Plans to extend coal mining at Ffos-y-Fran recommended for refusal
Anthony Lewis, local democracy reporter
Plans to extend mining operations at Ffos y Fran in Merthyr Tydfil until March 2024 have been recommended for refusal by council planning officers.
An application to extend the life of the existing mine is due to go before the council’s planning committee on Wednesday, April 26.
This latest application seeks to change a condition that all coal extraction shall stop no later than September 6, 2022.
The application is looking to allow for an extension to the lifespan of the mineral extraction and restoration with coal extraction to stop by March 31, 2024 and final restoration to be completed by June 30, 2026 (as opposed to the original date of December 31, 2024).
The report said this would allow for the remaining 240,000 tonnes of coal to be extracted with the main market being Tata Steel at Port Talbot but that it is also used by a variety of smaller markets including steam locomotives (heritage tailways) and steam engines/boilers as well as domestic heating within homes.
But planning officers said in their report that it fails to clearly demonstrate that the extraction of coal is needed to support industrial non-energy generating uses, that extraction is required in the context of decarbonisation and climate change emission reduction, to ensure the safe winding-down of mining operations or site remediation or that the extraction contributes to Welsh prosperity and a globally responsible Wales.
They also said it fails to provide an adequate contribution towards the restoration, aftercare and after-use of the site, to the detriment of the surrounding environment.
Welsh Government has issued a direction to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council that, unless authorised by Welsh ministers, the council can’t grant permission for the current application to extend the period of time coaling allowed on the Ffos-y-fran site.
Concerns that mining has continued despite permission running out last year
Concerns have also been raised by campaigners that mining has continued at Ffos y Fran in Merthyr Tydfil despite planning permission running out in September last year.
A campaign group called Coal Action Network has raised concern that work is still going on at the opencast site.
Coal Action Network claims that Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, has continued to mine over 100,000 tonnes of coal since the permission ended in September according to official statistics by The Coal Authority and said that this has only recently been admitted by Merthyr Tydfil County Bough Council.
The group said that this came two months after Coal Action Network shared official Coal Authority statistics with the council which the group said shows that the coal company had continued mining, with emissions from coal mined in the last three months of 2022 totalling over 324,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent—or equivalent to burning more than 138 million litres of petrol. Coal Action Netowrk said that if the coal company continued coal mining in 2023 at the same rate, those numbers would all double to the end of March this year.
The group said that despite mining an average of 1,114 tonnes of coal every day (based on most recent figures from the last quarter of 2022), the burning of which they said is the equivalent to burning 1.5 million litres of petrol each day, the council still refuses to take any enforcement action, saying it will await a decision by councillors on the planning application for a nine-month extension the coal company which they said was submitted just five days before planning permission ran out – on September 1, 2022.
The group said that the fact that councillors won’t consider this until April 26 gives Ffos y Fran a de facto extension of almost eight months since planning permission ended—that amounts to nearly half the extension the company originally applied for, but “without any democratic oversight or planning controls, and further blighting the life of local residents who were set to celebrate the end of coal mining near their houses in September, after 15 years of noise and dust.”
Coal Action Network said: “It’s not uncommon for companies or individuals to construct a building whilst, or before seeking retrospective planning permission for it.
“There are two material differences, when this concerns a coal mine though. If planning permission is rejected for a building, the building must be torn down
and the area restored to what it was pre-development.
“With Ffos y Fran, the coal being extracted without planning permission cannot be returned to the ground.
“This was flagged to the council by local residents when the company’s breach of planning control was first revealed, but to no effect.”
The group said it was under the impression that the majority of the works being undertaken on site sought to address the slippages but it now appears that coal extraction has also continued alongside these activities and they said that any issues pertinent to enforcement will be taken in light of the decision that is made by committee.
They said: “There is no undoing what has occurred outside planning control so delaying enforcement.
“There are also a number of national-level policies, laws, and targets passed by the Welsh Government that the ongoing coaling at Ffos-y-fran contravenes – as well as the consequences it has for our climate.
They said that so far Welsh ministers have ignored the call to step in and stop the coal mining, a call made by solicitors, acting on behalf of Coal Action Network.
Local residents Chris and Alyson Austin said: “We have been let down by our local government yet again. They have allowed the mining company to contravene their existing planning consent for almost seven months despite our continued protestations and supplied evidence.
“Coal extraction at Ffos y Fran has to end now and the mining company held to account for its transgressions.
“The Welsh Government needs to investigate the way this was mishandled by the local planning authority here in Merthyr and ensure that this doesn’t
Daniel Therkelsen from Coal Action Network said: “The council owes local residents an apology for putting them through a further nearly eight months of misery next to a fully operating coal mine that was meant to close in September of last year.
