Guest piece by James Woods. (Photograph: Broken Cross, South Lanarkshire)
I recently, well kind of recently, went along to the Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance (SOCA) conference in Glasgow on the 23rd of April. I had been involved a small bit in anti-opencast activism and have family from New Cumnock, so I had a little insight on the issue beforehand. But it was mostly new information to me and I was interested to see the interaction between members of the community and the speaker from Hargreaves Services. Quite often the claim is that communities are on-board with the mining and restoration plan, so it can be fascinating to see how companies deal with well researched and organised opposition.
Iain Cockburn, the finance director at Hargreaves Services, evidently drew the short straw in the office and was sent along on the sunniest Saturday of the year so far. Either that, or in a gloriously clichéd attempt to garner sympathy he was picked because of a speech impediment. But perhaps I just have a cynical view of the industry.
He spoke about attempting to keep Hargreaves stable in a failing industry, that they were building up coal stock as no British power station was buying coal currently. He claimed there would be no new opencast sites in Scotland unless there is a “significant and sustained improvement in the market”. This was challenged by Malcolm Spaven, the chair of SOCA, who pointed out that Hargreaves were still pursuing numerous site approvals. He was told that Hargreaves wouldn’t withdraw those proposals as the market might improve, making mining on those sites a viable option again.
He admitted that Hargreaves plans to use funds from the sale of coal to restore the mined land was no longer possible with the current market prices. He was also fairly certain that no extra money will be made available by the Treasury, meaning multiple sites across Scotland face not being restored. He said they were willing to listen to any creative, low-budget ideas as to how they can get around this problem. Which really came across as “ARGGGHHHH, WE HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT TO DO!!!”
Cockburn was questioned on claims of community engagement by a couple of members of the audience and called upon Prof Russel Griggs (Scottish Mines Restoration Trust) to support him. Up stepped the Prof to mumbles in the audience of ‘here we go, the SNP’s de-reg guy’, and he produced the most patronising of responses. The nature of boardroom decisions, you see, mean that whilst there is a member of the community present at the meetings, that person is not allowed to discuss anything that went on with their actual community. So they are hamstrung by the indelible rules of business, they really wish it could be different. But it can’t be. Honest.
Audience members spoke of numerous letters and emails not being responded to, these were given the brush off. Letters get lost; emails forgotten about, due to the companies being busy. Apologies and false promises of future response. Standard dismissal stuff. This so enraged one community member, who had brought printed copies of his emails as proof, that he got up and left.
Professor Griggs spoke about “creating better regulation” rather than “excessive regulation”, but didn’t really go into what that would entail. He said the issue of state funding won’t be resolved until Holyrood and HMT can discuss the issues after the May elections. Considering that he and others spoke about the importance of the E.U in various aspects of the situation, those talks will presumably now be delayed until after the June referendum.
Then he proceeded to go through a list of sites, discussing where they were at with the restorations from their point of view. It seemed on the whole he was pleased with how the restoration was progressing with most of the sites, and where there were problems, they were out of his control. He spent a lot of time talking about turning two sites, Mainshill and Spireslack, into ‘Geology Parks’. This came across as a practice sales pitch for a dull, wet, midgie infested day out.
The most startling bit of his talk was the claim they were going to move the SPA borderline at the Powharnal site. (SPA- Special Protected Area, highest EU protection level). His initial statement said they had already gained permission to undertake this border change. This was loudly challenged by community members and a representative of the RSPB. At which point Prof Griggs claimed to have misspoke and said no permission had been granted.
There’s a weird dance or theatre to these public meetings between communities, corporations and the state. Everybody has read the script, they know how it’s all going to play out. A mixture of corporate jargon and platitudes slathered in whitewash from one side, with the occasional truth seeping through. Passion, frustration, anger and hope from people living next to the problem sites, whilst trying and occasionally failing to remain calm.
Lunch came and went, and with it Iain Cockburn went. So too Professor Griggs and the other government representatives. Off into the Saturday sun, leaving the communities behind to clean up their mess. Again.
Afterwards, the remaining community activists; from organisers SOCA, Mining & Environment Group Ayrshire, to concerned and angry individuals, gathered to talk about future plans. Not just for the restoration campaigns, but for how to improve their communities and move them away from a reliance on an unstable and destructive job source. Suddenly the discussion becomes about so much more than mine restoration. The conference had become a hub of ideas for community restoration.