry in 1994, in my experience. Prior to that, it was a nationalised industry, so all restoration was, essentially, funded by the Government as an underwriter, but that would have been the UK Government at the time. When the coal industry was privatised, the liabilities that would have fallen to the public purse at that time were shifted onto private companies. I think people will agree that was probably not a great idea in hindsight, because those private companies didn't really have the means to deal with the restoration liabilities, in my view. There's a lot of evidence for that in terms of the sites that were privatised; I think there were nine sites in total that went to Celtic Energy Limited, and none of those had any bonding arrangements in terms of financial guarantees that were given to the local authorities to ensure restoration should the private companies fail. That's the main issue in terms of where we are, and I think it was highlighted in the report that was done for Welsh Government in 2014 in terms of research into the failure to restore opencast coal sites in Wales. One of the things that was recognised in that report was, in order to ensure restoration of opencast coal sites, or any sites really, there's a need for performance bonds to cover all liabilities at all times. That was certainly not the case during privatisation, and it wasn't the case for Celtic Energy Limited for 10 years following privatisation. They were still exempt from bonding arrangements, as was the British Coal Corporation prior to 1994. So, that's the main issue in terms of why there was a problem.

There is an allied issue in terms of local government reorganisation in 1996. I think one of the unintended consequences of that was that mineral teams, specialist mineral teams, that were within the eight county councils at the time were teams of, I don't know, three or four people, or maybe five people. You had a succession plan in place, you had a knowledge transfer in place. Local government reorganisation essentially spread those teams amongst 22 authorities. Some had coal within those authority boundaries, some did not, and I think what's happened is everybody had one mineral planner, and that's great until that person leaves. There's no succession plan in place in terms of who does it next when that person leaves, and it was an ageing profile at the time anyway. So, we got a situation with limited skills or reducing skills and no funding within the local authority remit to be able to force operators to carry out their obligations. So, those are essentially the two things that I would say are the main things behind the problems in terms of restoration of opencast coal sites.

10:55

Okay, thank you. We'll pick up, I'm sure, on elements of that as we go into greater detail on some of these areas, so I'll ask now, Julie, maybe, to lead us on a few questions.

Yes. Bore da. Thank you very much. Just commenting on what you said now, obviously, if this dates back to privatisation and local government reorganisation, it's a number of years, a long period of time, then, when nothing has been fundamentally done to address those issues.

Yes, I would agree. There are things that have been done on a voluntary basis, and I'm sure we'll come on to our service level agreements with other authorities and the fact that Carmarthenshire seeks to provide services for other authorities in terms of minerals and waste expertise. That's something that we've done on a voluntary basis. There was in the 2014 report that I referenced earlier a suggestion or a recommendation that a centre of technical excellence be set up. We've actually tried to do that on a voluntary basis. It would, obviously, be beneficial, I would say, if there was more secure and consistent funding for that in the future, because, if you're looking at mineral planners with experience of coal applications in south Wales at the moment, there are, essentially, three, and they're all based in Carmarthenshire.

Right. Thank you. The questions that I wanted to ask were really: could you identify for us other opencast sites where restoration is a particular concern and the reasons for that? That's apart from Ffos-y-fran, which we'll be looking at later.

There are a number of sites where it has been a concern. There are not many sites left now other than Ffos-y-fran where there are significant concerns outstanding, because a lot of the concerns have been dealt with by other subsequent applications, either for extensions of sites that have given us additional bonding in place, or reductions in the requirements for restoration. Again, the 2014 report, a Welsh Government report, suggested that one of the main ways to achieve restoration of some of the more difficult sites was to instigate a major redesign of restoration and therefore reduce the costs involved. And a number of sites have had suitable restorations that are different to the original restoration, which has limited costs, or provided additional funding through additional bond calculations, or a hybrid of both in some cases. So, a lot of the sites that were the nine sites that were transferred to Celtic Energy have been remedied to a degree. Not everyone would agree that they've been done perfectly, but there has been a restoration in place, which has made sure that the sites are safe, going forward. 

11:00

Sorry, Julie, Carolyn, I think, just wants to come in with a brief—

Can we ask for examples of those sites, because that's not what we heard earlier, which was that the restorations that have taken place haven't been adequate? So, can you give examples where you feel it might be working, doing it that way?

Yes. We've got a Celtic Energy site at Selar, which is just outside Glynneath, where there wasn't a sufficient bond in place. As part of an additional extension to the site, which granted more mineral working—I think an additional 800,000 tonnes of coaling—that had a revised restoration package that meant that not all of the overburden was returned back into the void, as was previously anticipated. And in the end, we got to a position on Selar where there was sufficient bond in place. The operator then completed the site and had the money back at the end, which is how it's intended to be. So, Selar was done correctly, albeit to a different profile.

