Hand made in Ebbw Vale…

“Made in Ebbw Vale” could be part of the future for the town, suggests Mark Barry

Just a quick thought on a possible future for Ebbw Vale…

It is disappointing that the Circuit of Wales now seems to have fallen by the wayside . Maybe this is the death knell for the superstar project to transform the economy (apart from the South Wales Metro of course!). Maybe we need to think big -and small. Technology is changing the world and many of the jobs we take for granted or aspire to, won’t exist in the future. AI and automation will make and deliver goods to more people, more efficiently and at lower cost to the consumer. But if the consumers have no work there is no money to buy these “goods”! We need to value different transactions in future to keep the “wheel” turning.

Much has been spoken of the foundational economy to help regenerate local communities and help create this value – but perhaps not enough real hard edge proposals that are economically sustainable. There is also much talk of a future where most people won’t work and be dependent on a Universal Basic Income (probably drawn from much higher corporation tax on organisations with far fewer employees as a result of AI & automation) – I think that maybe half right.

However, in reality, people do like doing things and most of us want our efforts to be valued. Very few people would be prepared to sit around and do nothing (well maybe some)

So here’s a thought. I suspect that in future, as automation and AI depersonalise most of our transactions, we will over time come to value far more those interactions and those products and services with a human touch – that have a human hand and intellect visible on the inside and the outside. So perhaps the artisan, the handmade, “front of house”, the local, that based on art, allotment agriculture, communities, heritage and environment will become more “valuable”.  In fact, we may be prepared to pay more for a watch just because it is made by hand just up the road or take a trip to a town that is full of local artists and producers. The growth of Shinola in Detroit and the transformation of Hebden Bridge since the 1970s perhaps provide some pointers?

We have also seen how craft beers have taken off even though they are more expensive – large impersonal chains are closing pubs at the same time smaller craft breweries are opening them. The same is happening in respect of bread – some parts of the country are now flooded with more expensive locally produced sourdough bread! People clearly value the local (even if at first it tastes a bit funny!)

So may be the intervention Ebbw Vale needs ( and perhaps more of the valleys) is to build the skills and infrastructure that can deliver this kind of future. Training in crafts, bread making, growing, weaving, watch making – in fact anything people might buy just because of how and where they were produced (not because of how efficiently they were made).

So why can’t we create a new brand , “Hand made in Ebbw Vale” and build a new “industry” that is local, viable and has global appeal. When one considers the unique physical and urban geography, and industrial heritage of the Valleys I think this is worthy of serious debate.  It also plays into my ongoing Metro narrative which is all about connecting more peoples to more places to help local and community regeneration as much as broader and more traditional economic development.

Like I said just an idea!


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Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013. He is also working with the MTR Corporation

5 thoughts on “Hand made in Ebbw Vale…

  1. Some interesting thoughts Mark. I agree. However, there is one question in my mind. It concerns what I call “agency”, which could be taken to mean “doing”. What are the people of Ebbw Vale and other Valleys towns DOING to improve their lot? I ask because I don’t know.
    By the way, a theme in my head at the moment is “massive small”, a phrase borrowed from the book entitled The Radical Incrementalist. Lots of small, but connected, projects pan Wales could have a massive impact. Just a thought.

  2. There is the nub of a creative idea in this article that offers an alternative approach to the regeneration of the Ebbw Vale area. So many top-down/single attraction projects seem ill-fated from the start, and may not benefit the community as a whole over the longer term. Perhaps an organized bottom up/community based approach is needed. I am reminded of the movie “Coming up Roses,” (Rhosyn a Rhith, 1987) which is a gem of a story about community based self help.

  3. In reply to Robert’s question about what are people in Ebbw Vale already doing, one quick bit of research might be to look at levels of usage of sites such as Etsy in the Valleys more generally. From teaching a course on Consumer Culture to students, several of whom travel into Cardiff from the Valleys, I’m aware this kind of craft site is significant. Susan Luckman’s (http://people.unisa.edu.au/susan.luckman) work on the craft economy is also well worth reading not least because this is a global phenomenon.

  4. Thanks all – there is clearly a lot more going on than meets the eye (judging by this and other feedback). How do we encourage, develop….and position as a valid and complementary economic development intervention?
    This also plays into the broader placemaking agenda across the region which has to engage community/arts/culture at a very local level.

  5. What a great idea Mark.

    And the timing couldn’t be more apposite, given that the Welsh Government has recently admitted that the Communities First initiative has “not had a significant impact”; this is a scheme that has apparently squandered a total of £432M of public funds since 2001 — with the Valleys (or at least the bricks and mortar and the professionals paid to run the programme) absorbing the lion’s share.

    There is little doubt that had the Rassau Racetrack been realized and become a successful commercial enterprise, a significant number of jobs would have been created that would have had a meaningful impact on the local economy. But the racetrack concept was not borne out of a connectivity to the culture of the Valleys, but purely predicated on an available tranche of (cheap) land which happened to have good road links. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t work.

    We have seen a number of large-scale industrial operations — from without — come and go in the Valleys over the years with all the attendant euphoria and deflation paralleling each new initiative. And so reliance on this type of strategic blueprint is clearly not the panacea for a place which has been defined, and severely disabled, by the demise of heavy industries that owed their development — and the culture of the communities that evolved to service those industries — exclusively to the presence of a fossil fuel in the ground.

    It is why the more incremental, skill-based, approach to building a new “industry” that Mark Barry proffers should not be looked on as speculative idealism. There are so many examples of places reinventing their raison d’etre or “brand” via the niche market, with Hebden Bridge a particularly salient example. Closer to home, the adoption — appropriation even — of the old slate mines near Blaenau Ffestiniog and the sublime topography of outlying areas in Snowdonia National Park to create successful ‘adventure park’ activities, suggests that using indigenous resources and the peculiarities of specific places to reinvent meaningful identities and, in the process, augment economies has purposeful traction.

    It is also the case that in an increasingly homogenized world, where products are predominantly machine-made and devoid of local context or meaning, we do have an innate desire to reconnect with materiality, the tactile and organic, not least because manual dexterity still remains a natural, primordial, urge.

    And so “those products and services with a human touch – that have a human hand and intellect visible on the inside and the outside” is a great starting point to imagine new cottage industries in the Valleys, which could meaningfully compliment other more conventional ideas about sustaining industry and economic prosperity — which may or may not materialize.

    Money is not the single most pressing need for the Valleys, given that circa £5 billion of structural European funds failed to stem the resounding EU Leave vote across the region. No, what is missing in the Valleys is an investment of intellectual capital and imaginative thinking from the powers that be.

    I am sure it is not outside the realms of possibility to judiciously build “the skills and infrastructure” to sustain “the artisan, the handmade, ‘front of house’, the local, that based on art, allotment agriculture, communities, heritage and environment” in the Valleys at a fraction of the cost that it takes to complete feasibility study after feasibility study… and failed initiatives like the Rassau Racetrack.

    Given the plethora of failed and expensive initiatives in the past, the logic is clearly there. It just needs the opinion-formers and politicians to bring a greater nonconformist sense of purpose to the table and start to work with the left field creative minds, who are so often marginalized, and seen as superfluous, to the serious and grown up business of economic development.

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