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For Britain See Wales: The old home town

02 Jul 2024 4 minute read
For Britain See Wales

Joe England

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least
recognised need of the human soul. Simone Weil (1949)

In 1967 a Welsh Office document announced: ‘For both economic and social reasons the Government reject any policy which would assume the disintegration of the substantial valley communities.’ (Wales the Way Ahead).

Despite the boldness and vagueness of this declaration, neither the UK Government nor, after devolution in 1998, the government based at Cardiff Bay has stemmed the loss of jobs and people from valley towns.

Newport and Cardiff have each grown in recent years, mainly by immigration from within Wales, while the coalfield population has declined.

As major factories closed, it was assumed that the Valleys would become dormitories with people daily travelling to the jobs in Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and the M4 corridor.


Partly this has happened. But commuting by car cost money that many in the Valleys did not have while commuting by bus can take hours. And, often, workers from the Valleys did not have the skills required by modern industry.

Scattered throughout the Valleys on council trading estates or standing alone, small and medium-sized businesses provide work. But the number of jobs required to employ all those available to work seems beyond reach.

A major reason is that for 700,000 people – equivalent to the combined populations of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, and with 640,000 of these in the valleys feeding down to Newport and Cardiff – the Valleys are home.

Sizeable towns, often with significant historical connections, are scattered throughout the area – Ammanford, Maesteg, Tonypandy, Porth, Pontypridd, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Ebbw Vale.

The all-embracing link between collieries and the community may have gone, industrial jobs are no longer handed on from father to son, different generations of the same family often live far apart, but love of place, neighbourliness and fellow feeling remain defining characteristics.

Newcomers notice it straightaway: ‘People greet you in the street, even if you have never met. If you have met, however briefly, then you are in for a real chin-wag.’

‘We have lovely neighbours and most people, unlike in London, are very friendly and happy to chat.’ –
Blaenau Gwent Voices

Community spirit

This is true but when homes across Britain are flooded, as increasingly they are, community spirit and neighbourly help appears in all the affected areas.

The Covid-19 pandemic also provoked profound displays of human solidarity across Britain. These instinctive reactions to neighbours in distress, the belated recognition of those whose daily task it is to help others, were the opposite of everything represented by globalisation.

In good times as well as bad the Valleys retain, as many ex-mining communities do, a sense of community and caring for each other. For them ‘society’ does exist.

There was a period in the 1980s when the closure of mines and factories through external forces – the Thatcher government, the development of global supply chains – brought a sense of impotence. People hoped and waited for help from central government. It was a time when, as the nationalist poet Harri Webb pungently wrote in his ‘Anglomaniac Anthem’:

… we’re looking up England’s arsehole
Waiting for the manna to fall.

On the ground, local authorities, charitable organisations and volunteers combined to transform the physical landscape and develop new projects. The Valleys are greener and more pleasant to live in now than for the past 150 years.

Joe England was educated at Cyfarthfa Grammar School, Merthyr Tydfil and at the University of Nottingham where he studied Economic and Social History. He has enjoyed a distinguished career in Higher Education. He has published several books including a critically acclaimed biography of place, Merthyr: The Crucible of Modern Wales.

His new book For Britain See Wales A Possible Future is out now.

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