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Boris Johnson could pay to make coal tips safe to ‘counter rise in support for independence’

07 Apr 2021 4 minute read
Coal tip above Duffryn in the Afan valley. © Copyright Jeremy Bolwell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Boris Johnson could pay to make Welsh coal tips safe to “counter a rise in support for independence”, according to a think tank director.

Bronwen Maddox, of the Institute for Government, claimed that the UK Prime Minister “is newly alert to Welsh sensitivities about remedies for the industrial past”.

According to an ITV poll, support for independence is at the highest level ever recorded, with 39% of Welsh people saying they would now vote ‘yes’ in a referendum.

Maddox, a non-executive board member of the Law Commission, believes this rise could lead to a “strong showing” from Plaid Cymru in the Senedd elections.

Leanne Wood, the incumbent candidate for the party in the Rhondda, has said that Westminster should foot the bill for making high risk coal tips safe, as has the Welsh Government. But the UK Government have initially balked at the suggestion.

Almost 300 old coal tips in Wales have been classed as “high-risk”, and urgent work is now under way to stabilise more than 2,100 waste tips, following landslides caused by storms.

Bronwen Maddox wrote in the Financial Times: “The stability of more than the coal tips may be at stake — the row over who is responsible could be linked to the future of the UK itself.

“It is half a century or so since the big waves of postwar mine closures in south Wales.

“But there are big questions around who should be responsible, and who will pay, partly because of devolution two decades ago.

“Boris Johnson’s government, as it looks to counter a rise in support for Welsh independence that may give the nationalist party Plaid Cymru a strong showing in May 6 elections, is newly alert to Welsh sensitivities about remedies for the industrial past.

“Before the storms, its position was that flooding and mine safety was the responsibility of the devolved administration in Cardiff, but it has now promised £2.5m for the clean-up.

“One collapsed in a landslide in February last year; another in December. In 1966, tragedy struck Aberfan, just one valley over, when a coal tip slid on to a primary school killing 116 children and 28 adults.”

‘Fuel for dispute’ 

She added: “And who should pay? Some estimates put the stabilisation cost at £500m — trivial in the context of coronavirus but ample fuel for dispute between UK and Welsh governments.

“Cardiff argues that it is a UK responsibility, a legacy of an industrial past that fuelled the Royal Navy, steel mills, rail and power and long predated the devolution of 1999.

“The May elections may well shape the answer, given the strength that Plaid Cymru, pushing for an independence referendum, is expected to muster.

“For all Johnson’s initial dismissal of the Welsh government’s claims, he has made preservation of the Union a prime mission.

“He could find that sending millions of pounds to the Valleys to shore up the coal tips proves an attractive, and even economical, way of shoring up support for the United Kingdom.”

Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood said: “Coal tips are a bitter legacy of the coal industry. The Westminster Government must provide all the cash needed to ensure the safety of our people and deliver the peace of mind needed for people living in the shadow of coal tips.

“When the profits from coal mining were not seen in Rhondda, nor in many other coalfield areas across Wales, coupled with the high cost to health and lives of the workers and their families, that funding and more is owed to us.

“The final insult from all of this would be to burden people in Wales with the cost of making their communities safe and clean in light of the increased risk of flooding and other extreme weather because of climate change.

“Anything less than Westminster meeting the full cost of making safe high risk coal tips would be unacceptable.”

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