9 May 2017

Can anyone save Ebbw Vale?


“When the pit dies, the village dies too; when the pit is ill, the village groans.”

Nye Bevan – founding father of the NHS and MP for Ebbw Vale from 1929 until his death in 1960 – was only half right. When the pit dies, the village limps on.

Ebbw Vale is a town in the Welsh Valleys built on pig iron and coal. They were the reason it was settled in the late 18th century, and the reason it thrived in the 20th. At one stage, the rolling mill at Ebbw Vale was the biggest in Europe, with the steelworks employing 14,000 people. But production was scaled back significantly in the Eighties, and ground to a halt in 2002. The works are dead, and Ebbw Vale has been groaning ever since.

Over the course of Britain’s election campaign, CapX will be reporting from the most important constituencies in the country – not those where the race is closest, but those that tell us most about the changing nature of Britain’s economy, and society.

Ebbw Vale, for example, is emblematic of the places that are being left behind. On almost every measure of prosperity and well-being, the town is at the wrong end of the scale. Wages in Blaenau Gwent, the constituency which Ebbw Vale dominates, are the fifth lowest in England, Wales or Scotland. It is in the top 6 per cent when it comes unemployment and more than one in 10 working-age residents are on incapacity benefits. Twenty-eight per cent have no qualifications.

Unsurprisingly, there is a roaring trade in anti-depressants. In 2013, 10,000 prescriptions for Prozac, Doxepin and the like were filled per month in a borough that is home to just 60,000 people – the highest ratio in the country.

Arriving by train, Ebbw Vale’s problems aren’t immediately apparent. What is obvious is how much public money has been spent trying to resuscitate the place. Ebbw Vale Town station sits on the land where the steelworks once were. It is part of a massive, publicly funded redevelopment of the site.

A new further education college has been built as part of a £33.5 million investment in the Blaenau Gwent Learning Zone. The sports centre next door is the kind of lustrous spaceship that would be more at home in the Olympic park than the Welsh Valleys.

Further along Lime Lane you reach Ysbyty Aneurin Bevan, the borough’s new general hospital, which claims to be the UK’s first publicly funded hospital with single en-suite rooms.

The money for redevelopment comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund. West Wales, the Valleys and Cornwall are the only UK regions poor enough to qualify for such funding. Yet despite this largesse – and the associated plaques around the town featuring EU flags – 62 per cent of Blaenau Gwent voted to leave the EU.

Zig-zag up the steep hillside to the town centre (the EU-funded funicular is broken) and you soon understand why voters might favour something other than the status quo. There are warning signs on Ebbw Vale’s high street, where a brutalist shopping precinct collides with rows of terraced houses. Pound shops and “Cash for Gold” signs dominate. Plenty of shop fronts are boarded up. There is a troubling bustle in the local Wetherspoon’s for a weekday afternoon.

If Ebbw Vale’s economy has been defined by steel, its politics have been defined by the Labour party.

The Welsh Valleys are the quintessential Labour heartland. In 1900, Keir Hardie was elected as MP for Merthyr Tydfil, just a few valleys over from Ebbw Vale. In the century since, the party’s dominance of this part of Wales has been all but absolute. The town has been represented by a Labour MP for more than a century, barring five years between 2005 and 2010 when Labour HQ’s attempt to impose an all-women shortlist led to the election of an independent “People’s Voice” candidate. In a field a few miles out of town stand the Bevan Stones – precursors to 2015’s infamous “Ed Stone” which commemorate a site used by the Labour hero for public meetings.

It is easy to see why, throughout the 20th century, politics seemed like little more than a pitch battle between capital and labour. And that in that fight, Labour’s efforts in Westminster were an extension of the work of shop stewards at the Ebbw Vale steelworks or in the nearby coal pits.

In the Ebbw Vale Ex-Servicemen’s Club, I met a group of retired steelworkers who still subscribe to Bevan’s infamous characterisation of Conservatives as “lower than vermin”. Gary, Peter and Terry spent their whole careers at the works – and their view of contemporary politics is clouded by the industrial decline that hollowed out their town.