Margam has been done, which is also called Parc Slip. This is my own view and a local authority view and not everybody would agree. Margam has been left with a huge void, which has filled with water, and some people would say that the initial restoration was to put the overburden back into that void and have an agricultural-type landform. Unfortunately, we didn't have any bond money to make that happen and the operator didn't have enough money to make that happen. So, in those circumstances, you have to look for compromises, and this is where the 2014 report suggested that you look at major redesigns of restoration. So, essentially, the void was allowed to fill with water. You've got overburden mounds, which are, in part, not able to be moved because of their ecological significance now, because they've taken on some ecological significance—some of the water bodies there have got great crested newts, for instance, so it's become a bit of an ecological paradise in some ways, and moving it would be, actually, detrimental to the ecological baseline.

The other one would be East Pit, where a substantial redesign was brought about, again leaving a void that has filled with water. Now, I believe that that water body is used by a diving school, so there's a commercial operation going on there. The tips have been restored; they haven't been put back into the void, as was originally anticipated. So, lots of things have gone on, following the 2014 suggestion and the recommendations in the Welsh Government report, where we've accepted different restoration proposals, certainly where we haven't had the money available as a local authority to go in and do the work ourselves should the restoration fail. We're not in a very strong position when we don't have the money available and neither does the operator, so we have to look at ways of making it safe in the longer term, but maybe not the optimum that everybody was expecting when planning permission was granted.

My question was actually going to be to ask you about where there was best practice, and it seems to me that the examples you've given are all compromises. And you've also said that not everybody would agree with you that these were the ideal solutions. So, could you comment on that?

11:05

Yes. I think that, historically—and this goes back to British Coal Corporation days—planning permissions were granted from 1986 onwards by local authorities and, essentially, 'We'll put it back as it was before we started' was the standard procedure. That seems to have pervaded across the years. Now, we've recognised for many years—. I attended a coal summit in 2015, which was hosted by the then Minister, and we said, 'Well, putting it back exactly as it was is not very innovative, necessarily, you just get exactly what you had before, can't we be looking at things that are slightly better from 2015 onwards?' So, I think it's always been, from our point of view, that we can do better things rather than just be limited by putting it back exactly as it was before. Now, I would say, in a number of cases, we've gone further than we would ideally like, perhaps, but the reality of the situation is that you either get a restoration of a type which can be funded by the developer, or you don't get one at all. I think that's the situation we're in.

Thank you. Do you know of any examples in Wales or further afield that you would hold up as being shining examples of how you can do this?

Selar is a good one. Selar is in Neath Port Talbot, at the top end of the valley by Glynneath. What they've done there is, essentially, put back a landform that works. It's not as it was originally intended, but the landform works, it doesn't look out of place in its environment, the drainage systems work. There have been a few glitches, but they've managed to restore purple moor grass pasture, for instance. So, there are lots of positives that have come out, I believe, from the Selar site in particular.

Can I just ask one last question? One of the things that's come over very strongly today is the way that local people have not been involved in the decision making about how the restoration is going to take place. In the Selar site, were local people part of the planning?

I'm not entirely sure. I know the Selar site used to have a site liaison committee, which was attended by members of the county council, the community councils and residents, and they used to meet regularly and they were updated by site staff as to what was happening on site, what they were going to do, how the restoration was going to work. So, there was an involvement in terms of the site liaison committee. I do not recall whether, when the application came in for that change, it was widely consulted upon or publicised.

Good morning. I'm going to ask some questions around whether you're adequately resourced to do the job you do. We know that you have—I'm sure I've mixed up my questions here—an SLA with Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, a service level agreement, and you work to deliver  their mineral works; you just said that now. Could you give more information on how it works and other local authorities that you might cover as well?

Yes. We've currently got 12 SLAs operating. So, including Carmarthenshire, we're working for 13 of the 18 local planning authorities in south Wales. We commit, as part of those SLAs, to provide minerals and waste planning advice or services to those local authorities. Now, the way it's structured is the local authorities, because they are responsible for their areas, they are not obliged to use our services, even though we've got a service level agreement; it is still their choice. All the decisions that are made are also their choice; we don't take any decision-making powers away from them. And they only pay us if they use us, which is a funding model that we have used, and we've done—. We've evolved our service level agreement since 2006. Back in 2006, it was just me; now we've got a team of eight, and we've built that up through additional funding by providing services to other local authorities. But that's not a model that is very easy to keep going when we're in the economic situation that we're in and the resources available to the public sector, because if local authorities stop using us because they can't afford to, for instance, that is entirely choice, but it does mean that our team potentially diminishes. So, some sort of funding structure going forward that provides greater certainty to the delivery of those services would be welcomed.