“Welsh Ministers must put a stop coal mining at Ffos y Fran immediately, and investigate this local failure to enforce planning control in a way that makes a mockery of national climate-positive policies, laws, and commitments.
“We’ve seen the Welsh Government boast green policies but it needs to deliver on them – Scotland issued a clear de facto ban on all forms of coal mining in October 2022, why isn’t Wales doing the same?”
A spokesperson for Merthyr Tydfil Council said: “Since the submission of the S73 planning application on September 1, 2022, to extend the life of the existing open cast mine, it has been brought to the council’s attention that coal production has continued at Ffos y Fran without the benefit of planning permission.
“The determination of the planning application is the priority for the council and a report will be placed before the planning committee on April 26, 2023.
“Any issues pertinent to enforcement will be taken in light of the decision that is made by this planning committee.”
A spokesperson for Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd said: “As we have received confirmation that solicitors are involved for the campaigners and proceedings are being contemplated we consider it inappropriate to comment at this point.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Welsh ministers have issued a direction to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council. Unless authorised by the Welsh ministers, the direction prevents the council from granting permission for the current application to extend the period of time coaling is allowed on the Ffos y Fran site.
“Local planning authorities have powers to investigate claims of unauthorised development and are responsible, in the first instance, for considering enforcement action.”
The planning officers reasons for recommending refusal include: “The proposed development fails to clearly demonstrate that the extraction of coal is required to support industrial non-energy generating uses; that extraction is required in the context of decarbonisation and climate change emission reduction, to ensure the safe winding-down of mining operations or site remediation or that the extraction contributes to Welsh prosperity and a globally responsible Wales.”
They also said that: “The proposed development fails to provide an adequate contribution towards the restoration, after-care and after-use of the site, to the detriment of the surrounding environment” adding “no local or community benefits would be provided that clearly outweigh the disbenefits of the lasting environmental harm of the development.”
Planning permission for the operational surface coal mine at Ffos y Fran was
originally granted by what was then the National Assembly for Wales in April 2005.
This permission was then varied to permit the limited dispatch by road of up to 5% of the annual output of coal from the Ffos y Fran land reclamation scheme or a maximum of 50,000 tonnes of coal year (whichever is the lesser) via Cwmbargoed Disposal Point.”
When the application was originally submitted, the applicant sought to extend coal extraction to June 6, 2023 with final restoration to be completed by September 6, 2025 but in April 2023 the applicant’s agent wrote to the council to request the changed timings.
In terms of the justification for extending the life of the existing consent, the applicant initially submitted three grounds for variation of the conditions including: to allow for full extraction of the consented area (impacted by the working practices required by the Covid0-19 pandemic), to allow for continued provision of coal to the steel industry in Port Talbot [Tata Steel] to address security of energy supply arising from global market disruption and reduce the need to import coal from overseas and to allow for the preparation of a subsequent new planning application to address a three-year extension to coaling operations at the site to help with the security of energy supply issues affecting the steel industry in south Wales and to put a revised final site restoration plan in place.
But the applicant then said that a new application for an extension of coaling operations is not now proposed citing geotechnical issues, the cost of extraction and the price for steam coal as the reasons for this change.
Instead, the applicant is proposing to submit a hybrid application in Autumn 2023 seeking permission for an alternate restoration landform and subsequent after uses.
The planning report said: “A proposal for a subsequent application, which is at present no more than embryonic and lacks any detail, carries no weight in any event as even once finalised it would have to be determined on its own merits and the LPA could not prejudge the outcome.”
The public consultation
The council received 27 responses to the consultation between September and November 2022 which includes 26 objections and one letter of support.
The concerns raised were that any extension will be counter to Welsh Government policy on fossil fuels and climate change targets, that there is no need for the coal, a reduction in production during Covid is not an adequate excuse to continue operations and the noise, dust, blasting, health impacts and general disturbance for 15 years already.
Concerns were also raised over biodiversity, flooding, the completion of restoration, that the owners are excavating outside the permitted area, issues with the developer, grievances ignored by the council and devaluation.,
The letter of support said Welsh steam coal is vital to Tata Steel works and the heritage railway movement across the UK.
It said that if coal has to be imported from Poland, Columbia, Australia, Kazakhstan etc this will increase the carbon footprint.
It said that the heritage railways in the UK including a significant number in Wales attract a large number of tourists and create jobs.
On April 11 2023, a further period of consultation started, inviting responses by no later than April 25 about the applicant’s proposed changes to the time periods and this consultation included letters to all of those who initially made representations on the application and 25 site notices.
The report said any relevant matters arising from that further consultation will be reported orally as an update to this report.
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