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Disused Mineworks in Skewen: Flooding

Volume 690: debated on Monday 8 March 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T.C. Davies.)

On 21 January, residents living in Skewen in my Aberavon constituency had their lives turned upside down. Unbeknown to them, a blockage in a disused mineworks was preventing water from draining away. Thousands of gallons of water therefore accumulated underground, creating the liquid equivalent of a ticking time bomb, which finally exploded on the 21st, causing a blow-out from the mine shaft.

The force of the water was so great that not only did it punch through the cap that had sealed the mine for over 100 years, but it erupted through the road above. The torrent of water and sludge then cascaded through Goshen Park, down Drummau Road and The Highlands, through Sunnyland Crescent before settling in Sunnyland, Jubilee Crescent, Dynevor Road and the bottom of Cwrt-Y-Clafdy. Residents, including at a nearby care home, were evacuated as the mine waters continued to rise. The sheer terrifying force of the water was breaking down walls, displacing cookers, fridges and furniture, shattering glass and destroying belongings. It left a trail of destruction in its wake. Miraculously, nobody was physically injured, but make no mistake: the traumatic emotional aftershocks of this will be felt forever in this tight-knit community.

Before I make any further comment about the impact of this horrific incident and how the UK Government and the Coal Authority must respond, I would like to place on record my thanks to the emergency services and all the agencies that responded to the incident and helped residents. The local councillor, Mike Harvey, has also been a rock for his residents, standing by them from the outset. Neath Port Talbot Council’s response has also been rapid and effective. It has continued to support residents, helping them to find temporary accommodation, administering the Welsh Government’s financial assistance, facilitating council tax exemptions, providing support for pursuing insurance claims and organising generators and dehumidifiers for residents without insurance to dry out their homes.

I would also like to thank those at Skewen Salvation Army for the wonderful work that they have done to support and help the victims. They were on site with their emergency vehicle within hours. They opened their hall for donations, and they have set up a fundraising page and raised thousands of pounds to help residents. Residents are particularly grateful to Briony Powell, the volunteer co-ordinator, Emma Jones, the local area co-ordinator, and Captain Jo Walters, who so quickly mobilised the relief effort. We are fiercely proud of our legendary community spirit in Aberavon. We have certainly seen it in Skewen, and it has certainly been needed.

Of the 144 properties affected, 59 were flooded internally and 17 were flooded externally. Over 50 households have needed to find temporary accommodation. For each one of these properties, their owners are facing every homeowner’s worst nightmare, and they are facing it in the midst of a global pandemic. Having visited the site a number of times, I have seen for myself the sheer scale of the destruction that has been caused, and I can tell the House that the residents’ stories have not got any less heartbreaking.

Mr Godden and his son work in the ambulance service, and Mrs Godden is a nurse. The last 12 months on the frontline in the battle against this pandemic have been hugely challenging for them, and now this has happened. Their home is devastated. There is not much left. Their caravan and the vehicle they were unable to move have both been written off, but they still have to pay off the lease on the car. To add insult to injury, they have been told by their insurance company that because they cannot make a claim against the Coal Authority, they are considered to be at fault for the damage the water has caused to their caravan. This is nothing short of a scandal.

Emma Jones was at work when it happened. Her 15-year-old twins were at home studying when the water engulfed their home. They were rescued though waist-deep water by firefighters. The ordeal of what unfolded that day has left her daughter suffering from nightmares, seeing images in her mind’s eye of her family and friends face down in water.

Ria Evans grew up in her home on Dynevor Road. Her mother lived there and so did her grandmother. The home holds great sentimental value to her. It was full of loving memories and treasured belongings, but they have all been destroyed. Ria has yet to find long-term accommodation. She is desperate to find somewhere to settle so she can get a bit of stability and stop living out of a suitcase. Every day is a constant battle for her. She is struggling to sleep, she is struggling emotionally, and she is struggling to focus, which is affecting her work.

Every time I speak with residents, I am profoundly impressed by the dignity with which they are conducting themselves. However, I have to tell the Minister that there is a growing feeling of anger and betrayal about the way in which they are being treated by the Coal Authority and the UK Government.

The Coal Industry Act 1994 transferred responsibility for mines, including the one in Skewen, to the UK Government. At that time, the Coal Authority was established and given the responsibility for managing the effects of past coalmining and dealing with the myriad environmental and safety related issues that are the legacy of the coalmining industry. The Skewen mine was inspected in 2011 and deemed a low risk, but it has since transpired that the map was incorrect and the wrong location had been inspected. Lessons must be learned from this sorry tale, but the bottom line is that the responsibility for the botched 2011 inspection lies squarely at the door of the Coal Authority and the UK Government.