11:10

Okay. Yes, that sounds a bit complex. On balance—I don't know if you know the answer to this; you can write in if you don't—are you used more often than you're not used?

Yes, we are. Most local authorities use us. I said we've got 12 service level agreements—so, that's 13 authorities out of the 18. We've also done work for three of the others. So, there are only two local authorities in south Wales that we haven't worked for. But I think it's always—. When you've got a complex issue that we can help with, I think local authorities do rely on us to come and help them. The way we've set it up is that, because we're a local authority and we're not trying to make a profit, the way we've set it up is that we are substantially cheaper than if they used a consultant, for instance, from private industry. We're also a local government organisation at local government offices, so we know how local government works; we're not coming in from the outside not understanding how the systems work. So, most authorities use us. On occasions, some authorities will try and do things themselves, and that's entirely their right, under the service level agreement, but, so far, when it's been a complex mineral case, we usually come in and assist.

So, obviously, you've built up a particular set of skills, and you said earlier that there aren't sufficient skills right across all local authorities. So, you're servicing 13; I'm assuming that includes yourself, as a local authority. So, 22, that leaves nine with no skill whatsoever. Having said that, and set it out in that way, how do you think that might have contributed to some of the site restoration issues, that lack of expertise, that we've heard about this morning and probably will hear about later?

Sorry, Hugh, very briefly, if possible, because I think time is against us somewhat.

Okay. It's contributed in part. I think local authorities, irrespective of whether they had the technical expertise or not, once faced with a situation where they have no bonds, no financial guarantees, the operator is, essentially, in the box seat, because you can't force anything. Essentially, you've got to try and get them to do it voluntarily by cajoling, trying to get some restoration upfront, progressive restoration, where possible, but that's not always possible. So, the only deterrent really to operators walking away is for local authorities to hold enough money at any point in time that they can go in and do it themselves, should the need arise.

Okay. You've talked about the recommendations of the Welsh Government 2014 report on the failure to restore opencast sites and to adapt their approach, so unless there's anything further that you want to add on that, I'll assume you've said everything you wanted to say.

11:15

I have got nothing to add, no. 

Okay, thank you, Joyce. Right, we'll move on to Janet, then.

What role should the Welsh Government, the Coal Authority and Natural Resources Wales play in restoring these sites in Wales?

It's very difficult to say, really. Because we don’t have the resources in terms of bonds—and I’ve elaborated on this point a number of times—Welsh Government wouldn’t have the financial guarantees to do it either. When you’re looking at private companies—. One of the suggestions in the 2014 report was that operators couldn’t sell on sites to unsuspecting people who didn’t have the means to actually put them back themselves. Because that happened in a few cases, where sites were fragmented in terms of ownership and then the people who bought it thought they were getting cheap agricultural land when in fact they were getting a liability, and then they didn’t have the means to actually finish the aftercare period. So, there’s an issue there. So, Welsh Government wouldn’t have had the funding either to come in and do that work.

The Coal Authority look at health and safety and the safety of the mine, essentially, rather than the full restoration. So, their remit, as far as I understand it, doesn’t go to full restoration; it just goes to making it safe.

Natural Resources Wales are a consultee in the process. So, if we had a design for a restoration that included water bodies or drainage arrangements, then we would go to Natural Resources Wales for their comments on how those drainage arrangements would work. But they wouldn’t actually be involved in the restoration process. The Coal Authority wouldn’t be involved in the restoration process. It’s essentially down to local authorities to ensure the restoration process is carried out. When companies haven’t got the money to do it and we haven’t got the money to do it, it becomes a very difficult situation.

But it's very difficult for anyone who's worried about an opencast mine. It used to be in my portfolio this, and we've been talking about this now for quite some time, and I'm getting rather frustrated that it is becoming a bit like a political football. Welsh Government blame UK Government, and UK Government are saying, 'Well, it has been devolved for 26 years', and there seems to be this—. To me, now, should there not be somehow something put together by means of someone with authority within UK Government, someone with authority within Welsh Government, NRW, the coal board—? I mean, why don't people just get round a table? Because at the moment lots and lots of people in Wales are being affected by this, and it sits difficult with me when everyone's passing the buck, but nothing's actually happening. We're not getting anywhere. So, how do you feel that could be resolved?

Hugh Towns 11:18:32