Broken Britain: Blaenau Gwent – the most deprived constituency in Wales
Blaenau Gwent is at or near the top of almost every league you don’t want to win. This small constituency, in the north-eastern corner of the South Wales valleys, is known as the birthplace of NHS founder Nye Bevan and home of the mighty Ebbw Vale steelworks. Today it is also known for its high levels of poverty and deprivation, low levels of educational qualifications and low wages. Many people would see Blaenau Gwent as an archetypal “left behind” community.
At the Bevan Foundation, Wales’ most influential think tank based just a few miles from Blaenau Gwent, we don’t use the term “left behind”. To us, the fortunes of Blaenau Gwent and many other places like it are not the result of places failing to keep up with economic change but are the outcome of deliberate decisions.
The people of Blaenau Gwent did not close the steelworks that once employed 14,000 people nor did they decide to close factory after factory over the last 20 years. Nor did they choose that inflation would hit more than 11 per cent, raising heating and food bills by thousands of pounds a year.
Blaenau Gwent, like many other de-industrialised communities, has much to offer
What holds back the people of Blaenau Gwent from the standards of living enjoyed by better-off places is above all else the nature of work available. Contrary to the stereotype, people in Blaenau Gwent graft just as hard as elsewhere. The proportion of people in employment is just 1.4 percentage points behind average, but their reward for working is much poorer.
Median earnings of full-time workers are £64 a week less than those of the typical British worker, reflecting the dominance of elementary occupations. To this figure should be added significant job insecurity, lack of occupational sick pay and relatively high travel to work costs. And although housing costs are relatively low in Blaenau Gwent, food, heating and transport cost the same as elsewhere. No wonder people in Blaenau Gwent feel squeezed.
The term “left behind” also implies that there is nothing good about places so-labelled. Yet Blaenau Gwent, like many other de-industrialised communities, has much to offer. It has a rich heritage and absolutely stunning countryside. It was the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the NHS, has a UNESCO world heritage site, and boasts several historic landscapes, to name but a few of its attractions. Yet too often these assets are undervalued and overlooked, even though they are fundamental to the future.
It is a moot point whether the focus on “levelling up” will close the gap between Blaenau Gwent and the rest of Wales and the United Kingdom. Solutions imposed from outside are rarely successful – the now-empty retail park that was the legacy of the Ebbw Vale Garden Festival says it all. Instead, the Bevan Foundation has advocated a more bottom-up approach, based on local assets of all kinds. It is vital that the area’s regeneration retains profits and wealth within the area rather than them leaking away. The days of move in, make money, move out must be over.
There are signs of change. Blaenau Gwent has already seen significant infrastructure investment in road and rail links, although more needs to be done to ensure they do more than enable people to leave fast. The Welsh government is investing in new industrial units and in programmes to grow micro and small businesses including tech businesses. The further education college has an exciting programme of vocational learning, and there is a small tourism industry emerging.
Yes there’s a long way to go but, 22 years on from the closure of the steelworks, it may well be that the aftershocks are fading. Regeneration is a long game that takes leadership, hard work and hard cash.
Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation
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