Councillors have approved plans for a large earthworks project in Powys and Neath Port Talbot on land which could become a railway testing site.
During a council meeting held on Tuesday July 28, Neath Port Talbot councillors voted unanimously in favour of building two landforms overlapping a coal mine in the Dulais Valley which could later be used for a multi-million pound train testing site.
The development covers 416 hectares of land at and surrounding Nant Helen opencast mine (Powys) and Onllwyn Distribution Centre (Neath Port Talbot).
Seven Sisters representative Steve Hunt said the plans are “an exciting opportunity” and he hopes the development will bring jobs to the local people.
The opencast mine, run by Celtic Energy, is due to close with coal extraction operations ending in 2021.
The Nant Helen mine employs 110 people, with 50 working at the nearby coal washery in Onllwyn.
Two looped sections of land, drainage infrastructure and natural habitats will be constructed within the next five years to create “flexible and adaptable” land for various uses.
The land could be used for farming, nature conservation, tourism and leisure but this will be determined at a later date.
Celtic Energy and the Welsh Government are keen for the site to be used for the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) project, a £100m train testing site announced by the Welsh Government in 2018.
The GCRE could bring over 100 permanent jobs to the area, including “highly qualified positions” in research, development and engineering, according to the planning application.
Damian Barry, associate director of Arup, the developer of the site, said the plans for the earthworks could “unlock an exciting next chapter for the site, for the local economy and the local community”.
Sandfield’s West representative Suzanne Paddison said: “I think we have played our part admirably here and let’s hope in the future all our dreams are realised”.
The planning permission granted on Tuesday by Neath Port Talbot Council was also approved during a separate meeting on Monday July 27 by Powys County Council as the site overlaps both counties.
Developers can now begin earthworks on the site, but what exactly the site will be used for is to be determined through separate planning decisions in the future.
The development site lies mainly within Powys with a small section in Neath Port Talbot.
Powys residents raised concerns regarding the size, height and stability of the proposed embankment along the northern boundary, with speculation off a possible outcome similar to the Aberfan mining disaster in 1966.
The development is “not comparable” to the Aberfan disaster, according to the planning application.
It read: “The detailed geotechnical design of the scheme would ensure slope stability of the ground, cuttings and embankments are adequate for the selected development option.
“The design would consider ground hazards associated with historical mine workings and subsidence due to potential change in groundwater conditions.”
Cllr Hunt said he had “no issues“ with the proposal, he asked for further details on how it will work out before he voted in favour of it.
He said the development could have a “massive visual impact to the communities of the Dulais Valley”.
Brecon Beacons National Park lies north of the development and there are historic assets in and nearby the site, notably a tramroad at Ystradgynlais dating back to the 1830s.
The earthworks will result in parts of the tram road being interrupted, with the east and western sections of it divided.
Cadw, Wales’ historic environment service, said the development will have a “major” impact on the tramroad, which is a scheduled monument, but advised the local authority to consider this “against the economic and other benefits” it may bring.
Brecon Beacons National Park and Natural Resources Wales raised concerns due to the potential visual impact caused by the development.
The planning report said the visual impacts of the development “will soften over time through strategic landscaping” but “it has to be accepted” that it will lead to “large-scale and permanent landscape and visual change”.
Materials for the earthworks will originate from the site and the land cut out of the area will be used to create the two embankments and to restore the open coal mine.