In Wales the Heads of the Valleys communities face a range of problems:
- a declining population (9% decline over the 21 years to 2002)
- high levels of economic inactivity (in 2004 30.7% of people of working age were economically inactive, whilst the unemployment rate was 7%)
- low educational attainment and skills levels (in 2004 24% of people of working age had no qualifications)
- low quality of jobs and opportunities
- a high incidence of long term health problems (in 2004 36% of people of working age had a long term health problem)
- an unfavourable image – the Valleys are typically associated with crime, underage pregnancy and drug abuse
- deprivation, a lack of quality housing and poorly equipped town centres
- limited transport and telecommunications links in some areas
- poor maintenance and management of key natural resources and historic assets
In the recent election Blaenau Gwent – the county which contains the Heads of Valleys communities – had a massive swing from an independent candidate to Labour, but more interesting was the 1,211 votes for the BNP and a further 488 voters choosing UKIP. You might argue that the above social and economic problems highlight perfectly the dissatisfaction with being part of Europe and the media narrative that local communities are being left to rot whilst the state pursues an agenda of diversity and multiculturalism.
However, Blaenau Gwent is hardly touched by immigration, with 92% of residents born in Wales (the highest of any local authority in Wales) and less than 1% of people living in the area having been born outside of the UK and Ireland. The ethnic population is also just as insignificant, standing at less than 1% of the population, lower than the overall figure for Wales which is a piffling 2%.
As research has shown, the BNP gets significantly less support in areas with a high immigrant population, and more votes in areas with low immigration. The media narrative that dehumanises immigrants is less likely to be effective in areas where readers actually have human contact with immigrants (i.e. they clearly see that immigrants are human beings). Whilst the same media narratives are effective in areas like Blaenau Gwent because the local population has little or no access to immigrants as human beings, they are merely a bogeyman that they read about.
The research suggested the primary drivers for BNP support were socio-economical and lack of access to immigrants, which would support perfectly Blaenau Gwent being a likely place for BNP to attract support.
However, in terms of what is being done to try and help the Heads of the Valleys communities, this economic driver seems born out of ignorance. In 2006 the Welsh Assembly Government published ‘Turning Heads‘ a document which outlined the plans to revitalise the area. This report estimated that the area was already receiving £1billion from central and local government and a further special funding budget of £140million had been made available over the 15 year lifetime of the project. The project aimed to get at least a further £360million of investment from the private sector over the life of the programme.
The project has already re-opened a railway line from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff via a range of other towns which is both frequent and cheap – ideal for commuters working in Cardiff and wanting cheap housing. It has also created excellent road links to Cardiff and improved links both East and West. The five Valleys local authorities will have invested £0.6billion in the social housing stock by 2012.
Ebbw Vale is receiving a new ‘Learning Campus’ incorporating local sixth forms, the Ebbw Vale campus of COleg Gwent and HE courses will be run by Glamorgan and Newport universities. This new campus is situated next to a new hospital and other new developments on the site of an old steel works. Town centres are being renovated and pieces of art are being distributed, with the vision being that these towns make perfect weekend breaks, situated as they are at the edge of Brecon national park.
The vision is ambitious, the aims are noble and the money being spent is immense – particularly considering the current financial climate. Yet even when the area is a beneficiary of the European Social Fund you still get over 1,600 votes for parties who want to leave the EU. Even when this 99% white, 92% born in Wales population has billions of pounds spent on it you still get 1,600 votes for explicitly racist parties who campaign on the platform that the ‘white man’ is neglected.
Obviously I point the finger at the tabloid media for the majority of these votes. Not just because they create narratives in which the immigrant is always to blame, but also because they never give any coverage to regeneration projects like this. High ideals are never covered, whilst ‘broken Britain’ narratives are invented and flogged until we all despair at the world that we live in.
This is a valiant attempt to restore pride, prosperity and health to one of the most deprived areas in Wales. Yet I’m not sure even the residents understand just how much is being done to help them. I’m not going to pretend that the project will solve all of the problems the area has, but I certainly cannot think of anything else the Welsh Assembly Government could do to help this area.