Hope in the Valleys

Peter Hain, new broom at the Welsh Office, tells Tony Heath how investment is to be redirected to help the old pit towns
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Soon after 1 May, a breeze of hope began wafting up the south Wales valleys, once the coal capital of the world, now brought low by pit closures. Things, it was whispered, could only get better. Greened over by the cosmeticians of the Welsh Development Agency, the landscape now invites tourist cliches from drivers heading north from the M4. Visitors may even turn off at one of the heritage parks and mining museums before debauching in the open spaces of mid-Wales.

Most former mining villages are now bypassed. Resolven, where Peter Hain, MP for Neath and Welsh Office minister charged with promoting the principality's economy, lives, is one such community. Speaking exclusively to The Independent this week, he explained how he intended to bring some of the prosperity enjoyed in the coastal regions 20 miles south to his adopted home area.

"The problems faced by the 600,000 people living in the valleys are those of an inner-city spread across an area 60 miles by 20," he declared. How did the problems of high unemployment, rising crime, a drug culture and social decay come to be visited on scores of communities once so cohesive that front doors were routinely left unlocked, and co-operation rather than competition ruled?

With Tory support in the valleys always low, it was not surprising that in the last 18 years public money was thrown at prestige projects like the Cardiff Bay development and at big overseas investors setting up along the M4 corridor. The valleys remained the poor relation. In 1988, the then Welsh Secretary Peter (now Lord) Walker launched "The Valleys initiative" to a deafening publicity fanfare. The scheme, subsequently repackaged by his successors, was long on public relations and short on action.

Dr Kevin Morgan, of the department of planning at the University of Wales, Cardiff, is dismissive. "It was simply a slick marketing exercise," he said. Mr Hain concedes that the valleys were greened and the environment upgraded, but adds: "Jobs were simply stripped away." Around the time he entered parliament in 1991, Blaenant, the last colliery in the constituency, closed with the loss of 600 jobs. It was a devastating blow which fuelled a determination to fight back. Mr Hain persuaded British Telecom to join a private/public partnership to set up a first attempt at a hi-tech industrial village. Still in its early stages, the project has brought hope to the community. Now in office, he has asked his officials to develop the "industrial village concept".

Mr Hain points out that valley communities are not like the rural retreats of the West Country or the Lake District. Neither are they a commuter belt sending staff to the hi-tech factories along the coastal strip. Public transport is poor. Privatised bus services are patchy. Many rail links were ripped up when collieries closed, marooning sizeable towns. The rugged terrain rules out large factories. The policy of putting sheds - the term for mini-factory estates - on reclaimed land has not been wholly successful.

Some of the pounds 7bn Welsh Office budget is likely to be switched to establishing industrial villages as bases for suppliers to the big M4 investments. The pounds 1.6bn project by the Korean electronics conglomerate LG taking shape at Newport offers a way forward. LG itself will employ 6,000, with another 15,000 jobs estimated to be created in the supply trades.

"I shall be telling companies such as LG that we want their suppliers to locate in the valleys," Mr Hain asserts. Making sure that the benefits promised by the big hitters radiate outwards will be a priority.

Mr Hain will today make what he hopes will be the first of a series of "good jobs news" announcements. He has a fine line to tread, balancing the claims of major overseas investors stuffed with yen or marks with those of smaller firms. There must be a move towards positive discrimination in favour of the valleys. "After all, these places were born as industrial villages when coal was discovered. A lot of blood and sweat was shed when they acted as the energy powerhouse of Britain. There is a debt owing - one which in all conscience must be repaid," he says.

From his home above Resolven, the minister has a sweeping view of a landscape changed beyond recognition since the pit-closure programme galloped ahead after the 1984-85 strike. A dual carriageway snakes up the valley. Hillsides are clothed in conifers. A canal has been massaged into a tourist attraction. A couple of years ago, the valley played host to the Royal National Eisteddfod. Another change on the horizon gnaws away. Lucas is closing its factory at Neath eight miles down the valley with the loss of around 600 jobs. Production is being shifted to Poland, where the wage bill will be slashed in half.

Undeterred, Mr Hain is adamant: "Wales is the place to be. I want to see that the valleys are marketed properly. People here are adaptable and flexible - and proud. They've been through troubled times." A new broom, he is intent on sweeping cleanly, and hopes to turn the zephyr of hope into a wind of economic change.