Comment: Investment will help the Welsh valleys peak once more

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The UK needs investment, industry and training, says our Vice-Chancellor, as he reflects on his home town in the Rhondda in this comment piece for the Financial Time’s Future of Britain project.

Investment will help the Welsh valleys peak once more

Education and training will revive left-behind areas such as the Rhondda

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President & Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, published in the Financial Times on 4 February 2017.

The Rhondda is once again a beautiful valley in Wales. Flora is growing over the slag heaps and scars of coal mining. But with the newly-green hills, the valley’s inhabitants need the renewal of an economy. When I visited last summer, I walked around Porth, the town I lived in until I was eight. You can buy a three-bedroom house there for as little as £65,000.

A chapel where I once sung hymns was boarded up, and the cinema that once gave so much delight decayed. It had been through the usual bingo hall phase before its final demise. I saw the place I drank my first cappuccino also closed. I found myself crying. The people of the valley, Pobol y Cwm, are my people. My family still lives there.

Is it unimaginable – in places which once rang with the clatter of coal trucks and the sounds of blast furnaces – that we may create new industries?

Sir Keith Burnett

I am no stranger to the social problems which have accompanied industrial decline. I visited the local jobcentre and talked to younger relatives. I was dismayed by their lack of a future. And if they “get on their bikes”, in the words of the former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit, they discover that opportunities elsewhere are closed to them by the lack of affordable accommodation. These good people have talent and energy and need jobs. You see why they voted to leave the EU in huge numbers; they felt their future had been stolen.

Porth was a town which once dug coal for the world. Between 1844 and 1852, there were four mines sunk in and around the village. By the 1860s, the railways brought thriving industry: gas works, jam factories and carbonated drinks, and hard – but plentiful – work.

But the fate of many of the UK’s industrial towns befell Porth. The owners felt that Rhondda’s antiquated mines could not be modernised. One by one they closed, local workers only briefly reprieved by a demand for steam coal during the second world war. What followed was globalisation, industrial fragmentation, lack of investment and decades without a national vision, only a blind faith in the virtue of markets.

The message of the Brexit vote was that the people of the Rhondda were not alone: Kent, Durham, north Nottinghamshire mining communities — all places left behind. So what should be done? Whether or not a renewed focus on industrial strategy means jobs that make the Rhondda a place people want to live again, the poor families must be not be ignored in the corridors of power.

The antidote to decline is work. And it needs the training which will fit its human resource – focusing on making Britain globally competitive. But education alone is not enough to deliver opportunity. The UK needs to not only distribute industry but stimulate it, making bold decisions about procuring infrastructure for example.

Is it unimaginable – in places which once rang with the clatter of coal trucks and the sounds of blast furnaces – that we may create new industries? There is no way back to the Rhondda of my childhood. But there might be something better for its people. Cardiff is a short train ride away and its university is driving innovation. Great infrastructure projects such as the Swansea Bay barrier need skilled workers. The youth of the Rhondda are as smart as ever, but they need schools and opportunities.

I hear in my mind a hymn for my valley. It is the sound of a chorus, filled with longing for what has been lost and the hope for the future. Talk of strategy is not enough. The Rhondda and its people need investment, orders, industry and training. It is the only way they, and we, will rise once more.