Chris Blake explores how community stewardship of the land could transform the south Wales Valleys communities
The post-industrial communities of the south Wales Valleys continue to pose a challenge that 40 years of policy has failed to meet.
The town of Tredegar, to take just one example, saw its population rise from 1,000 to 30,000 in the first 80 years of the 19th century. But both mining and the associated industries had ceased by the end of the 20th century. Today the town has a population of around 15,000 and a legacy of welfare dependency, high unemployment, low educational attainment, poor health and shorter life expectancy. But the Valleys today reveal a striking paradox – a landscape that has been largely repaired but a society still struggling to respond to the loss of jobs and identity.
The same challenge is faced throughout the developed world as communities are faced with the closure of industries that created and defined them. Globalisation has left societies stranded as capital ebbs away – seeking higher returns in new geographies.
In south Wales over three decades public and private investment have done little to improve the long-term economic prospects of the Welsh Valleys. Public investment in transport, schools, hospitals, and an, ultimately unsuccessful, industrial diversification strategy supporting private investment has left a society that still is amongst the poorest in the UK.
Physical geography has intensified the post-industrial problems in the Valleys. Steep-sided valleys have created communities that are both geographically and psychologically isolated – communities unable to take up economic opportunities along the M4 corridor. The high moorland that surrounds each valley does not support any economic activity that engages the local economy.
But the Valleys communities are also isolated by land ownership – by the red lines of land registry maps as much as by contour lines. Uniquely for post-industrial communities, each Valley town is surrounded by publicly owned land – the forests of Welsh Government Forest Estate, and land managed by the Coal or local authorities. None of these landholdings provide any significant economic benefit to the their communities. Where the land is of economic value – from forestry and wind power- it is managed by national and international corporations with no direct economic benefit to the local community (aside from the community energy fund that might bestow a few % of wind farm revenues). Does land ownership offer a key to a new future for the Valleys?
A decade ago I chanced to visit the remote Scottish Highland community of Knoydart. The timing was accidental but my visit coincided with the 10th anniversary of the community acquiring the 6,000 hectares of the Knoydart estate. What I found was a community that owned and managed its own forestry business, its own hydro-electric plant, the bunkhouse and the shop. A community that over the course of a decade had created jobs, attracted investment and grown in confidence. Years later, working on a community hydro-electric in the Rhondda, I found myself recalling my encounter with the Knoydart Land Trust…
What would happen if Valleys communities were given stewardship of the land that surrounds the town? Could we go beyond giving the community access to a patch of woodland, or a lease to build a small wind turbine? Could we offer stewardship of publicly owned land that surrounds the town – to the skyline? Handing people the means to shape their own environment. Hundreds of hectares for hundreds of years.
Standing high on Pen Pych I look down on the Upper Rhondda and start to imagine the valley in 30 years. The microhydro scheme and the wind turbine sell electricity to the local community cheaply but also power the greenhouses built on the old colliery site providing winter vegetables. The forest school building, constructed from timber processed at the community timber yard, is part of the curriculum for all of the existing schools and colleges and in the evening is the venue for skills training – forestry, horticulture, animal welfare. Children use the woodland as an outdoor play area, young people for somewhere to hang out and adults can be seen making use of the different paths and trails on foot, on bike and by horse. On the western hillside the conifers were felled a decade ago – partly for cash and partly for some of the new building. In its place the new broadleaf woodland now flushes pale green every spring – in another decade it will be coppiced for biomass production. The wilder land to the north is still as it was at transfer – the community meeting to discuss its future and shape a new Lottery application is next week. The flatter land nearest the town has been leased in 1-2 hectare blocks for smallholdings and includes some permaculture sites that have attracted some new families to the valley.
This vision doesn’t provide a thousand full-time, paid jobs with secure pensions. But it can, gradually, provide an economic link between community and landscape. Incomes can be supplemented, economic activity enhanced. Families are more active and reduce the demand on the NHS. Forest fires are a thing of the past. A psychological bond between community, economy and landscape is forged.
With financial support from the Friends Provident Foundation we are working with three Valleys communities on a feasibility study – Project Skyline – to explore whether and how community stewardship of the land around these towns could work. Does community stewardship support community-led activities that are financially sustainable, the can enhance and not damage the natural environment? What is the evidence from Scotland about the governance and sustainability of community asset management at a landscape scale? We are working with the communities of Treherbert, Ynysowen and Caerau to imagine a different future.
But perhaps this vision is not as radical as it first seems. The communal ownership of land has been the norm over history. Pre-dating industrialisation was an agricultural past of common grazing and forests. Recapturing that connection between land and community is at the heart of the Skyline project. Stewardship and control matter, and long-term community management of some land assets can be a catalyst for economic and social transformation.
Photo by Mike Erskine, Skyline
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.