Former councillor Ioan Richard (left) and another villager in Craig Cefn Parc. Photo: Marta Silvia Viganò

“There’s no coal, there’s no mess, it is good that way”

How a Welsh village is moving past coal and decarbonising social houses
How a Welsh village is moving past coal and decarbonising social houses

“I got little Bluetooth monitors everywhere all around the house, monitoring everything. I am kind of an experiment,” chuckles Mark Taylforth

Taylforth is an engineer living in the fourth bungalow at Fford Ellen, Craig Cefn Parc, not far from Swansea, the second-largest city in Wales. “It is not invading our personal life. [The monitors] give information back to the Council, so they can improve all the housing,” he explains. 

He moved in after the renovations promoted by the Council to cut carbon emissions and energy bills. Taylforth couldn’t be more thrilled about this solution. “It’s gonna kill the planet if we don’t act,” he comments.

Traditional houses in Swansea
Traditional architecture in Craig Cefn Parc. Photo: Marta Silvia Viganò

A changing city

Peacefully overlooking the Bristol Channel and nestled in the lush Welsh countryside, lies Swansea. The city is famous for poet Dylan Thomas and its long love story with coal, tracing back to the 18th century. 

In Swansea, the Tareni Colliery Coal Company mined anthracite coal mines like Peacock Seam, Red Vein and Big Vein. Thousands of pit horses hauling tons of coal and countless miners working in deep dusty pits. The villages mushroomed in the area owe their existence to the Swansea Canal used to transport the coal down to the harbour.  

Then in the 1980s, the Thatcher government closed down all the mines in the regions. Since then, Swansea has been taking many steps on the green side.

In order to tackle fuel poverty and the climate crisis at once, the city is now installing emissions-cutting systems in social houses in the surrounding rural areas. Among them is Craig Cefn Parc, a village of just over 1000 people located ten miles away from Swansea’s centre. 

Solar rooftops on Swansea Houses
Solar panels on the rooftops of social houses. Photo: Marta Silvia Viganò

Former councillor Ioan Richards shared some of the village stories under one of the first snows the Valley has registered in almost 15 years.

With its long-standing mining past, Wales has seen heated clashes between the government and miners. While the former aimed to end the power of unions, the later struck for better pay and working conditions. Not even 50 years ago “coal over dole” was everyone’s motto and people were supporting mining as a humble, yet honest way of making a living.

However, times have changed, and the Welsh Parliament was the first in the world to declare a climate emergency at a national level on April 29 2019, committing to cut greenhouse gases by 95% by 2050.

The residential sector contributes 10.9% of the global greenhouse gases emissions. Hence, building carbon-neutral houses is crucial to tackle the climate crisis and make cities sustainable

Renovating social houses in Swansea

Renovating social houses would help “reduce their current 20% contribution to UK carbon emissions,” according to James Williams, Managing Director at Sero, a renewable tech supplier.

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of a warm, secure and affordable home, and the effects of reducing greenhouse gases, like never before.,” stated Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government. From the very bungalows in Craig Cefn Parc, where the pilot has been carried out, in August 2020 James announced a £9.5 million (around $13 million) Wales-wide housing improvement scheme. 

The Council partnered with Cardiff University’s Welsh School of Architecture (WSA) to install solar panels, battery storage and ground source heating in six 50-year-old bungalows.

Originally built for retired miners and their widows, the units were heated with oil and electric heaters. Now the bungalows have new roofs, triple-glazed windows, insulated walls and solar panels. The renovations of each bungalow cost £55,000 (around $75200). The work was funded by the Swansea Council and the Welsh European Funding Office. The WSA is currently monitoring the performance of the upgrades, but according to the Senior Research Fellow Jo Patterson, figures on carbon emissions are not yet public. 

Retrofitted bungalows in Craig Cefn Parc. Video: Marta Silvia Viganò

John Malls, an ex-miner once working “deep down underground,” moved in in June 2020. For him, the main limitation is the energy bill. Used to £90 ($123) a quarter in his previous flat, his bill will be around £89 ($121) just for January. “They need to look into this technology further, especially for the costs when the weather is like this [it was snowing].” 

Not experiencing the same issue, Taylforth believes the system to be very handy. “It’s a control system that looks after itself. That means if you don’t know much about saving energy, it’s already done for you and you don’t have to think about it.”

No one living in the bungalows during the actual retrofitting process was available for an interview.

According to Richards, the project is not sufficient as it just involves six bungalows out of the about 800 houses in the village. Labelling the project as a “strategy by the Labour-led local government to appear green,” he believes that there is still much to be done to truly affect the local community.

Keith Halfacree, Human Geography Professor at Swansea University, believes that “Swansea is doing many good things for the environment, but they are not well marketed.” He also adds that labelling initiatives as sustainable may appeal to some, but that “people want to see how they benefit from it in terms of the everyday.”

The community has indeed opposed renewable endeavours in the past, such as windmill farms. The community argued that installing wind turbines would have damaged the region’s cultural and symbolic heritage.

While some resistance is still present nowadays, the interviewees support the emissions-cutting technologies. Ex-miner John Malls agrees, too: “There’s no coal, there’s no mess, it is good that way.”