Saturday 17 March 2012

What shall we do about the Rhondda?

South Wales today is dominated by the services in and around Cardiff and Newport. But that wasn’t always the case. What are large de-industrialised areas now used to be economically vibrant communities up to the 1950s: the valleys. You can detect the signs of former glory everywhere you go. It is not just the industrial landscape that hints at past prosperity, it is above all the sheer number of non-conformist church halls everywhere you look. The valley communities prospered up to the 1950s but suffered enormously as the mining industries declined. 
There is much debate about who should get the blame for the decline of coal mining in the South Wales valleys but the fact is that a whole region depended on a single industry which is never a key to sustainability and long term growth. 
The decline of mining however also brought with it the decline of communities and the statistics bear this out. The Rhondda valley is a region which offers low pay, higher than average unemployment and negative migration patterns, according to the 2006 report of the Welsh Assembly Government. 
Is this decline irreversible? Are the Rhondda bound to be a region of low economic growth where young people struggle to find a future for themselves? 
While Rhondda certainly suffered from a lack of industrial policy in the UK over the last 30 years, perhaps its decline was inevitable given that its ascent was based exclusively on a single product? Yet, paradoxically, the Rhondda is not the only region in Europe (or elsewhere) which suffered the fate of social and economic decline where industrial monocultures collapsed. The Ruhr in Germany experienced a similar period of decay in the 1980s, yet is now a region of stable growth and prosperity. 
So what went wrong in the Rhondda? I recently went up the Rhondda Valley and took the train back to Cardiff. Two things really surprised me: first how steep the hills and mountains are that frame the valley. The potential for tourism is substantial but there is practically no tourism infrastructure. The second aspect that astonished me was how close and yet how far Rhondda is from Cardiff. Close in terms of distance (as the crow flies) which makes it entirely reasonable to commute to Cardiff and back for work (as many people do). 
Yet, it surprised me how far away Rhondda is from the bustling Capital City. This impression of distance is exacerbated by extremely poor public transport. As I was sitting in a delapidated train carriage of the local railways, I struggled to think of trains that are similarly run down and slow even as far away as Bulgaria or Romania which I last visited in the 1980s. True, the railways cut through steep hills and bridge deep gorges at times, which only adds to the picturesque nature of the ride. Yet, the speed of the transport link between the valley heads and Cardiff must be on a par with steam trains of the 19th century. 
So what does this all mean for the Rhondda? There is a broad consensus amongst political parties in the Assembly that the South Wales valleys urgently need development. Yet, equally the billions of pounds that have been poured into the valleys in European aid since 1999 have had little positive effect. In fact, the figures demonstrate that the region is today poorer than before the European payments started. The money was largely used as funding for local authorities to alleviate poverty and engage in so-called development projects; but there is little to show for it. 
In addition, even among the political elite there are few concrete policy proposals. Recently the newly elected leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood, when asked what she would do about the valley economies, pulled a blank. She stammered something about a new economy and people joining Plaid Cymru to revitalise communities. This sort of vacuous rhetoric doesn’t help. 
What may help however is to build effective and 21st century transport links between the valleys and Cardiff. The tracks are already there, and although transport policy is a prerogative of the Westminster government, the Welsh Assembly could, if it was serious about it, finance the electrification of the South Wales valleys railways. This would reduce transport costs and produce significant benefits to the people in the Rhondda. Let’s not wait for Westminster to act. The people in the Rhondda deserve it. 

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