FIRST minister Mark Drakeford has said it is “nonsense” to claim money the Welsh Government has spent on Cardiff Airport could have been used for coal tip safety. 

The Labour leader insisted, when questioned in the Senedd, that work to stabilise coal tips in Wales should be funded by the UK government which he said hasn't put a “single penny piece” towards the issue. 

He was questioned by Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies at First Minister’s Questions in the Senedd earlier this week. 

Davies highlighted documents uncovered by campaigners, and first reported by The National, that showed Rhondda Cynon Taf Council officers warned funding was unlikely to be available for sites without the potential to be reused for development. 

The Conservative leader said: “Numerous media outlets reported coal tip campaigners uncovered a damning document from 2014 which suggested the Welsh Government was prioritising the economy over safety.” 

He said the Tylorstown tip, where there had been a large landslide following heavy rain in February 2020, was one such tip identified as unlikely to be eligible for funding. 

Drakeford wasn’t first minister at the time in 2014 but was a member of the government and Davies asked: “Do you regret the decision”. 

The first minister replied: “There was no such decision.” 

The Conservative leader then accused the Welsh Government of failing to address the issue of coal tip safety and remediation, which he said has been established as the responsibility of the devolved government, and said it had been “playing an awful lot of politics”. 

He said: “The funding for the airport could be used, some £240 million plus. That is money that could have been used to make coal tips safe in the valleys.” 

The Conservative accused the first minister of laughing off his question and said: “You might chuckle but it’s not a laughing matter, you had the responsibility, the money and the chance to do it, why haven’t you done it.” 

In an angry exchange, the first minister dismissed the comments from the Conservative leader and said: “What the member has to say is absurd, he starts off with an accusation that turns out not to be true at all. There was never a funding application turned down by the Welsh Government because a funding application was never made. So that’s the first piece of nonsense we should lay to rest.” 

He said it was an “absurd suggestion” that money the Welsh Government had spent, in 2013, on purchasing and supporting Cardiff Airport could be diverted to coal tip safety. 

The first minister said the Conservatives had “always opposed” the investment in the airport and said the funding scheme being referred to had been established under a pre devolution Conservative government, in the 1980s, and administered by the former Welsh Development Agency. 

“It depended on a business case, well fancy that. Before you spend public money you need a business case.” 

Mark Drakeford said additional work is now required to make coal tips safe as the standards applied in the 1980s and 90s are no longer suitable “in an era of climate change”. 

He said the UK government “has a responsibility to put right the legacy we have seen here in Wales and they have refused to provide a single penny piece.  

“That is the truth of the matter. No nonsense about airport money being spent on coal tip remediation will disguise the fact that the responsibility for putting right the legacy, with all the history we have seen here in Wales, with all the fear it engenders in valley communities, relies with a UK Conservative government and the answer they give is, there’s not a penny piece to help.” 

Mr Davies accused Mr Drakeford of “misleading” the Senedd by claiming the UK government hasn’t put any money towards coal tip safety but that was refuted by Drakeford who said the only money received was for emergency work following the Tylerstown landslide. 

In response to the Conservative leader's offer to “work with him” to bring ministers from both the Welsh and UK governments together, Drakeford said he already jointly chairs a committee with the Conservative secretary of state for Wales on the issue and which takes direction from the non-devolved Coal Authority. 

He said the authority has produced a 10 year timetable to stabilise tips in Wales at an estimated cost of between £500 and £600 million, which is the money the Welsh Government has been told it must fund. 

The first minister said the UK Government will find a “willing partner” in the Welsh Government to address the issue but said until then “this Senedd” will provide the money necessary but warned it will be at the expense of other services provided by the Welsh Government. 

The 2014 document, referred to by Andrew RT Davies, was to provide the council’s environmental services committee with a general update on its land reclamation programme. 

It stated the Welsh Government had traditionally provided 100 per cent funding for land reclamation but was unlikely to fund future reclamation work “unless there is a business case for it”. 

When public bodies bid for funding from the Welsh Government for projects such as building a new school or hospital, for example, they are required to produce a document outlining costs, how they will be met, and a timetable etc, which is known as a “business case”. 

However the RCT document made clear that for tip reclamation the “focus of the business case” would be “on economic outputs such as bringing forward development land”. 

But what the document doesn’t say is whether the council intended making any application to the Welsh Government for funding for those tips that were unsuitable for development. 

It simply stated: “There is therefore potential funding available for schemes that have a potential to generate reclaimed land for development...However, this leaves the other sites, some of which have historical stability issues, without potential funding and an increased future liability for the Council.” 

In the Senedd, Mark Drakeford was asked if he regretted “the decision” and he said there was “no such decision” as no application had been made and the 2014 document doesn’t refer to any specific application. 

The first minister further explained the policy was one previously operated by the Welsh Development Agency, which was incorporated into the Welsh Government in 2004.

It may be that Andrew RT Davies meant to ask the first minister if he regretted the Welsh Government’s policy at the time but his question appeared to be framed as related to the Tylerstown tip and suggested the Welsh Government had rejected a specific proposal related to it. 

  • This article originally appeared on our sister site The National.