Owen Smith: My constituents feel forgotten by Westminster
The Pontypridd MP tells Matt Honeycombe-Foster why Westminster ignores Britain’s “left-behind” towns at its peril – and how leaving the EU might make things worse
There’s a thread running right through the casework that Owen Smith takes on as the MP for Pontypridd. The former Labour frontbencher hears week-in, week-out from constituents who feel that the town has been forgotten by Westminster – a plight he says is shared by “small, left-behind towns right across the UK”.
“We had, in its Edwardian era, a very vibrant town and we had that right the way through to the early 1980s and the beginning of the full-scale deindustrialisation of the town, where we lost all of the pits that surrounded it, with the chain works not long after,” he tells The House.
The decline of Ponty’s industry has had a snowballing effect, he explains, with shops, solicitors and accountants – “all of the things that make up some of the social structure of towns like mine” – also going to the wall as local people were turfed out of the jobs that had provided for them for generations. “We were left with people feeling genuinely that Ponty had gone backwards and declined,” he says.
The resultant struggles facing residents who come through Smith’s door will be familiar to many MPs across the country. The town grapples with in-work poverty, a shortage of affordable housing, and the impact of the Government’s successive cuts to welfare spending.
“We’ve opened four foodbanks in Pontypridd since I became an MP,” he says. “And they are looking after more and more people every year. And just as it is true nationally, it’s true locally: the biggest increase in the volume of people having to use foodbanks are people who are in work and are on short hours and low wages, in insecure jobs. They end up in foodbanks because they are suddenly short that month or that week, because they don’t have the volume of work they’ve anticipated, or they haven’t earned what they had done previously.”
'We've opened four foodbanks in Pontypridd since I became an MP'
The Labour MP tells The House that residents are still feeling the impact of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, which slashes housing support for people in properties deemed to have more bedrooms than needed. The policy, he says, is a classic example of how ministers in Whitehall can fail to “think through how there will be differential effects of government policies”, and he says that in an area where much of the social housing stock is three-bedroom properties, it is causing a “massive problem”, particularly for elderly residents whose children have moved on.
“The other thing that it then drives is a massive push in the market for the building of one-bedroom single occupant flats,” Smith says. “So, we’ve had a big spike recently of local housing associations building one-bedroom flats: 76 of them within a 0.7-mile radius of one of the towns in the area. They’re what’s in demand because people can’t afford, thanks to the bedroom tax, to be in anything other than that one-bedroom flat.”
Such a warping of the market is, he argues, a clear “unintended consequence” of ministers “not thinking through how policies created at the stroke of a pen in Westminster will actually impact on local authorities and local people on the ground” in towns like his.
It’s precisely this high-handed approach to policymaking that Smith is determined to try and change – even if that means taking matters into his own hands. He’s highly supportive of work by fellow MPs Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper to focus minds on Britain’s towns, and he tells The House that much of his role as an MP means “almost acting as a trade envoy for Ponty”, reaching out to businesses in London and elsewhere to try and highlight the potential strengths of the local economy. The MP has also spent much of his time marshalling resources locally to try and turn around the town’s fortunes – and call time on the “losing strategy” of hoping that merely attracting big-name retailer to run-down areas will solve their problems.
Smith’s first port of call has been to draw up a ‘strategic plan’ for Ponty – working with the local council, traders, and commercial estate agents try and find out why successive employers have fled leaving the town and chosen “to not invest in Pontypridd as they had done in the past”.
Two “really clear answers” came back from that work, he says: a lack of cash in the pockets of local residents, and a lack of footfall on Ponty’s high streets. “The obvious thing to do therefore was to try and get more jobs to come into Pontypridd and to reverse what had been a trend, really, of many generations of jobs that previously been in the Valleys, in industry, essentially gravitating towards the service sector in Cardiff,” he says.
However, Smith was clear that leaving the town’s fate to the market alone would not do. Instead, his plan explicitly made the case for public sector investment in the area in a bid to provide steady, well-paid employment that can have the knock-on effect of boosting the town’s traders. The campaign received a major lift when the Welsh Government unveiled plans to ramp up investment in rail in South Wales – with the newly-formed Transport for Wales quango on the hunt for a headquarters. Ponty, Smith argued, was the perfect fit, with a dormant former HMRC office sitting “right in the heart of the town” and plenty of rail traffic of its own.
“There was a massive vacant hole in the ground, essentially, in the middle of our high street, that was owned by an insurance company,” he says. Working with local Welsh assembly members, Smith urged the council and the Welsh Government to buy up the site and use it to pull in public and private sector investment – with the Transport for Wales office firmly in their sights.
It was a joint effort that ended up paying off – and Smith is proud that Ponty now has “two massive cranes” hovering over its skyline “for the first time, frankly in living memory”. The site has already created 800 jobs at the Transport for Wales office – and the Labour backbencher has high hopes that a big multi-national company will soon make good on plans to relocate staff from the East of England to the new hub, adding to the number of people who will work, shop and “pump their money” back into his town. Smith argues that successes like this show that Britain’s towns don’t need to resign themselves to terminal decline of the sort that he believes helped spur the 2016 Brexit vote – but he acknowledges it will be an uphill struggle to change decades of cities-first thinking in Westminster.
Smith famously ran against Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership in 2016, and his Westminster office proudly displays a shirt bearing a ‘Corbyn’ logo resting on a Nike-style tick – a gift, he chuckles, from the BBC’s Andrew Neil after his doomed bid ran aground. He’s continued to challenge the leadership’s position on Brexit since then, and was last year sacked from Corbyn’s top team after calling for a second EU referendum.
The Pontypridd MP remains a staunch critic of plans to leave the bloc, and says he has conversations “every single week” at his surgery with Leave voters who now regret their choice. “If they admit that they voted Leave, they say that it’s much more complicated than they’d appreciated, and that they didn’t realise how many downsides there were,” he says. “They don’t know what it means for staffing in the NHS. They’re worried about what it means for the big employers locally like Ford and General Electric and others. And very often the tone of the conversation is people saying, ‘if I had another vote, I’d vote the other way’.”
Unlike some of his colleagues in fellow Labour towns, Smith is adamant that going for Brexit in any form will only increase disillusionment with politics in the longer-term. “You still won’t meet any of those MPs who will tell you anything other than that Brexit will make the people they represent poorer,” he says of his colleagues urging Labour to respect the 2016 vote.
And he argues that only by properly tackling Britain’s big regional wealth gap can politicians really convince people in places like Ponty that they care about their lives. “Otherwise we will have even greater inequalities than we currently have,” he warns. “We will have greater political instability and greater resentment, and a Greater London-versus-the-rest, them-and-us mentality in what is already a divided nation.”
He adds: “The biggest, most important thing ministers could do to solve and heal those divisions, aren’t actually about Brexit. They are about evening up the playing field and getting greater investment, growth and opportunity into parts of Britain that feel left behind right now.”