Perhaps the most obvious thread that runs through the family trees of Welsh people is occupation.

Like me, hundreds of thousands will find mining stock in their lineage; coal miners, to be exact, who generation after generation went underground to make a living.

It was dangerous. Treacherous even – as the names Aberfan, Senghennydd and Gresford attest. But back to the mid-19th century, on both sides of my family, mining was a common fact of life. The coalfields of south-east Wales were their home.

The National Wales: Rescuers desperately try to clear the debris at Pantglas Primary School in Aberfan after the coal tip slid down the mountainside into the school. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyRescuers desperately try to clear the debris at Pantglas Primary School in Aberfan after the coal tip slid down the mountainside into the school. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

For many former miners and their children, communities cocooned by coalfields is still that. (And proudly so, for my grandparents included.)

There is little quite like the industrial heritage of these places to remind you of a bygone Welsh era; a nation powered by the character of men and women that made up villages and towns. Yes, the jobs may have left, and with it the vibrancy of the local areas: town halls are derelict, male voice choirs silent, working men’s clubs empty. But never-ending are those haunting reminders to show the impact of heavy industry on the world’s first truly industrialised nation.


These are the coal tips. More than 2,000 of which are dotted around Wales, mostly in the Valleys.

They are a daily sight for locals but unassuming outsiders – I can attest to this from personal experience – marvel at the scale of human endeavour involved in plundering the natural landscape of our country.

And according to an investigation published earlier this year, 300 of those tips are ‘high-risk’ – not at imminent risk of causing disaster, we have been reassured, until they are. Obviously. No forensics were needed to prove that, but the collapse of 60,000 tonnes of spoil from the Llanwonno tip in Tylorstown last year at least sparked a sense of panic from Cardiff Bay.

The National Wales: A landslip at a coal tip site in Tylorstown, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Photo: RCT Council via Welsh GovernmentA landslip at a coal tip site in Tylorstown, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Photo: RCT Council via Welsh Government

Rightly so. All it took was Storm Dennis to expose the fragility of these dreadful tips, which have been neglected from proper care and management for decades. How depressing, I thought, watching the black tsunami rumbling down the hillside, that it is the descendants of those same men who too often gave their lives underground now live in fear, decades after the pits have closed.

People across the Rhondda and elsewhere are petrified that something that seems so trivial as bad weather might lead to destruction and death.

READ MORE: 'Laws governing coal tips in Wales no longer adequate': Law Commission

A modern, progressive, and democratic society would baulk at such a reality. And surely conclude a hefty but necessary price must be paid to protect mining communities from their past.

The Welsh Government this week estimated that over the next 10 to 15 years, £500m to £600m will be needed to avoid further landslips and secure tips’ long-term safety. Finance minister Rebecca Evans wants an extra £60m a year from Whitehall to deal with this legacy from the “pre-devolution” era. The response, from a UK government spokesperson, left morality in SW1: “The management of coal tips in Wales is a devolved matter and therefore not one the UK government would expect to provide additional funding for.”

The National Wales: The landslip at Llanwonno Tip in Tylorstown. Photo: Rhondda Cynon Taf CouncilThe landslip at Llanwonno Tip in Tylorstown. Photo: Rhondda Cynon Taf Council

For all the qualms, however, this is true: tip management is a responsibility for the Welsh Government. As Evans’ counterargument goes, though, these problems have their roots well before 1999, and the administration in Cardiff can hardly be blamed for pits’ mass development and widespread mismanagement.

It comes down to a simple question: why should the Welsh Government stump up the cost when it did not cause the problem, and has little comparable economic means to deliver?

READ MORE: Row over calls for Westminster to fund Welsh coal tip safety

The Welsh Government can, and has said it will, support local authorities on urgent concerns around tip safety and inspections, but capital will have to be diverted away from areas such as the economy, education and health without long-term co-operation and funding support from London. That cannot be right.

It is a sad fact that Westminster has form in refusing to pay up for managing coal tips.

Take Tylorstown, when only after lobbying efforts from the Welsh Government, Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, and the “ranting” of local MP Chris Bryant, as one local resident told The Guardian this week, was £2.5m secured from the UK government for the clear-up.

The total cost of the remediation project was estimated at £18m.

READ MORE: Memorial to fallen miners given extra impetus after PM's comments

A more proactive role from Westminster in cleaning up the mess of successive British governments would be the most compassionate and politically savvy action to take. (How better to tell the Labour strongholds of south Wales that Conservatives understand the pain of Thatcherism and decades of economic plundering than making communities safe and habitable, for example?)

As little as an ask that may seem, and with the political and moral case to do so outweighing any wrangling over cash, it is unlikely to happen.

READ MORE: Fact check: Did Thatcher close the mines for environmental reasons?

Johnson has turned his political antenna towards the north of England, and the opportunity to put the onus on Mark Drakeford shifts responsibility away from Downing Street. But the bickering over long-term tip management has a serious point: we can expect more ‘just in time’ politics, presumably where villages and towns continue to live under the shadow of black, heavy, and dangerous waste until last-minute work is carried out. History tells us that such a scenario is a preface to disaster.

The National Wales: The rescue effort at Aberfan. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyThe rescue effort at Aberfan. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

In these debates the tragic events of Aberfan always come to mind. Remember even after that calamity in 1966, those poor people were betrayed, most shockingly by the use of the disaster fund to pay for the tip’s removal.

And there is still the same problem looming today as it did back then: the protection of mining communities who, believe it or not, may once more see disaster on their doorstep. The British government must act, before – yet again – it is too late.

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