Gary, who has a hearing aid in each ear because of a lifetime in the steelworks, told me Theresa May “is the same as Thatcher. She killed us.”

“Remember when John Major called the Right of the party the bastards?” asked Peter. “Well, the bastards are in control now.”

Terry voted Leave last year, but would switch his vote if he could. “The £350 million we were promised on the side of the bus has become £100 billion we have to pay them.”

“I’ve been given promises so many times in my life,” said Gary. “I spit when I hear one.”

The latest promise made to Ebbw Vale is the Circuit of Wales. On an unremarkable expanse of shrubland behind a rusty wire fence, private investors, including the insurance firm Aviva, hope to build a world-class motorsport race track.

With hotels, motorsport entertainment and music festivals, investors think they can attract 750,000 visitors a year to the 800-acre site, and to Ebbw Vale. A vast new technology park is also in the offing.

In total, those behind the project estimate that the scheme would bring 7,000 jobs to the area. Part of the appeal to investors is a new road, which the Welsh government hopes will transform the Valleys into an extension of the M4 corridor. This was also cited as a factor by TVR, who plan to build a new sports car in town, creating 150 jobs.

Yet for all the promise the Circuit of Wales holds, many doubt it will ever be built. Those behind the project want the Welsh government to underwrite their £350 million investment. What happens if they don’t remains unclear.

The residents’ attitude is best summed up by the sceptic who told me: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Everywhere you go in Ebbw Vale you find cynicism like that. In last week’s local election, Labour lost control of Blaenau Gwent council, with independents now in the majority. But it was bin collections, not Corbyn or Brexit, that drove voters away.

One of the independent candidates, a sweet shop owner, refused to talk to me about his campaign, saying only that he thought politics was a dirty word. Another implored voters to “show the rosey red party you won’t be taken for granted any more”.

The issues may have been local, but this was yet another anti-politics verdict delivered by a town with nothing to lose.

Of course, even with Jeremy Corbyn testing the lower limits of Labour’s electoral appeal, Ebbw Vale is a long way from the frontline of this general election. The Brexit vote has undoubtedly added another layer of allegiances, sympathies and sensitivities to Britain’s already complicated electoral map. But voters’ support for Brexit here does not mean they suddenly believe Theresa May is on their side.

The retired steelworkers I spoke to will go their entire lives without voting Conservative: their politics cannot be separated from the story of British heavy industry, and the party they blame for its demise. And younger generations, for whom secure and satisfying jobs are something their grandparents reminisce about, are waiting to be shown that 21st-century Britain is a place where they don’t just get by, but get on.

The real test of Mayism, with its promise to build a Britain that works for everyone and give people greater control of their lives, won’t come in polling stations on June 8 – or even with the Brexit negotiations. It come in places like Ebbw Vale in the years that follow.

In the Ex-Servicemen’s Club, Terry asked me “what I think of this bastard place”. I told him how beautiful the valley is: on the day I visited, shadows of scattered clouds raced across the moorland that tops the hills.

They all appeared to regret the fact that someone might think their home is picturesque. “Didn’t used to be like this,” said Gary. “The valleys were stinking in the sixties.” The dust and smoke from the works was so bad, he told me proudly, that people would bring their washing in if the wind was blowing the wrong direction.

He recounted stories of what they achieved in the plant. Of production targets not just met but doubled. Of the healthy profits their work produced. “What I’m trying to portray to you is the combined effort of the workforce, and the intelligence of the management. Each department having a degree of speciality and knowing exactly what they’re doing.”

Peter has lived in the neighbouring valley for decades. He described how you used to be able stand there on any night and see a red glow above the hills.

“That red glow meant dust and smoke,” he said. “But they were great days. We had full employment. And everyone enjoyed life.”

Oliver Wiseman is the Deputy Editor of CapX