Westminster must foot the bill for clearing coal tips in Wales

"We have been looted of our treasure, and the crooks didn’t even have the decency to take their rubbish with them."

Llanbradach coal tips

The coal tips in our valleys are a lasting reminder of Westminster’s contempt for Wales. Even though the tips, and the horrors they represent, predate the time of devolution and our Senedd, the UK Government still refuses to pay towards clearing them, and preventing another Aberfan from happening. For decades, these mounds of waste and spoil have loomed over our towns and villages, but the increased rainfall we’re seeing as a result of climate change means that they’re being destabilized: we cannot afford to wait for Westminster to find its conscience and act.

The story the tips tell is as maddening as it is cruel. Because our valleys paid a terrible price for the coal that was ripped from the earth beneath our feet. It was a material so valued that it gained the nickname of “black gold”, but the riches it brought forth were carried out of our communities, loaded in train wagons and put onto ships in the docks in Cardiff to carry them to every corner of the empire. Our valleys’ riches were stolen from us, and we were left with the dust that clogged the lungs of miners, and the soot and muck that was left littering our mountains.  Because that’s what the coal tips are: they’re made up of the slag and spoil that was left over when the costly coal was taken away. We have been looted of our treasure, and the crooks didn’t even have the decency to take their rubbish with them.

And so those tips remained, for decades, until the morning of 21st October 1966, a date that is seared into the minds of people living in our valleys. On that dark day, the tip that cast its shadow over the village of Aberfan slipped down the mountainside and collided with a school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. That day should have spelled the end of coal tips in Wales; it should have resulted in every tip being cleared. But the guilt of people in power subsides quickly: only the tip above Aberfan itself was removed, and £150,000 from the victims’ memorial fund was plundered to pay for its removal. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was forever shamed by that callous act of betrayal .

For more than fifty years, the tips lay largely dormant, until in the spring 2020, a landslip occurred in Tylorstown in the Rhondda valley, bringing blackened muck rushing down the mountainside. Mercifully, no houses were in its path, and nobody was harmed, but that incident reignited people’s fears, held for so long in slumber, that another Aberfan could befall us. The Welsh Government invested millions of pounds in a programme to monitor, categorise and stabilize the thousands of tips that pock and scar our skylines – but it is a scandal that Westminster, to date, has refused to pay any share of this money, or to recognise its historic liability for making these ticking time-bombs safe.

Indeed, at the end of last year, when the Welsh Government finally published information about the location of Wales’ high risk tips, it was revealed that David TC Davies – the Secretary of State for Wales – had refused to put his name to a letter that was sent to all MSs and Welsh MPs. An agreement had previously been made at a joint summit that the letter would be a joint message from the Welsh Government and the Secretary of State, but he belatedly chose not to add his name. It was an omission which spoke volumes, because in that blank space where his name should have been, we in Wales saw repeated the decades of indifference shown to us by those in Whitehall.

And it was an omission that was fitting, in some perverse way, because the tips above our towns are the legacy of more than mining for us in Wales: they speak too of Westminster’s negligence towards our communities, of generations of cruel disdain. The tips still darken the horizons of our valleys, and remind us of a nightmare from which not all of us have awoken.

These tips must be cleared, but if there is to be any justice done for the poverty and pain inflicted on our valleys; for the years of underinvestment; for all the times former miners have struggled to get breath into their weary, blackened lungs – then Westminster must foot the bill. It would be some belated acknowledgement, inadequate though it would be, that they recognise and atone for the scars left upon these communities by an industry and a government that abandoned them. 

I have urged Wales’ outgoing First Minister, Mark Drakeford, to use his final weeks in office to demand from the UK Government that this cost too shouldn’t be one our communities should bear alone.

Delyth Jewell is a Member of the Senedd for South Wales East and deputy leader of Plaid Cymru

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