Restore Ffos y Fran, urge campaigners
Published: 28 Nov 2023
Ffos y Fran is an opencast coalmine on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, the largest in the UK. It’s difficult to imagine the scale of it unless you see it in real life.
Close to people’s homes, it’s an enormous scar chiselled into the landscape that’s been casting a dark shadow on the lives of residents such as Chris and Alyson Austin from Merthyr Friends of the Earth – they’ve been campaigning to stop the mine for nearly twenty years.
At first the community were relieved when planning permission to extract coal from the site expired in September 2022. But relief rapidly gave way to dread and frustration when the company applied to Merthyr Council to extend this permission, and continued to mine coal, without permission, whilst awaiting the outcome.
This came in 26 April 2023 when Merthyr Councillors decided unanimously to reject their application to continue mining.
It was a cause for celebration for the campaigners and residents who had gathered with placards and banners outside the council offices that day. Chris and Alyson Austin thought it might even be time to open the Champagne, but on their subsequent visits to the site, the couple found it was just business as usual at Ffos y Fran. Truckloads and trainloads of coal were seen leaving the site on a regular basis.
Faced with this flagrant breach of planning permission, Merthyr Council issued an enforcement notice in May 2023, but it had no effect. Merthyr Limited continued to extract coal from the site.
First Minister Mark Drakeford had welcomed the decision to close the site, and even said ministers would work to ensure the land was restored so it could be "again used by that local community".
So, in June Friends of the Earth wrote to Julie James, Minister for Climate Change, and to Merthyr Council asking them to use their powers to stop unlawful mining at Ffos y Fran. Unfortunately, the Welsh Government seem reluctant to take more of an active role to stop the coal extraction.
In an attempt to buy more time, the company made a ‘last ditch appeal’ against Merthyr Council’s enforcement order, lodging an appeal with Welsh ministers on 28 June. As it would take a while for Welsh Government to respond, potentially mining could continue for a further six months or more!
In July, because the company were mining lucrative coal beyond their licensed boundary, the Coal Authority stepped in and wrote to the company, ordering them to 'cease all extraction of coal outside of the licence area with immediate effect and inform the Authority that this has taken place.'
But in August Merthyr (South Wales) Limited responded by announcing that they would stop mining on 30 November, and close the site. This is despite the fact that they continue to mine coal unlawfully, and have another 2-3 years of restoration work to complete on the site.
Throughout, Chris and Alyson have been working tirelessly to explain the situation to the wider world and keep Ffos y Fran in the public eye, regularly appearing on the BBC, Sky News, and ITV, and in the newspapers, including the Guardian.
Campaigners have also continued their efforts to hold the owners of Ffos y Fran to account, urging Merthyr Tydfil Council and the Welsh Government to act.
In August Coal Action Network (CAN) and the Good Law Project joined forces to launch a crowd funder ‘to get justice for the local community and to put an end to this illegal coal mine’, and over £20,000 has been raised so far. CAN are prepared to go to court to get a ‘stop notice’ applied by the local authority to end the mining and then to ensure the site is restored.
In October over 30 organisations, including Coal Action Network, Climate Cymru and Friends of the Earth Cymru sent an open letter to Julie James, calling on the Welsh Government to ban coal mining in Wales (read about the open letter here). And earlier this month Friends of the Earth wrote again to Julie James, calling on them to use their powers to stop unlawful mining at Ffos y Fran.
But what concerns Chris and Alyson most now is that the owners will be allowed to leave without fulfilling their responsibility of restoring it, leaving the community with a huge, unsightly and possible dangerous hole in the ground that will be allowed to fill with water and generally be a liability rather than the community asset promised.
“We don’t want them to just leave. We want them to restore the site! The company was given permission to mine here on the condition that the site was fully restored afterwards and handed back to the community”, says Alyson. “The sign at the entrance says ‘Ffos y Fran Land Reclamation Scheme.’ The ‘reclamation’ promised meant returning the land to a better, usable state, not leaving us with a huge, horrible mess. It must be restored, otherwise it will be an ugly, dangerous place, rather than an amenity we can enjoy!”
“It makes my blood boil’ says her husband, Chris. “We’re told the company can’t afford to restore the site, that over the years they’ve failed to put money aside for this, as they were contractually obligated to do. They have made huge amounts of money over the years from the coal mining; where has it all gone?”
For Chris, there is a principle at stake. “What message does this send out? That you can do business, make money, and not honour your obligations to the detriment of local people. That you can continue to work against the direct instructions of the local authority and our elected representatives with seeming impunity? It sets a terrible precedent. We can’t allow them to get away with this. It is not just about the impact on our community here, but on other communities in the future.”
As Coal Action Network observes, “we’ve been here before. 10 years ago Celtic Energy Limited abandoned four coal mines. Budget restorations continue to be public eyesores and safety hazards.”
Haf Elgar, Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, agrees with Chris and Alyson.
“It’s disgraceful that coal mining has been allowed to continue unlawfully at Ffos y Fran for so long, against the wishes of the local community, the unanimous vote of councillors, and to the detriment of the planet.
“We hope that the mining will now stop and that will be the end of opencast mining in Wales. But this does not feel like a day to celebrate – workers are being made redundant rather than kept on to restore the site and supported to find other roles, and the whole process has been such a farce that there is no certainty what will happen next.
“The company must fully restore the site – and Merthyr Council and the Welsh Government have to ensure that this happens, for the sake of the local community and to restore faith in the planning system.”