Serious health and safety issues prevent mine museum reopening
Hannah Neary, local democracy reporter
A councillor said she has “no confidence” in Neath Port Talbot Council’s decision-making after experts found serious health and safety issues at a council-run museum.
Independent councillor Sian Harris said she has “no confidence in the decision-making” by council officers after a study revealed serious structural issues at Cefn Coed Colliery Museum in Crynant, Neath.
The council secured a grant of £1.8 million from the Welsh Government in 2019 to revamp the 1930s site and boost tourism but the project fell through after it was delayed by a range of health and safety issues were uncovered and restrictions during the pandemic.
The museum will not be able to open as planned this summer due to serious health and safety issues with the site such as flaking stonework, unsafe tunnels, asbestos and corrosion. It is expected that it will cost over £1.25 million to repair the issues and a further £8 million transform the site into an adequate visitor attraction.
Cllr Harris, who represents Crynant, asked why the council had not uncovered the issues with the building sooner.
Simon Brennan, the council’s head of property and regeneration, said the council carries out “visual surveys” of the building annually but the external surveyors carried out “a more intrusive survey”.
He said the museum is “a very complex site with a number of issues” but the council does not have enough money “to address all issues in all buildings.”
The museum opened in 1978 and tells the story of one of Wales’ most dangerous coalmines. It was nicknamed ‘The Slaughterhouse’ due to number of men who lost their lives in dangerous working conditions.
The council currently rents the Grade II listed museum building and 1.6 acres of land from the Welsh Government for £10.00 per year. The local authority is responsible for all repair and maintenance works and the 100-year lease expires in 2077.
The museum is usually open for four months per year and the current operating deficit is circa £60,000 per annum, according to a report by council officers.
In May 2019, the council made a successful bid to Welsh Government for a grant worth £1.8 million to turn the museum into “an iconic attraction”, according to the report. As part of the agreement, the council was required to provide a further £800,400.
It was hoped that the project would tell the human history of the site and feature a visitor centre and cafe selling local produce.
Construction work was set to start in autumn 2020 after due diligence works. The council paid for external surveyors to explore options for the site but the work was delayed due to the pandemic.
In September 2020 it became clear the project would not be able to be designed and delivered by March 2021, which was the funding deadline provided by Welsh Government.
The council tried to negotiate a new deadline with the government, who refused to agree a revised deadline but agreed it would pay for the survey work.
‘Nothing but a dump’
Cllr Harris said many councillors have never visited the museum and claimed Peter Rees, cabinet member for education, skills and culture, once referred to the site as “nothing but a dump” during.
Cllr Rees said his comment had been “taken out of context” and he said it “to kick the Welsh Government into doing something about the site”.
“I am actually very passionate about Cefn Coed, I think it has great potential.”
He added that there has been a “history of repairs waiting to be done” at the museum for years but the council “never had the finances to do it”.
The council’s chief executive Karen Jones said: “There is a commitment to looking at what we can deliver in Cefn Coed.”
Andrew Thomas, the council’s director of education, leisure and lifelong learning, said officers will work to “increase footfall” and make the museum “a sustainable facility”.
Cllr Harris said the colliery dates back to 1870 and attracts visitors from “all over the world”.
She said many people visit the site, including historians, tourists and former miners who are keen to show their younger relatives what it was like for them to work in the coal industry.
The site is home to Wales’ biggest working winding engine and “the last remaining gas tram in the world,” she added.
Labour council Rhidian Mizen said “anything that can be done needs to be done” to keep the museum open.
He said his family has a “rich history” of ties to the coal mining industry and he was “mightily impressed” when he visited the museum.
Council officers have proposed to create a group made up of councillors, and representatives of external partner stakeholder organisations and Mr Thomas to make decisions about the site’s future.