Ayrshire Labour activist Alastair Osborne looks to Cornwall’s Eden Project as inspiration for a world-class answer to the long-discussed problem of restoring opencast mines in East Ayrshire.
The Scottish Labour Party passed a resolution at its conference last year, condemning “the failure of both the Scottish Government and the UK Government to address the environmental crisis of the unrestored opencast mines in East Ayrshire” and calling on “both governments to use their respective powers to provide the financial support required to ensure full restoration of the sites, addressing environmental concerns and seeking to create employment in the areas affected”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Cornwall’s Eden Project goes from strength to strength. In the decade since it opened to the public on 17 March 2001, about 13 million visitors have experienced the Eden Project, which cost £141m to build and is reckoned to have generated £1.1bn for the West Country in extra tourist spending. It is a charity (begun with a small local authority grant), operating as a social enterprise, which generates enough cash from entrance fees to service loans and maintain the asset base. It runs fundraising programmes to cover the cost of wider educational objectives.
The two huge biomes at the Eden Project – Mediterranean and Rainforest – have become renowned features of modern-day Britain. The outdoor gardens have over 3000 plants. The 35-acre site is filled with sculptures, vegetable gardens and restaurants, all with environmental conservation, education and sustainability as their core message. This 160-year-old disused china clay pit has been called by the New York Times “the eighth wonder of the world”.
Back to East Ayrshire. Passing conference motions is the easy bit, but you need to be in power to achieve change. The truth is Labour has no power to solve the situation facing the opencast areas – we have been out of power at Westminster since 2010; at Holyrood since 2007; and in East Ayrshire since 2007. However both the Westminster and Holyrood governments could do something about this. Our previous Labour MPs for the area fought tooth and nail to secure a solution, but with their defeat the political pressure seems to have abated.
One proposal was to grant exemption from Carbon Price Support duty, set on coal used for electricity production, which would have made it economical for operator Hargreaves to employ its workers to restore landscapes ruined by past opencast developments as well as extract coal from brownfield sites. True to form, the Tories dropped their interest in this option after the last General Election, having paid lip service to it through the budget process. If this had been delivered it would have gone a long way to solving the disastrous environmental damage as well as creating around a thousand jobs.
Another proposal which seems to be going nowhere is for a Biomass Project which would see the sites restored, a biomass crop grown producing carbon neutral fuel, jobs created and a renewable cheap energy source for the benefit of individuals and public sector bodies. There are a variety of energy crops that could be considered for such a project. There are examples of this being done successfully in other parts of the UK and in Europe, both combined with coal extraction and as a replacement for fossil fuels.
The U.K. Treasury has a role to play in solving the opencast crisis and in providing funding, but ultimately restoration is a devolved matter to Holyrood. The Scottish Government can’t keep wringing its hands and blaming Westminster for something it has the powers to deal with. Labour has raised before the potential of allocating Scottish Government underspends. The Scottish Parliament now has new powers over Scottish taxation. There are real options available if the will was there to resource the restoration of the abandoned opencast sites.
I wonder if it would be so hard to get Scottish Government help if we were talking about a flooding crisis or a natural disaster. Make no mistake, this is a crisis on that scale and deserves a much better response than we have had up till now. What we need is imagination, cooperation and leadership, and money – all of which have been in short supply until now.
There has been an understandable reluctance by Cornwall’s Eden founder, Tim Smit, to see his idea franchised to other areas, but surely something on the scale of an ‘Eden Project’ should not be beyond the imagination and ability of the key players here in Scotland. Governments could work hand in hand with the local communities and the local authority. They could harness the experience and expertise of other successful local initiatives like Prince Charles’ Dumfries House and Knockroon Community developments at Cumnock, and the Duke of Buccleuch’s Crawick Multiverse attraction on opencast land in Dumfries and Galloway.
It would be easy to dismiss an East Ayrshire project on this scale as a hopeless pipe dream, were it not for the fact that Cornwall’s Eden Project is very much a reality – started with a small grant from the local authority, now with over 13 million visitors, £141m raised to build the facility, and £1.1bn generated for the West Country in extra tourist spending. It goes from strength to strength, adding an educational centre, ice rink, camping and hotel accommodation, energy efficient power production, apprenticeships – ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.
So what are we waiting for? I would love to see the day when that New York Times sub editor was given the job of coming up with a suitable accolade for the restored opencast sites of East Ayrshire.