Why on earth should residents be expected to pay a single penny for damage that has been caused through no fault of their own? Residents simply cannot fathom why the Coal Authority is not accepting liability for the damage that the mine water, ochre, debris and sludge from the mine has cause to their homes. I have to say that I am equally baffled.

Residents are continually being told that the UK Government and the Coal Authority do not have liability for flooding and that water is water—it is not owned by anyone. These arguments are both insensitive and nonsensical. The blow-out was not an act of God, like a river bursting its banks or a storm surge; the mine workings are man-made. They are the responsibility of the Coal Authority and, by extension, of the UK Government.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is a moral responsibility that each property should be returned to the condition it was in on 20 January, and that no resident should be burdened with the cost. What has been offered so far by the Coal Authority is, frankly, an insult: £500 does not begin to scratch the surface when the cost of the damage caused by the mine water is running to tens of thousands of pounds for each property. One resident has been quoted £50,000.

The Coal Authority and the UK Government are sticking dogmatically to their mantra that residents need to go through their insurance companies, but what about those who do not have insurance? There are about 20 properties with no insurance, and the intransigence of the Coal Authority and the UK Government means that people are expected to find substantial amounts of money to make their homes fit to live in again. This is an appalling way to treat people who have had their homes destroyed through no fault of their own. Even those with insurance are finding that it does not cover everything. Gardens, garden furniture, driveways, fences and outbuildings that have been damaged are not included. In some cases, residents have buildings insurance but not contents insurance.

Rhian David, her husband and two young children were evacuated from their family home and have been told that they will not be able to return for another year. Despite taking out a large sum of insurance, it is not enough to cover the extensive damage. The initial damage came to £18,000, but the secondary damage such as damp has added a further £5,000 to the costs.

By the Coal Authority’s own admission, this was a unique incident and the work to remediate the mineshaft and install a water management system should prevent any future recurrence. A compensation fund must therefore be set up to cover all uninsured losses and other unforeseen costs. The unique circumstances and the work of the Coal Authority would mean that that was a one-off payment in exceptional circumstances. It would not be setting a precedent; it would simply be doing the decent thing in response to an exceptional and unprecedented incident. This is a question of doing what is morally right, and the UK Government must respond accordingly.

The Minister has stated from the Dispatch Box that she will visit Skewen to see for herself the damage and destruction that the water has caused and to hear directly from residents, but we still do not know when she is coming. Only by visiting the site can she appreciate what has happened and truly comprehend the devastation. It is vital that she comes to Skewen before too much remediation work is carried out. Only by speaking directly with the residents can she fully understand the enormous emotional toll that this is taking. She needs to grasp the traumatic impact that the intransigence of the Coal Authority and the UK Government is having.

The saying goes that actions speak louder than words. The Coal Authority and the UK Government have offered the victims plenty of warm words, but statements of sympathy rapidly curdle into empty platitudes if they are not backed up by tangible deeds. The longer the Minister stays away, the clearer it becomes to my residents how little the UK Government care about what has happened to them.

Residents are equally worried about the impact of the incident on house prices. The Coal Authority and the UK Government must engage with estate agents and mortgage providers to ensure that their valuations and advice are based on a clear and comprehensive understanding of the uniqueness of what has happened.

Residents’ treatment by insurance companies has been a lottery. Some have acted reasonably well, but others have not. Residents have had real problems with insurance companies increasing premiums, with quotes that have seen premiums double after the incident; in one case, the annual payment jumped from £341 to £1,389 and a £10,000 excess. Others have been told that they cannot claim off the Coal Authority so they cannot make a no-fault claim.

This is a scandalous way to treat people. Residents should not be punished financially as a direct result of a blow-out happening through no fault of their own. The Coal Authority has promised to provide an information pack, which will provide estate agents with reassuring details about the unusual nature of what has happened and the new water management system, but that is taking far too long. Residents need that information pack urgently. The longer it takes for them to receive it, the more stress is caused and the more cost incurred.

The UK Government and the Coal Authority must also step up their efforts with insurers. They cannot be allowed to get away with this behaviour. It is imperative that the UK Government make it clear to all relevant insurance companies that they must not add a single penny to the premiums of those who have been impacted by this incident, and that all claims should be treated as no-fault.

The people of Skewen are strong and resilient. They will not take this lying down and, to quote Dylan Thomas, they will not go gentle into that good night. I am therefore giving the Minister fair warning this evening that the Coal Authority and the UK Government have awoken a sleeping dragon. She needs to know that she is in for a fight if she continues to stick rigidly to her stance.

I have great respect for the Minister. I know her to be a reasonable person and a credit to the important position that she holds. I therefore call on her to recognise that this is about doing what is morally right. It is time for the UK Government to step up and create a compensation fund to cover uninsured losses and to help those who have lost so much through absolutely no fault of their own.

