aoAyrshire 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.

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7 thoughts on “East Ayrshire’s ‘Eden’?

  1. When the fuck is Labour in Scotland going to understand you cant support the concept of “AUSTERITY” at Westminster and expect there to be spare cash lying around for spurious spending commitments all over Scotland.

    When is Labour in Scotland ever going to show this so called autonomy by opposing the idea of cutting the Scottish budget year on year?

    Has anybody from Labour in Scotland protested publically about the fact that the Scottish budget is to be cut again and again to a point where it will be by 2020 12.5% less than it was in 2010?

    Or does it continue to keep with its “Eat your cereal” message to the people of Scotland?

  2. I went to the Eden Project a decade or so ago. A wonderful concept, but based in an area with a substantial tourist base of potential customers.
    Some questions.
    The Eden biomes are all based on one site. The dereliction due to opencast mining is spread over many. So it cannot be only one project.
    What project do you have in mind, Alistair? Who would fund it? Where would potential customers come from, given the decline in Ayrshire tourism over the last half century? Knockroon is NOT a success. I was at the Multiverse three weeks ago, on a nice sunny day. There wouldn’t be a dozen people in the place the whole afternoon.
    Surely better to have many small local enterprises given grants and tax breaks for some years to allow them to establish themselves?

    It really is time we had some answers to the huge dereliction left in the old mining areas across Scotland.
    Luckily we have one of the Directors of the biggest mining company responsible for the £150million ecological catastrophe, living right here in Scotland.
    Doubly lucky he is a Scottish Labour stalwart.
    Step forward BRIAN WILSON into the limelight.
    Why didn’t Scottish Coal post the requisite Bonds to rehabilitate the sites? Wasn’t it part of the planning consent?
    Why didn’t Scottish Coal pay their share into the Industry Wide pension scheme, which has left the opencast workforce out of pocket and dependent on the Pensions Regulator? Philip Green isn’t the only pensions manipulator. Arent you ashamed, Mr Wilson?
    Why does no one in the media ever ask Wilson and Co any questions?

  3. Alastair,
    Gavin has a point. Do you not question why a large multinational company can dig a massive hole in the earths crust, extract millions of tons of coal and walk away claiming they have no money to make the site good?.
    Answer that first. It might not help you understand where the possible solutions can be found to rectify this desecration, but it might help us avoid a repetition in the future.

  4. For the ‘blame game’ read the McKinnon Report but this article is about solutions. The two key points I make are the need for Scottish Government to stop the hand wringing and give this the priority it deserves; and a call for an imaginative solution on the scale of an ‘Eden Project’ – not a replica. Could be a single initiative with the revenue generated benefitting all the sites or a few related projects. As for Ayrshire not being Cornwall in terms of tourist potential you have got to ask why – perhaps again this lack of commitment and imagination. One thing – we have much better roads. Anyway, all ideas welcome!

    1. But you offer no solutions and they are not easy to find. I don’t see why millionaires like Colin Cornes and Brian Wilson should not contribute to the clean-up.
      It wasn’t the Scottish government who caused this mess ( and it is a mess), and its a bit rich asking the general taxpayer to clean it up. Who now owns the land anyway?
      There are some solutions—renewable energy. Wind or solar power where possible. Killoch would have been ideal, next door to the Irish Interconnector, and energy coulld be stored by compressing air in the old shafts, but Killoch still in use. I’ve always thought it preferable for the State to own and facilitate basic utilities like electricity and water, so this could be a walk back to where we used to be before the sell off of public assets.

      Its not “lack of commitment or imagination” being the reason Ayrshire has not the tourism of Cornwall. Cornwall has warmer waters, better weather, good surfing beaches and a reasonable proximity to a substantial population of well to do people.
      Ayrshire has many assets in good beaches, wonderful scenery, friendly locals etc—but we don’t has the good vibe that Cornwall enjoys–much of it from the media.

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