Wales has a long history in coal-mining but has largely transitioned to other sectors, although limited opencast coal-mining and coal-fired power production continues. One of the four themes of the Welsh Government’s Smart Specialisation Strategy for 2014-20, “Innovation Wales”, is “Low carbon, energy and environment”.
2. History of coal mining in Wales
Wales was a key location for the emergence of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, driven by coal-mining as well as iron/steel production. Many of the major innovations in the early coal and iron/steel sectors developed in Wales. South Wales was the largest coalfield in the UK until the early twentieth century but saw declines in the 1920s-30s due to a shift to the use of oil power by shipping and the growth of coal industries in other countries, as well as to under-investment and broader macroeconomic difficulties. The coal industry was taken into State ownership from 1947 with the aim of safeguarding jobs and mines and improving safety. Although coal remained a major source of energy production in the UK, a number of collieries were closed in the 1950s-70s. A year-long strike in 1984-85, aimed at saving collieries, was followed by the privatisation and closure of remaining pits. The last deep mine in Wales, Tower Colliery, closed in 2008, although limited opencast mining continues. The last coal-fuelled power station at Aberthaw near Cardiff will close in March 2020.
3. Socio-economic regeneration of coal-mining areas in Wales
Wales has had significant experience since the 1970s with the reclamation of coal-mining/industrial land, and with the socio-economic regeneration of coal-mining and other industrial communities. Significant public funding, including from the EU Structural Funds, has been invested in transport infrastructure, business support, and human and knowledge capital. Nevertheless, the socio-economic regeneration of ex-coal mining areas is variable, with some new sectors developing in more accessible areas of South Wales. Some areas have developed tourism/heritage sectors, notably Blaenavon, which has World Heritage status (due to the early development of an ironworks in 1789) and is home to Big Pit, a deep-coal mine from 1880-1980 which is now a visitor attraction.
4. Smart Specialisation in Wales
Wales was one of the first European regions to engage with what is now known as the Smart Specialisation Strategy approach, dating back to the Regional Technology Plan and the South Wales Technopole in the early/mid-1990s. The Welsh Government’s Smart Specialisation Strategy for 2014-20, “Innovation Wales”, includes a focus on “Low carbon, energy and environment”. The Welsh government has set the goals of: (i) using energy more efficiently, (ii) reducing reliance on energy generated from fossil fuels, and (iii) actively managing the transition to a low carbon economy.
In 2017, further powers were devolved to the Welsh Government, including in the field of energy (e.g. planning consent for larger energy generating stations) but important strategic competences e.g. in energy production, transmission and distribution remain in the hands of the UK government.
Apart from “Innovation Wales”, the Welsh Government is promoting R&I activities through a number of initiatives, such as:
- Tech Valleys (for the attraction of innovative technologies)
- Smart Living
- Approval of ERDF projects, including many in energy R&I
- Prosperity for All: A Low carbon Wales 2019 – One hundred policies and proposals to directly reduce emissions and support the growth of the low carbon economy
- Environment (Wales) Act 2016
- Rail testing facility plan (creation of a Global Centre of Rail Excellence in Wales)