The thought comes after looking through the reactions on blogs, in letters to newspapers and in ordinary conversation about the proposal in the recent IWA publication Futures for the Valleys for an elected mayor.
Not everyone was opposed, of course. The Western Mail welcomed the proposal saying radical problems require radical solutions, and that a charismatic leader with plenty of clout could act as a uniting force, knitting fractured communities together, setting goals for the future and bringing a sense of innovation, pride and self worth back to former industrial areas badly in need of a sense of direction.
Senior political figures were more guarded giving an “on the one hand, on the other” response. Dafydd Wigley, former Plaid Cymru AM and MP, saw gains from having someone who could take quick action, but possible losses in terms of fairness if, for example, planning decisions were being pushed through. Huw Lewis, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney AM, saw the proposal as useful in giving everyone a kick up the backside. Tyrone O’Sullivan, who led the Tower Colliery buy-out, said that while he was unsure whether a mayor was needed he still thought a single voice for the Valleys – perhaps a Valleys Commissioner along the lines of the Children’s Commissioner – was a good idea.
Among those who claim to represent the grassroots, however, the reaction could barely have been bettered as a parody of defeatism, negativity and introspection, the unifying feature in most cases being an obvious failure to have read the proposal in full and to understand its context and what was being suggested.
The criticisms had a number of common features, starting with what might be termed Not About My Backyard-ism or Nambyism – not to be confused with Nimbysim. At the heart of these reactions lies the strongly-held view that anyone not born within the sound of a colliery hooter is thereby disqualified from commenting in any way on any aspect of the Valleys, particularly if that view emanates from the cradle of the ‘chattering classes’, aka Cardiff.
Thus, Bethan Jenkins, South West Wales Plaid Cymru AM opined, “The fact that the report was launched in Cardiff says it all, really,” before drifting off into an attack on the Westminster Government for closing tax offices. Another blogger, Valleys Mam, sets out her standpoint in her first sentence by commenting that one of the authors “does not live in the Valleys by the way”. One anonymous blog contributor comments: “Another self-serving idea from the Cardiff media clique. The very name The Valleys is a recent invention, a patronising term mostly used by alien or plain stupid hacks.” Really? Or, from ‘ex-Hoover worker’, “Bloody nonsense from a guy who knows nothing about living up here.”
For several writers it is the ‘village politics’ of the Valleys that make the proposal impossible to implement. Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent were at each other’s throats which prevented their being merged into one local authority in the 1990s, according to one writer; Bethan Jenkins tops her previous contributions by saying, “There have been arguments over many a year now within valleys communities themselves about who are the real valleys communities. (Yes it’s true). Do we really want to open up that debate again?! (I think of the old Aberdare, Rhondda hatred for one which stems from the Miners strikes.” [sic]
Predictably, too, there was a reaction against “too many layers of government”, though the proposal itself does not imply significant new levels of bureaucracy. The clincher for many people is the supposed new salary any new Mayor would be expected to receive, which it is assumed would equate with Boris Johnson’s £139,000 in London. Others suggest the role envisaged for the Mayor ought to be being carried out already in Cardiff Bay. Huw Lewis argues that with Assembly Members, MPs and local authorities working effectively, there are already structures in place to deliver results on the ground, “something which has been happening over the past ten years”.
Bloggers are of course bloggers, licensed by the freedom of the internet to pour scorn on others, often from behind a blanket of anonymity and to gain wide currency in return for their views. It would be a shame, however, if the anger which undoubtedly exists were to silence proper discussion of the IWA proposal or to make people from other parts of Wales or from outside Wales feel inhibited from even suggesting ideas for the future of the area.
The starting-point for the proposal was the findings by Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University that the South Wales Valleys were making the slowest recovery of any of the coalfield regions to the pit closures of the 1980s and that the Heads of the Valleys in his words “have the most intractable development problems of any older industrial area in the whole of Britain”.
Though he did not claim to know what it was he suggested the area needed “something special”. As we all know many possible solutions have been tried to halt the job losses and consequent decline in population that has characterised the Valleys over the last half century and more. Nothing, however, has so far brought the results desired. Communications have been improved, inward investment has been encouraged, and town centres have been refurbished. New funding has been made available to boost the area under the Heads of the Valleys programme run by Patrick Lewis, but it is worth noting that housing is a centrepiece of the new strategy and we all know what is happening to the housing economy.
What the bloggers failed to comprehend was that the IWA’s suggestion far from being an attempt to foist yet another “Cardiff media” idea on the area is actually meant to empower people across Valleys communities, and that this is the something special that is being proposed. If an election were held, the individuals standing would have to put forward his or her ideas which it would then be up to the electorate in the Valleys to decide upon. This is very different from appointing a Commissioner or a Valleys Minister who would not have this mandate. Ultimately, if the problems of the Valleys are to be solved the people of the Valleys will have to be engaged and this is one way of achieving this.
Nor is it just another “layer of bureaucracy”. The Mayor’s office would take most of its power from the Assembly, which should rightly focus anyway on all-Wales issues. The Mayor would work alongside local authorities, thus avoiding the necessity of another (expensive) round of local government reform. He or she would be able to make the tough decisions that need to be made on the allocation of resources and that currently cannot be taken because of local authority rivalries.
Nicely-Nicely is told to stop rocking the boat in the song because otherwise “the Devil may take you under”. The real worry for the Valleys is that the boat has been stuck on a sandbank for a long time. Only some judicious rocking is going to set it free again and a Mayor or whatever else emerges from a proper debate could just introduce that important motion.