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Wales: Coal Tips

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with the Welsh Government about the remediation and repair of coal tips in Wales; and what plans they have, if any, to provide funding to support such remediation and repair work.

My Lords, the UK and Welsh Governments discuss this matter regularly. The UK Government are committed to fulfilling their responsibilities, so the Coal Authority is providing technical support. We also provided the Welsh Government with £31 million in 2020-21 to help with the unforeseen impacts of Storm Dennis, including damage to coal tips. Ultimately, however, environmental matters are fully devolved, and the Welsh Government are more than adequately funded to manage all devolved responsibilities.

Diolch am yr ateb; thank you for the answer. There are 600 in Neath Port Talbot, 300 in Rhondda Cynon Taf, 216 in Wrexham, 205 in Caerphilly, 203 in Swansea and 922 in other local authority areas, totalling 2,446 disused coal tips in Wales. Mark Drakeford, our First Minister, has said:

“These sites pre-date devolution. Our funding settlement does not recognise the substantial, long-term costs of remediating and repairing these sites.”

Will the UK Government cease prevaricating and pay up before something serious happens again?

In answering this question, I truly remember the Aberfan disaster; we should never forget it. Last year represented its 55th anniversary. I was aged 11 at the time of the disaster; it is indelibly on my mind.

The central pillar of the support we have given is to ensure that the Welsh Government are properly funded to manage their devolved responsibilities, including the remediation of vulnerable coal tips. At the 2021 spending review, the UK Government provided the Welsh Government with the largest annual block grant in real terms of any spending review settlement since devolution in 1998.

My Lords, should the pre-devolution scarring of the countryside by the defunct National Coal Board be the responsibility of a devolved Government? Is the Treasury currently considering a reform of the Barnett formula based on history rather than needs, or are the devolved countries excluded from levelling up?

To answer the noble and learned Lord’s first question, the Barnett formula remains the key part of the arrangement for pooling and sharing risks and resources across the UK. This ensures that all parts of the UK, including Wales, receive a secure and stable level of funding for public services. Indeed, there are 2,500 disused coal tips, and it is vital that the money that we give to Wales is used effectively to ensure that these pits are safe.

My Lords, as we saw with the Tylorstown landslide in February 2020, the impact of climate change, with warmer annual temperatures and greater rainfall, has increased the risk of coal-tip landslides. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House whether the Welsh Government’s programme of work includes the inspection and maintenance of coal tips and the deployment of technology to monitor tip movement?

Just to reiterate, this is a devolved matter, and we expect the Welsh Government to manage any long-term costs associated with ensuring the safety of Welsh coal tips, as I said before. They are more than adequately funded to do so. In October 2021, quite recently, the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister of Wales co-chaired the coal tip safety summit to receive an update from the joint task force. This task force has identified and categorised all tips in Wales and undertaken inspections of all those in the highest-risk groups.

My Lords, Aberfan and the deep-mine disasters of Cynheidre and Gresford were all long before there was any devolved government in Wales. The Tylorstown slip in 2020 was a flowslide caused by Storm Dennis, and repairs have cost £18 million, to which the UK Government have contributed only £2.5 million. Do the Government recognise that climate change is making these tips more dangerous? Do they also recognise that Wales’s contribution to the wealth of the United Kingdom in the past must be matched by United Kingdom funding to deal with the dangers of the present?

The noble Lord mentioned the Tylorstown slip in 2020. The Coal Authority worked through BEIS, the Cabinet Office, the old MHCLG—now called the Department for Levelling Up—and, indeed, the Scotland Office to remind local authorities of their responsibilities in the management and oversight of coal tips, offering support where it can. I reiterate that there is more than enough money for the Welsh Government to ensure full safety cover.

Do the Government recognise that 327 tips are classified as high-risk, and that, if there is to be a true unionist approach between this Government and the Welsh Government, it is completely right that there is funding to flatten those tips, which were created long before the devolution settlement? Do the Government recognise that the memory of Aberfan lives on in those who are alive today—people such as Mansel Aylward, who, as a medical student, crawled into the school and pulled out a child alive?

Indeed—we are reminded by the noble Baroness once again about Aberfan. She is right that there are 327 pits in the higher-risk categories, C and D; however, they are deemed to be safe. On her question about dealing with the coal tips, it is very challenging and rather dangerous to do anything with them because remediation—for example, smoothing them out—is much more challenging in Wales than it is for the other 4,000 around the UK.

My Lords, this is a central government responsibility. The Minister is right to point out that it was the horrific tragedy of Aberfan that triggered the re-greening of the countryside, the coal tips and the valleys in Wales. Much has been done, very successfully, but much remains to be done; the figures have been given by my noble friend Lady Wilcox. Surely the Minister recognises that this problem pre-dates devolution, and central government must now accept its share of responsibility.

I am going to push back at the noble Lord and say once again that the Welsh Government are more than adequately funded to manage their devolved responsibilities. They can pay for coal-tip maintenance. Informed by the independent Holtham commission’s recommendation, the inclusion of a needs-based factor in the Barnett formula provides the Welsh Government with at least £115 per person for every £100 of equivalent funding per person in England.

My Lords, might it be worth my noble friend reading the report into the Barnett formula, which was produced by a special Select Committee of this House, on the recommendation of the much-missed Lord Barnett? It concluded that Wales got a very bad deal indeed and recommended that the Barnett formula be replaced by funding based on need, which would advantage Wales and perhaps deal with the systemic problem that the Barnett formula pre-dates devolution but, as the committee report made clear, Wales loses out because of that formula.

I reiterate that there are no plans to reform the Barnett formula, and that spending per head in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is higher than the UK average, broadly reflecting that the costs of providing public services are also higher. The whole point of the Barnett formula is that an area experiencing a downturn can be supported by other areas, rather than being dependent on local economic conditions.

My Lords, the Minister has referred a couple of times to the funding to the Welsh authorities as “adequate”. Can he enlighten us as to how adequacy is defined?

I will define what I see as being adequate. The Welsh Government have more than enough to deal with the very important subject of coal-tip safety.

My Lords, south Wales coalfields in particular made a massive contribution to the wealth of the UK over the years, with 40% of the UK’s coalfields being in Wales. We have already heard how climate impacts are increasing the risks that disused coal tips pose to our Welsh communities. Residents believe that the UK Government have a legal and moral responsibility to work with the Welsh Government to address this issue. Why can both Governments not put their differences aside, put the interests of the residents who live in the shadow of the coal tips first, and meet in the middle?

I am not sure what differences the noble Baroness is seeing. As I said at the outset, there are regular discussions between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. Regarding legislation, the principal legislation relating to the stability and safety of mineral waste in the UK is the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969 and the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Regulations 1971, which were amended by the Mines Regulations 2014. I have made it quite clear that there is more than enough money to deal with the inspection, and the regulations ensure that those responsible for the mines ensure their safety.