A group of Liverpool fans made the pilgrimage from Merseyside to East Ayrshire last September for the dedication of the renewed Bill Shankly memorial at Glenbuck, birthplace of the former Liverpool manager. This was part of the opening of the Glenbuck Heritage Village, restored by the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust. The trust restores former opencast mining sites and has been working with East Ayrshire Council on restoration plans for derelict former opencast sites.
To understand the history of this, you have to go back to the collapse of opencast mining company, Scottish Coal, in 2013. East Ayrshire was left with a £130m shortfall to restore the former opencast areas. Poor monitoring of the contracts had allowed for only around £30m being put aside in bonds to pay for clean-up costs. Subsequently, there were sackings and disciplinary action at the council and the 'Scottish Opencast Coal Task Force' was set up. This body came up with lots of useful ideas for the future management of restoration but, in spite of the best efforts of local politicians and others, when it came to serious money to address the restoration shortfalls, both the Westminster and Scottish Governments stepped back.
One proposal was to grant exemption from Carbon Price Support duty, set on coal used for electricity production. This would have made it economical for the continuing operator 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 2015 General Election. Ultimately, restoration is a devolved matter to Holyrood. The Scottish Government played out its familiar role of wringing its hands and blaming Westminster for something it had the power to deal with. It was desperate to assert its lead role on this just so long as it didn't have to recognise the situation as a national emergency and fund the solution. In the years that followed, East Ayrshire Council and the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust have worked away on solutions within the resources available.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Cornwall's Eden Project goes from strength to strength. Since it opened to the public on 17 March 2001, it has attracted approaching 20 million visitors and generated close to £2bn for the West Country in extra tourist spending. Its costs were £141m.
Eden Project 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. Its two huge biomes – Mediterranean and Rainforest – have become renowned features of modern-day Britain. The outdoor gardens have over 3,000 plants. The 35-acre site is filled with sculptures, vegetable gardens and restaurants: all with environmental conservation, education and sustainability as their core message. All this has been achieved on a 160-year-old former china clay pit. The New York Times
took a good look and called it the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'.
We are crying out for some imagination, leadership (and money) from Government at both the UK and Scottish level to do something equally transformational in East Ayrshire. It was easy to dismiss an Eden Project type solution before when Eden founder, Tim Smit, had an understandable reluctance to see his idea franchised to other areas. But that has changed with the formation of Eden Project International.
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 council. They could harness the experience and expertise of other successful local initiatives like Prince Charles' Dumfries House, Knockroon Community developments at Cumnock, and the Duke of Buccleuch's Crawick Multiverse attraction on opencast land in Dumfries and Galloway.
Eden Project International, the global wing of the Eden Project, is currently exploring with Eastbourne Borough Council initial ideas to 'connect people with the natural world in exciting and engaging ways'. And the Eden Project Foyle is a cultural and environmental tourist attraction developed by the Foyle River Gardens charity. Eden Project International and Foyle River Gardens estimate that their project will cost £67m and will open in summer 2023. It is expected to create more than 170 jobs onsite and support a further 2,057 jobs locally from off-site visitor spend.
Those behind the plans estimate that it will inject £62m into the regional economy every year. There will be a centrepiece called 'The Acorn' nestled within the trees and inspired by the forest, with a timber and thatch construction. Visitors will be able to walk on the roof of the building and take zip wires down to surrounding walkways.
The Scottish weather has even been used as an excuse to dismiss replicating such a project here. Cornwall may have the sunshine but their road network is rubbish and neither Eastbourne nor Foyle is exactly a sunshine paradise. If the Eden Project can be described as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', I would love to see the day when the New York Times
sub editor is given the job of coming up with a suitable accolade for a major success story on the former opencast sites of East Ayrshire.