Open-and-shut case: Our politicians need to weigh up the economic arguments carefully before deciding the future of open cast mining in Wales

[This article was originally published on Saturday 22 September 2012 in the Western Mail]

One year on from the Gleision colliery disaster, the physical dangers associated with coal mining have been well documented. Meanwhile, sites across the South Wales Valleys are being considered for ‘safer’ open-cast mines, with developers promising jobs and prosperity for local communities. Professor Malcolm Prowle has spent 30 years studying the impacts of large scale industrial projects and feels that Wales is standing at a cross-roads.

Open-cast mining has always been a part of the UK coal mining industry, even though it is a very different industry, but with the virtual disappearance of deep mining it now holds a dominant position. In Wales, as in other parts of the UK, there has been an upsurge of open-cast mining with seven open cast sites currently in operation, employing around 685 people across the South Wales Valleys. Additional sites at Nant Llesg, near Rhymney; Bryn Pica, north of Aberdare and Nant y Mynydd in Torfaen are in planning or under appeal.

Proposals for new open-cast mining sites are usually very controversial, with strong opposition voiced by local residents. Proponents, however, make huge claims for the benefits of such developments and the politicians are left to weigh up the pros and cons.

The key benefit of open-cast mining is largely to do with creating jobs. Typically, an open cast mine will result in 200+ new jobs, often in areas of high unemployment. The creation of jobs will also have a ‘multiplier effect’, as these employees spend money in local shops and use local services. However, the magnitude of this multiplier will vary from case to case.

The main concern around the new jobs argument is that numbers have historically been exaggerated by developers and there is no mechanism for enforcement at a later stage. What is clear, however, is that the bulk of the jobs will be for men, a proportion of which will be temporary posts connected with site construction and a substantial number will be filled by transfers from elsewhere in the company, or from other areas, and may not constitute ‘new’ jobs at all.

Another concern is the commercial viability of the projects themselves. Usually, the aim is to extract coal over a period of 15-20 years but looking at the current and projected state of the energy market, and the environmental pressures on the use of coal, there are concerns over whether coal can sustain its current price over the long term. A significant drop in the price of coal would mean that new open-cast operations can quickly become unsustainable and may have to be curtailed early with the subsequent loss of jobs. In fact, this tipping point may already have been reached. Only this month the Aberpergwm Colliery in Neath has warned its staff that up to 90 jobs could be lost, blaming the falling price of coal and threats from green energy sources such as wind farming. 

In some cases, the arrival of a new opencast operation can mean the loss of existing jobs. If a mine is in proximity to existing commercial facilities and the dust produced poses a risk (or is perceived to pose a risk) to their operations, firms can take the decision to relocate or curtail their plans for expansion. Sectors like bioscience and precision engineering are more susceptible than most and this can mean the loss of not only large numbers of local jobs, but exactly the type of jobs that the Welsh Government is striving to attract.

A recent report from the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee concluded that “Wales is now one of the worst performing areas in the UK in terms of attracting inward investment”. If this statement highlights the difficulties faced by Wales as a whole in attracting inward investment, then evidence suggests that the arrival of new and ugly open-cast sites are only likely to exacerbate the problem.

Many of the proposed opencast sites in Wales lie in picturesque surroundings, where the landscape has been recovered after coal tipping took place in the heyday of mining. The reality is that, whatever degree of care is taken by the mining companies, open-cast operations cause large scale and long term visible damage to the environment.

However, planning authorities can force open-cast developers to return the landscape to the state in which they found it, but there is a legacy of open cast which is less obvious to the eye and even more problematic. This is what is referred to as the erosion of the social and economic well-being of the population – the combined impact on physical and mental health, environment, employment, incomes and the potential for future investment. In particular, this can have such an impact on children that it can easily lead to a “lost generation”, as has happened in other parts of the country.

The conclusion must be that any proposed open-cast development should be treated sceptically and subjected to a full and independent cost-benefit analysis, where all the costs to the wider community (over the duration of the project and beyond) can be assessed and weighed up against the actual benefits. Rationality should be applied and our politicians must not be swayed by romantic memories of the past or the promise of short term job creation.

Professor Malcolm J Prowle is a professor at Nottingham Business School and visiting professor at the Open University Business School.He was born in and still resides in the South Wales Valleys

2 thoughts on âOpen-and-shut case: Our politicians need to weigh up the economic arguments carefully before deciding the future of open cast mining in Walesâ

James Burton

Re: Rhaslas proposals. Dear sir/Madame, I know it is necessary for you to extract coal by whatever means necessary to fuel the power generators to power the factories that make cars to get the workers to the coal face, but have you ever considered the aesthetics and well being of the communities and environment in which you do so. We suffered 200 years of hellish ironworks and dark rivers only for you on a whim and pound profit before your eyes to go back there like a scene in Lord of The Rings (orcs).

Poetry aside, I have witnessed the AMAZING variety of waders and wildfowl (and turtles) that Rhaslas and the common of Gelligaer attracts. These sites are becoming rarer and rarer by the minute and have no substitute in the local area. Having these rare species are an indication of the health of Wales, black pits are not, they evoke a feeling of distaste and treachery to our forefathers who gave this common land to the commoners to be used as such untouched for eternity. You must understand that to break an oath with the Chief-tans of old will invoke their wrath, and ghosts of the titans are not to be trifled with.

May I suggest therefore that Rhaslas and the common of Gelligaer remain untouched while you ravage the rest of the landscape. You will still make the millions you feel you are entitled to, and give peace to us, the past and future by humbling yourselves into recognising the pleasure, tranquillity and forbearance that this ancient landscape gives to the soul, for which you may then be forgiven.

If however you persist in your haughty belligerence into casting the land and its wildlife into a hellish mire may I suggest that you compulsory purchase Tir Founder fields in Cwmbach and manage it as a replacement wader and wildfowl refuge .

Thanks for listening


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David Walters

Any sanctioning for a new opencast coal mine at the Northern end of the historically rich Gelligaer common would be nothing less than criminal vandalism.
The common is mentioned in “The life StCadog,” written by a monk from Llancarfan in the 1070s or 1080s and tells the story of a battle that took place on that area of common between present day Fochriw and Rhymney Moor to the North of the Heads of the Valley’s road, according to the monk the battle was fought between the combined armies of King Arthur and King Gwynllyw and the army of Brychan King of Brecheiniog,(modern day Brecon.)
There are several sites on the common between Bargoed in the South and the Heads of the Valleys Road in the North that have connections to King Arthur, all of the sites are still visible and my be visited by the public, one of the sites worth visiting is a 9ft standing stone approximately 200yds from Bedlinog mountain road T junction with Gelligaer common Road, the vandalised inscription on the stone is accepted as being Dubricius, Dubricius was the 5th century saint who is acclaimed to have crowned Arthur king in 512 AD at Caerleon. This is one of three sites on the common with direct links to the story of King Arthur and his warriors.
The stories of gelligaer common and the historical sites dotted along its length and breadth, would in any other country of the World be transformed into places that become a must for tourists, bringing in revenues in excess of £15 million annually to the local economy and up to 500 long term jobs for (local people.)
An Open cast mine as proposed for the area between Fochriw and the Heads of the Valley Road, would destroy any hope of developing a strong progressive tourist industry in this area of Wales for the next 30years,some thing that the people of Merthyr Tydfil,Rhymney,Pontlottyn Fochriw,and Deri will never forgive the local politicians for.

modern day Brecon

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