Go-ahead for country park on former opencast mining site

Andrew Robinson

PLANS to transform a former opencast coal mining site into a nature reserve have been backed by councillors in Leeds.

Politicians are hopeful that St Aidan’s, a large area of former coal mining land between Methley and Swillington, will become a nationally important nature reserve and base for angling, cycling, walking, kite-flying, horseriding and wildlife watching.

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The area extends for 400 hectares, or 1.5 square miles, and already includes a nature area known as North West Lake, or Astley Lake.

The plan is to create an open-access site which is not fenced off, allowing 24-hour, 365-day access to the network of paths and bridleways.

A trust fund containing 2.2m, established by Leeds Council in 1994, will be used to manage and develop the project.

The land will be leased to, and largely managed by, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the conservation charity which already manages the popular Fairburn Ings nature reserve.

A report to the council’s executive board, which backed the proposals earlier this week, described the scheme as “more than a local initiative” adding that “it has the potential to be a major resource for West Yorkshire on a scale that would be nationally significant”.

The RPSB, with help from a steering group, has a step-by-step plan to develop St Aidan’s as a nature-themed country park.

It will eventually contain a visitor centre for the site and for the wider Lower Aire Valley, which will complement the small existing RSPB visitor centre at Fairburn Ings.

The typical visitor will be a local person who drops by several times a year, according to the report. The intention is to ensure St Aidan’s is an enjoyable day out whether or not the visitor is there for the wildlife.

Initially there will be a reception building and a toilet but within four years a larger visitor centre would be built to include a cafe and shop with cycle hire and other money-generating facilities.

The report says that the nature reserve project fits into an overall regeneration plan to create an “eco-settlement” housing scheme in the Aire Valley.

“There is a unique opportunity to complement this regeneration initiative with the development of the Lower Aire Valley providing recreation opportunities for the new community and a potential green corridor through to the city centre linking town and countryside.”

The Liberal Democrat city councillor for Rothwell, Stewart Golton believes that “with impressive visitor numbers predicted” there are exciting opportunities for new business ventures.

He has, however, insisted that while the project promises to be a new jewel in the city’s crown, Leeds Council must get access and car parking right for the sake of local residents.

He said: “This fantastic regeneration initiative has been years in the making but I believe it will be worth the wait. People from throughout Leeds will soon be able to enjoy a beautiful nature reserve, packed with wildlife.

“With tourism on the up throughout Yorkshire, it would be great if St Aidan’s could tap into that renewed enthusiasm for the region. This could be a really exciting opportunity for both new and existing businesses.

“I do think that adequate access is a concern at the minute, as is car parking, but I have no doubt that those issues can be resolved.

“I want this project to give the people of south Leeds yet another reason to be proud of their local area.”