I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for his campaigning on this issue, which I recognise is a very serious one indeed for the residents of Skewen. I would also like to add my respectful gratitude to all those he mentioned who have helped residents through this incredibly difficult and stressful time. Some years ago now when Morpeth, just outside my constituency, was flooded, it was extraordinary to see the commitment—the continued commitment—of those among the affected who just quietly continued to support people and make sure that families got back on their feet, so I absolutely understand that. I just wanted to put on the record my thanks to them too, because I know just how difficult that can be.

I would like to provide the House with a little background on the important work that the Coal Authority undertakes, which I feel is relevant to the hon. Member’s very important constituency situation. The coalfield areas of Wales, England and Scotland cover some 26,000 sq km, or 11% of our country’s surface area. Since the start of the industrial revolution, human settlement has followed natural resource availability, industry and employment. The coalfields are consequently some of the most densely populated parts of the UK. Some 7 million properties lie within the coalfields, with 1.5 million properties lying above workings where coal has been mined at a depth of less than 30 metres, and more than 170,000 mine entries are known of. Alongside these, there are hundreds of miles of underground roadways, adits and drainage systems, which are often only partially mapped, especially in very historic coalmining areas.

In south Wales, 52% of the population live on the coalfield, and the vast majority will fortunately never experience any issues. Although there is little active coalmining today, centuries of underground and surface extraction have created a legacy of environmental issues and public safety hazards. As the hon. Member mentioned, the Coal Authority was created under the Coal Industry Act 1994, when the previously state-owned coal industry was privatised, to regulate the industry and manage these legacy issues. The authority helps to manage the UK’s energy legacy safely and responsibly.

A substantial legacy of mining hazards remain in many major conurbations, with one third of the documented coalmine entries being in urban areas. Surface collapses above abandoned workings and shafts present the most common risks to the public. The authority therefore has a 24/7 hazard line, enabling the public to report mining hazards around the clock, in order to ensure immediate responses. Approximately 1,000 surface and subsidence incidents are reported each year, about half of which are found to be coalmining related. The scale of the issues means that costly proactive remediation of the surface effects of mine workings and mining entries is carried out only when there is a higher risk to persons or property. In 2008, the authority began a risk-based mine entry inspection programme to identify such areas for proactive remediation. To date, some 149,000 shafts have been inspected, less than 1% of which have required remedial treatment.

The coalmine works in Skewen date back beyond 1830. There are 287 recorded mine entries in the immediate area of Skewen, which are part of the proactive inspection programme. The mineshaft involved in this awful flood and the area around it was inspected in 2011, as the hon. Member mentioned, and no concerns were identified at the time. It was mapped approximately 20 metres away from where the Coal Authority now know it to be. A mine drainage level in the vicinity has operated effectively for a very long time, but had become blocked, causing water and pressure to build up, eventually connecting with the nearby mineshaft, which allowed it to rise to the surface. The additional heavy rain from Storm Christoph caused the water to force its way out, leading to the flooding on 21 January. This is considered an extremely rare event and was unforeseeable.

Since then, the Coal Authority has worked fast with local partners and continues to provide a blended package of support to the community, which has included developing a solution to reduce the risk of this ever happening again, cleaning up in the aftermath of the flood and practical help for residents affected, including, to date, increasing the maximum payment for each household for outside restoration to £500. However, this is without doubt a deeply sad and very upsetting incident, and I heard absolutely what the hon. Member for Aberavon said about liability and, indeed, moral responsibility.

The Coal Authority’s work handling subsidence and safety issues associated with former coalmines is a statutory duty under the Coal Industry Act 1994 and the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991. The 1991 Act sets limits to the liability in terms of defining coal-mining subsidence damage. Flooding such as that at Skewen does not form part of these duties, because flooding, whether the water comes from a river, a stream, the sea, groundwater or a mine, is dealt with in the main through insurance. The Coal Authority is doing everything it can to support the community within the bounds of the legislation and the guidance it has to work within, but I am very pleased to note that, following a meeting last week, the Coal Authority is reviewing its package of support. I shall watch closely to see how that progresses.

The scale and complexity of our historic mining legacy mean that the authority will never be able to inspect all that is underground. I deeply sympathise with the hon. Member’s constituents and I realise that this is an incredibly frustrating and distressing time for them. However, it is neither affordable nor practical to underwrite flooding damage risk associated with former mining works for some 7 million properties, any more than it is for flooding from other sources. None the less, I will continue to monitor progress and hope to get to Skewen for myself as soon as lockdown restrictions allow, so that I can hear at first hand both from residents and those of the coal authority charged with the management of our coal mining legacy. I will watch very closely to see how this revised package under consideration rolls out. Once again, I hope very much that, when the lockdown restrictions hopefully lift in the weeks ahead, I can get on a train and head to south Wales as soon as I can.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.