Council failure of openness and transparency on opencast mines

A map of how the site will look when restored
A map of how the site will look when restored


I have taken a more focussed interested and been involved in the discussions on the future of the open cast mines in Fife following the announcement that ATH Operators of Muir Dean Opencast near Crossgates and Scottish Coal operators of St Ninians near Kelty, Blairhouse near Oakley and Westfield near Ballingry had gone into receivership.

Earlier in the year I met with the new operators Hargreaves at the sits in Kelty and Crossgates and saw for myself the progress they were making with their restoration plans. At that time I urged both the company and wrote to Fife Council urging them to make sure there was full transparency around the levels of Bonds (insurance monies) being pulled down to support restoration and any additional funds being realised by further coaling. I also stressed the need for community engagement in terms of the restoration proposals being taken forward.

Over the last number of months I have been corresponding with Fife Council regarding the on going restoration of the former St Ninians Open cast mine near Kelty after it became apparent through the Press that Professor Charles Jencks is no longer involved in the Land Art Project.

I wrote to Fife Council asking for an explanation of the announcement in the Dunfermline Press regarding the land art and received a response from Mr Jim Birrell Head of Planning on the 15th October as follows;

“The DP asked me last week to comment on the Charles Jencks scheme for the Fife Earth Project as it is referred to on the Hargreaves website. I provided them with a short, summary update although the headlines they have made today about “scrapping” seem to be unnecessarily alarmist. I and others in the Council have been personally committed to this solution/outcome and invested much time in trying to resolve matters between the 2 principal parties (Developer/landowner and Designer/Consultant) and reach an agreed compromise.

“A you are aware St Ninians is being completed very quickly in terms of coal extraction and restoration following on from the demise of Scottish Coal, the original applicants. This process has been driven by the complexity of the situation ,the timing to negotiate and settle the bond and to ensure that we secured sufficient funds to restore the site to an acceptable level. Despite significant efforts to finalise the necessary arrangements with regard to the Land Art /Fife Earth project in terms of the finalised scheme of restoration, the Council and Hargreaves have been unable to persuade Charles Jenks to engage to the extent that his position and adjusted proposals could be understood , implemented safely and financed. It was certainly not an easy decision to have to agree to an interim/holding position but we remain of the view that the template of the Land Art Project will be retained and established and there may still be a future opportunity to embrace it fully. Current interests for the site include tourist and recreational facilities and all possible proposals to implement/complement the Land Art will be assessed.

“This being the case, and given the service contract agreement entered into with Hargreaves to complete the restoration on site within a specified timescale and restricted cost level, Hargreaves have lodged a revised scheme of restoration for the planning authority’s approval in an effort to maintain the proper regulation of the site and honour the contractual obligations of the service agreement.

“This revised scheme is largely along the lines of the previously authorised design and is acceptable to the planning authority. As such, it can be approved in terms of the delegated powers available to the service. There will be slightly more surface water area and more woodland planting. The site will be fully and satisfactorily restored in preparation for whatever future use is decided upon. There will be no dereliction or left over areas. In all the circumstances confronting us this is a major achievement.

“There has been no intention not to engage with the public on this matter and I apologise if the article in the press may have inadvertently given such an impression. The opposite is true. It is the Council’s intention to canvass public opinion once the restoration works are complete and all interested parties aspirations for the site are confirmed and the viable options for the future of the site explored and considered. To do otherwise might be premature and be viewed as misleading. It is more worthwhile if we engage meaningfully with the public once the restoration is complete and the interested parties have a sense of what is possible on the site and importantly, we know what the owner’s aspirations for the site are. (Hargreaves are not the site owners but do wish to purchase and have first refusal rights).The intention is to engage with the public once all of the relevant information is to hand and thereby gain a more meaningful local community interaction on this issue.

“To this end, two joint project teams have been established to work with Hargreaves who are now in the process of taking ownership of the site, in regard to the future use of St Ninians & Westfield. All options are being explored including working with the Land Trust who have also been involved in discussions with us and Hargreaves”.

The new information in this response is that a revised planning scheme has been approved under delegated powers and that there will be ‘slightly more’ surface water. I responded to Mr Birrell the text of which follows:

“I am writing to let you know that I will be writing to every member of the Cowdenbeath Area Committee and the Planning Committee for this area to raise my concerns about the way your service has and is dealing with this matter and the complete lack of openness and transparency and the absolute failure to consult with the local communities.

“You may have been in planning terms able to make decisions about this site under delegated powers but I would suggest given the size and nature of this site you have a public duty to at a very minimum go to the planning committee and indeed the local area committee.

“There is also a real concern about the failure of council to be transparent. I ask again, how much money was pulled down by Fife Council in bonds for this site? How much money was made from the final coaling of the site by Hargreaves? How much money is going into the restoration of the site?

“Has there been a health and safety impact assessment been carried out for this site? Why has the option of putting the site back simply as land as per the original agreement not been considered? There is a growing feeling in the communities around this site that it would be far better and safer to put the land back to its original condition. Given it is now not going to be the national land art project why is this not being considered and have you actually asked anyone their views on this?

