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The Afan Valley, what the statistics don’t say.

October 1st 2010

The Bevan foundation has recently completed work examining 40 years of regeneration efforts in the upper Afan valley. We are launching the full report today at Croserw working men’s club today, and it will be available on our website shortly.

The Upper Afan Valley is one of those places that regularly appears on various deprivation indicies, and thus regularly gets associated with negativity and failure. In fact Sky TV will probably be along to do a documentry on it at some point in the future. On the surface it is easy to see why, with over a third of working age people claiming job seekers allowance, incapacity benefits, or other income-related benefits, and economic inactivity approaching the 50% mark in some of the villages. The statistics certainly paint a bleak picture. Indeed, a quick drive through the area reveals a remote area that in places makes you think you’ve driven through a time machine.

As policy and research officer, I made a small contribution to this project by conducting some interviews with people in the area. Not knowing much of the area, I initially discussed the project with family members who live in Port Talbot. Their response was much the same as many people in the wider Neath Port Talbot area, an expression of how bleak the area is plus a series of admittedly amusing jokes concerning the alleged behaviour of its residents.

But after spending some time in the area, it is clear that such statistics do not tell the whole story, and it’s reputation is unfair. Take the example of the community efforts in Glyncorrwg. Back in 1990, when faced with a declining community, local GP Julian Tudor Hart promoted the idea of turning the Corrwg river into a series of ponds for fishing and boating. Money was successfully raised and the idea turned into fruition. Fast forward 20 years, and through the hard work of local volunteers and a little help with funding from the Welsh Assembly Government, the EU and Forestry commission, and the village now boasts one of the best Mountain Biking locations in the world – attracting enthusiasts from as far afield as Japan and New Zealand. So much for laziness and a lack of work ethic.

Another hidden quality was the sheer community spirit. Numerous people we spoke to told us that the area had a fantastic community spirit where people knew each other and were friendly and helpful. The kind of place many people may envisage as being what is meant by the big society. Numerous community groups and co-operatives have been set up to help preserve these important communities.

But at the same time as local effort creates a future where there was previously none, there is evidence of sheer market failure. Despite the tourists, there are distinct lack of things in the area. Even in the wider Afan Valley, there are few B+Bs, no Hotels, Restaurants, internet cafes,  and other facilities you would expect from a tourist destination. The development of these facilities  has occurred slowly if at all and it must be extremely frustrating for those living in the area that the private sector has failed to respond to obvious opportunities, and with credit difficult to come by local entrepreneurs must feel extremely frustrated at the inability of the banks to see what an opportunity exists.

So the story of the Afan Valley is one of both success and failure. The success of its endoring community spirit that has seen the development of several community co-operatives, but the failure of the wider welsh economy to invest in the area and support the people there. Instead of prejudice, and the unwritten view silently spoken in the corridors of power that the way to deal with the Valleys is to move the people to Cardiff or Swansea, it might be an idea to simply give people a chance rather than condem them on the basis of statistics that fail to tell the whole story.

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