This essay originally appeared in Metro & Me, a collection of essays exploring the potential of the South Wales Metro as a catalyst for change.
“After a study of the valley systems, our conclusions are that provision should be made… for four Regional Parks. (They) should have a good pathway system, with adequately planned bus stations and car parks, shelters and restaurants.” Alwyn Lloyd and Herbert Jackson, 1947.
In 1947 Alwyn Lloyd and Herbert Jackson proposed a series of Valleys Regional Parks as part of their South Wales Outline Plan. They understood completely the potential of the Valleys’ landscape to deliver much needed social benefits, despite their despoliation. They also understood that an effectively planned transport system, as well as associated provision for hospitality, would be needed to realise that potential.
Today, more than 70 years later, we could and should be at the point of making the aims of those visionary proposals a reality, as the development of the south Wales Metro coincides with the proposed creation of a new Valleys Landscape Park or Valleys Regional Park to maximise the socio-economic potential of the region’s natural and cultural heritage assets.
In the Lloyd and Jackson plan the four proposed regional parks were to be spread geographically across the valleys to serve the then industrial centres of population. As the map shows, these were the ‘Monmouthshire Valleys’ (essentially what became the Cwmcarn Forestry Drive area), the ‘East Glamorgan Valleys’ (concentrated on Llanwonno Forest), the ‘Mid Glamorgan Valleys’ (just to the south of Llangynwyd, abutting the Llynfi valley around Mynydd Baedan), and the ‘Neath and Swansea Valleys’, essentially a triangle of land situated between Clydach, Skewen and Pontardawe.
In their preface, Lloyd and Jackson urged that ‘the claims of natural beauty should be allowed a more prominent place in the planning of this region’. Undoubtedly, this referred mainly to the emerging proposals for the creation of a National Park in the Brecon Beacons, eventually established in 1957, and the claims of the Gower Peninsula, which was designated a year earlier in 1956 as the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Indeed, much of the map produced for the Outline Plan covered nearly all the Valleys in a rather dreary shade of pink, noted simply as ‘Upland Industrial Zone’, with a considered call for greater afforestation in some areas as a contribution to ‘enriching these bare valleys and hillsides’. The exceptions to this largely all- encompassing swathe of pallid pink were some relatively small existing patches of woodland dotted across the valleys and the areas where the four proposed Regional Parks would be created.
It was foreseen that the proposed Brecon Beacons National Park would serve the recreational purposes of the Valleys, being ‘within fairly easy reach of the populated districts’. Within the Valleys themselves, Lloyd and Jackson had vividly described the adverse environmental impact of over a hundred years of heavy industry with ‘coal-tips… spread about the floors of the valleys and on nearby hillsides… (and) once fair valleys, with woodlands, pure streams and pastoral scenery, widely despoiled’.
Nevertheless, there was a clear recognition that afforestation, amenity planting and treatment of the (visible) spoil tips could help create the suggested Regional Parks, whose prime object was to ‘meet the open-air recreational needs of the several groups of valleys in the Coalfield’. These would be complemented by specific zones of special landscape interest, such as Caerphilly Mountain, as well as, outside them, in the coastal belt.
Despite the fact that the Lloyd and Jackson plan was not officially accepted, significant elements did come to fruition, though not the Regional Parks. Alwyn Lloyd, one of Wales’ foremost architects and town planners, died in 1960 and did not witness the dramatic and remarkable environmental transformation of the Valleys over the last 50 years.
In that same year, 1960, another man of ‘energy and ideas’, Robin Huws Jones at University College of Swansea, proposed a study to address the dereliction of the Lower Tawe valley, which had been ravaged and contaminated by the copper industry and mining. The Lower Swansea Valley Project ran for the next six years, demonstrating how such land could be remediated. In the year of its completion, 1966, tragedy struck at Aberfan, in a disaster that eventually catalysed extensive remediation right across the valleys, led by the likes of the redoubtable D. Gwyn Griffiths at the WDA. Although aimed primarily at bringing land back into light industrial use and housing, some new recreational areas were created, such as Dare Valley Country Park that opened in 1973 – the first park to be created on reclaimed land in the UK.
This work led, in 1998, to a much deeper strategic recognition of the regeneration potential of the Valleys’ landscapes in the Greening the Valleys initiative, together with the City of the Valleys concept. These revived the idea of a Valleys Regional Park (VRP), aimed at harnessing and maximising the socio-economic potential of the natural environment, rather than simply environmental improvement. Between 2009 and 2013, amongst its breadth of activities, the Valleys Regional Park initiative carried out nearly 40 infrastructure projects across the valleys including, interestingly, the development of better transport provision and enhanced connections to Aberdare, at Dare Valley Country Park.
In 2017, seventy years after the visionary Lloyd and Jackson proposals, and further extensive community consultation partially based on the VRP Further Options Study, the Valleys Taskforce, led by Alun Davies AM, proposed as a key aim the establishment of a formally- designated Valleys Landscape Park or Valleys Regional Park. Work towards this is now ongoing with planned interlinked themes to maximise the opportunities around perception, sustainable tourism, enterprise, enhanced community stewardship, and health and wellbeing.
The aim is to focus some of these activities around potential Discovery Zones and Trails, connected across the valleys. For example, one can imagine that the proposed developments in Merthyr Tydfil around Cyfarthfa Castle could develop in such a way in future. Consequently, it is essential that the proposed Regional Park takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the Metro, while adding adding value to it.
Eleven years before the initial publication of Lloyd and Jackson, Hilary Marquand at University College, Cardiff had proposed what was, in effect, an electrified commuter rail network across the valleys in his report, ‘South Wales Needs a Plan’. But by now there is clearly a common desire to go beyond simple commuting in order to maximise the potential of Metro.
Successful cities and regions around the world, such as Stuttgart, Øresund (Copenhagen/Malmö) and Portland in the USA, are demonstrating that working innovatively in harness with their natural and cultural assets, and connecting them effectively with transportation, underpins their future sustainability. In the Valleys, linking Metro with the surrounding environmental and heritage assets through cycling and walking routes should encourage greater recreational use whilst crucially supporting economic development through responsible tourism as well as revitalising places where businesses want to locate and develop.
In Treherbert, for example, where community-led initiatives and activities are blossoming, one might envisage a new Metro station creatively connecting the centre with Cwm Saerbren and beyond, including the Rhondda Tunnel, for the benefit of locals and visitors alike. Treherbert is fortunate in that it is already a terminus on the Valleys Lines. However, greater challenges will need to be met with respect to those locations and communities not currently as well served, especially in other upper reaches of the valleys essential to the Valleys Regional Park vision, e.g. the World Heritage Site at Blaenafon. In addition, imaginative development of the Metro transportation corridors themselves could enhance the ecosystem services they provide, boosting resilience to climate change as well as increasing biodiversity and ecological connectivity.
Amongst the best global examples of creative coordination of sustainable transport and green infrastructure networks is the Stuttgart city region where Regional Landscape Parks (Landschaftsparks) crucially and imaginatively connect and integrate strategic transport and environmental planning goals with local community-led development, creating a shared and enhanced sense of place within the region’s towns and villages.
Looking to this example, linking Metro development with a community-embedded Valleys Regional Park, could achieve an even greater transformational impact in the Valleys. However, as this article illustrates, we seem sometimes not to have a gift for making things happen quickly and effectively in Wales. The challenges and opportunities are there, and we need the vision and wherewithal to meet them.
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