“You say the council will consult when the restoration is complete, that is too late and what kind of restoration is going to be done and just what kind of massive scar on the landscape will the people who live in the area have to put up with for ever more?

“These questions need answered?

“I will be at the next meeting of the task force and will be raising questions around this. I am also making direct representations to government around carbon price support to see if additional monies generated in this way can be used to bring about a proper restoration of sites.

“In the case of St Ninians I think any additional monies raised would be used to put the site back to its original state but I will come back to you on that once you have answered the questions I have put above. Given the urgency of these matters I would ask that you give me these answers as soon as possible given all this information should be at hand?”

Mr Birrell responded as below;

“I am sorry that you feel so disappointed in relation to the on-going work at St Ninians. In my view this has been a success story of significant magnitude and should be celebrated not criticised. The immediate public interest test here was to ensure we did not have a totally abandoned site, with no bond funds and no prospect of restoration. Council officers negotiated long and hard with the financial advisers and secured bond settlement at a 95% value level- unprecedented as set against other bids I am aware of.

“For the record we secured £2,500,000m from the Restoration Bond with Euler Hermes and £80k from the Maintenance Bond with Zurich. We allocated £2,330,000 of the bond settlement for payment to Hargreaves in the service agreement leaving the rest for our own insurance fund in case of any challenges with this site or Muir Dean.

“The figures for the bond have been in the public domain since they were confirmed and both Executive and Scrutiny Committees have been supplied with detailed reports on this. I have also contributed to press releases with this information set out. The contract with Hargreaves was to use the money in a joint contract to restore the site to an acceptable level. All this work has been independently verified by our compliance assessors and no monies paid until the completed work was certified.

“Consultation on the next stages for the site are underway. Hargreaves has consulted the local communities recently and their summary is outlined below,

“HSML attended the Kelty Community Council and provided an update of activity on site, while providing clarity on some of the issues raised in the local media.

“As part of this conversation, the subject of the future of the site was discussed. The members of the Community Council felt that the site had considerable possibilities, with a focus on tourism/outdoor pursuits being discussed but the over-riding comment was for proposals that would create and support local job creation. They also felt that local artists and schools could get involved to add art or other appropriate installations.

“Copies of the approved Restoration Plan were left with the Community Council with the request that they discuss what they would like to see as the future use of the site, with any thoughts or suggestions to be fed back to HSML. They were also advised to feed any comments they might have into the Fife Development Plan consultation exercise.

“A similar meeting was held with Kingseat Community Council, in which a site update was provided. On the subject of the future of the site, it would be fair to categorise their thoughts as conservative in nature. While they understood the importance of the site being restored and providing future benefit to the local community, the thoughts of a vocal minority of those present was for a more low key after use with a focus on nature conservation proposals. Once again plans for the site were left with the Community Council and a request that any feedback and suggestions be sent to HSML. They were also advised to feed any comments they might have into the Fife Development Plan consultation exercise.”

“Fife Council has consulted widely on the FIFEplan LDP which closes next week. This is a further opportunity for comments to be made for future proposals.

“In addition recent interest in the site has been expressed by third parties and these interests are being considered by Hargreaves , who are now the legal owners of the site. The site will be restored to what was agreed , with only the missing parts of the Land Art project. This could still come to fruition but there has been no joint agreement between the principal parties to form a basis for moving forward. Notwithstanding this the matter has not been rejected outright. There will be no massive scar on the landscape and the site will be restored to a combination of, woodland, agriculture, recreational open space in the short term.

“A copy of the agreed restoration plan is attached for your further reassurance. I will not be at the next Taskforce Meeting but Mary Stewart will be attending in my place. I will brief Mary on these matters beforehand. I should also point out that Hargreaves require to abide by the Quarries Regulations in terms of all health and safety matters on site.

“This week I have spoken at length with Peter Gillat and Iain Cockburn from Hargreaves and I am aware of their desire to complete the restoration and to then consider with Fife Council the possible medium to longer term options for the site. Hargreaves are now the legal owners of the site which will assist in determining the way forward. A joint officer group has met and will meet again in the New Year to further investigate development options. No changes to the current proposals will be submitted without further public consultation and engagement as previously agreed”.

I am disappointed in this response as I am of the view that what we have in place for St Ninians is low level restoration with a massive water body plumped in the middle of the site. How this is to be managed and what use will be made of it is anyone’s guess and it certainly is not what the original plan was for the site nor is it what was envisaged as part of the restored site under the Land Art Jencks Project. We already have Loch Fitty that sits direct below this site and there are some major environmental issues there that must be addressed.

It may well be that this is the best we can expect but lets not celebrate and be thankful it is not worse as seems to being suggested by Fife councils Head of Planning and are we sure this is the best we could have got? Who knows given that there has been no openness, no transparency and no consultation with anyone.

I have now written to Fife Councils Leader and Chief Executive seeking a meeting to discuss all these issues and I am writing to the members of the Cowdenbeath Area Committee and the area Planning Committee raising these issues with them.


Post Author: Alex Rowley