LUKE JARMYN investigates a wind of change taking place at The British in Torfaen and why, after a 40 year-long battle by residents, it could finally be goodbye to opencast mining for good

IN recent months Torfaen council has been working with The British Liaison Group and Gwent Wildlife Trust to bring The British, South East Wales’ largest derelict industrial site, into public ownership.

At a public meeting in a packed Talywain OAP Hall last month, Torfaen senior planning officer Duncan Smith confirmed that discussions to buy the site from owners HSBC, with reclamation funding from the Welsh Government, was taking place.

The hall voted almost unanimously in agreement with the £4 million proposals.

Torfaen council currently have until near the end of the month to finalise the deal - which could bring to an end a four decade-long era which has seen deaths, vandalism and residents living in constant fear opencast mining could return to the area.

As part of the plans discussed at the meeting, chaired by vociferous campaigner Dr John Cox, Gwent Wildlife Trust would take over the running of the majority of site, known as areas two and three, which would become a nature reserve. Elsewhere 150 houses would be built on another part of the land.

Lynda Clarkson, of The British Liaison Group, said the current situation had been decades in the making. “It has been such an ongoing issue that most of the people involved heavily in the early stages are no longer with us, so to piece a running timeline that you can weigh up isn’t simple," she said.

“Since I moved back to Garndiffaith in the 80s it has been constant and there is no question that the compromise with Gwent Wildlife Trust coming in to run most of the site is the best proposal we are likely to ever get. We have had to wait for the council to accept that we would rather have it left as it is, with nature reclaiming a lot of it, than have opencast, which is was a dirtier time.”

Dr Cox said during the meeting: "It is a beauty spot that has reclaimed itself, we have been fighting for it to not be ruined again by open cast and this is the best opportunity I have seen."

Getting its name from The 'British Iron Co' that started work on the site in 1825, iron production stopped in 1881 and the land later became a coal mine.

The National Coal Board gave up the site in 1976 and after the then-local authority let it pass to a J Hutchins, the 1,306 acre or 524 hectare site has gone through five different private owners in seven guises, including a pair of fashion entrepreneurs, all with the intention of gaining planning permission to opencast the remaining coal reserves before building houses on the site.

But each time there has been levels of public opposition, with a feeling that successive owners ‘just want to make a fast buck’ out of the site.

Under Hutchins ownership, problems with the site arose and a death of a little boy called Shaun Oates, who fell down a shaft which appeared to be nothing more than a puddle, showed the risk posed by the derelict area.

The site is generally broken up into three areas in each proposal. Areas one and two, as they are known, are where the planning has always been focused, whilst area three has often been left untouched.

During the trials of the past four decades, the closest anyone came to getting a go-ahead on the site was Clay Collieries in the mid-90s, as part of a joint venture with Torfaen council and the Gwent Development Agency. Their documents, which formed part of a public presentation in the summer of 1996, had five options including excavation and opencasting, and a fifth landscape-only option.

Mrs Clarkson added: “Little has changed since then. What we have now is the fifth option and the plans you saw then are just slightly re-jigged from now.”

Clay planned to excavate 273,000 tonnes from 58 hectares of area one before compacting the site for Torfaen to develop, whilst Gwent Development Agency would have carried out wider reclamation work on more than 100 tunnels and mine shafts before making areas two and three ready for a nature conservation area.

In early May 1997, after a landslide general election victory fro Labour, the plan was brought before the Welsh Office by then-secretary of state Ron Davies, who effectively threw it out.

Former resident of The British, councillor Wayne Tomlinson, who lived on Elizabeth Row until three years ago, said: “What happened with Clay Collieries made me feel that I was right all along. Some were more favourable to the scheme because it was seen that the money for reclamation was there but I did a presentation on the company and how I believe they couldn’t be trusted.

“The Welsh Office brought in several applications across the country and asked ten questions over the plans, and we have never known why they didn’t even try to answer them.”

The site was deemed to be worth around £8 million as long as coal could be excavated and a housing development included as part of post mining-work.

The last company with this idea was Castlemoor under its subsidiary Spring Talywain, which intended to put 1,500 houses on the site with little to no land reclamation on the Big Pond and the old streams that run down to the ‘black lands’ - two warm pools that were filled in during the 1970s.

Spring Talywain went bankrupt in 2009 with HSBC re-possessing the site due to the £5 million owed. Earlier this year they put it up for auction at just £250,000, a net loss of £4.75 million.

Elsewhere, the number of houses on the site has greatly been reduced. There was once around eight rows of terraced housing for the workers on the site but most of these were bulldozed in the 1970s as Torfaen offered incentives to residents for newer builds in nearby Talywain and Garndiffaith.

Resident Len Walters and his wife refused to move out of theirs though and the rest were bought to sell on, leaving Elizabeth Row as the last residential bit from the sites 19th century past.

One problem that remains, even for the latest plans, is what to do with listed buildings on the site.

An office building and an old mining building, called the Quadrangle, were designed by Hyde Park and London Zoo architect Decimus Burton.

Local walker and photographer Gwyn Jenkins said: “I am totally for the current plans but like many, we will hold our breath until it all comes. I would like to see the listed buildings including the Quad re-done but I fear it may get bulldozed due to the cost.”

Local councillor Gwyneira Clark added: “They used to be beautiful but have never had the remedial work necessary and now we have to think if there is much left. They have been subject to arson attacks and vandals, ever since I moved here in the 1970s we have battle The British with different problems and the fences put around the building should have gone up earlier. The sad story of what happened with Shaun Oates shows the danger of the site.”

For years campaigners were told they couldn’t have a wetland area or reclamation without excavation, but with potential funding by the Welsh Government and the Gwent Wildlife Trust ready to take control of the majority of the site, this could all change.

As part of the plans, the dam at the Big Pond would be opened back up for the streams to provide hydro electric energy power scheme and for the first time in 40 years, the threat of opencast mining could potentially be banished into distant memory.