Breadline Britain: Only sweat-shops for labouring classes

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IN THE Valleys around Ebbw Vale, few physical signs remain from the time when coal and steel were king, beyond the occasional mining museum or the echoing pit baths for which there is no longer any use.

Those coal-mining villages and towns still string out along the Valleys, but the old, well-paid labouring jobs are long gone and sweat-shops have sneaked in to fill the gap.

Once home to the country's most affluent labouring classes, the district around Ebbw Vale, bears new distinctions. With local unemployment rates up to four times the national average, those lucky enough to be in work now earn the lowest full-time wages in the UK.

High on a hillside above Nantyglo village, a few miles from Ebbw Vale, the 400-house Coedcae Estate stands cloaked in mist and drizzle. At its centre is a building so battered and graffiti-ridden it seems impossible at first that it is even occupied, never mind operating as the only local shop. Endless break-ins mean the owner cannot even get insurance.

"There is so much focus on poverty in the inner cities," says Aslam Raza, 45, beyond the fortified metal door where he sells the very basics. "Places like Coedcae are neglected and forgotten, but it's very bad here." A pile of crumbled credit slips lie forlornly under a clip. Hope is long gone that they will ever be settled. "It's unemployment," he says. A supplier arrives with a bill. An embarrassed Mr Raza can only part-pay. After 18 months, he says he cannot keep the shop going for much longer.

Sixty houses are lying empty on the estate. Liza Edwards, 29, of the newly formed Tenants' Association, says Coedcae's reputation has plummeted so fast in five years that no-one, except perhaps the worst tenants, wants to move there any more.

The local council has put in place a refurbishment programme, employing youngsters on one of New Labour's "New Deal" schemes, but many houses are boarded up. Here the right to buy never got off the ground. The houses have structural faults and building societies would not give mortgages.

"The council could not give away the keys just now," says Mrs Edwards. "But when I was growing up there was a waiting list to live here." This week Coedcae is smarting. It has failed to win funding from Tony Blair's new Social Exclusion programme, designed to embrace those on the fringes of society. Coedcae's residents say it would be hard to find a community more socially marooned.

"There isn't even a phone," says pensioner Joan Morgan, who "struggles like everyone else here" on a pension of pounds 72 a week. Until Mr Raza's brave attempt to take on the shop, the estate did not even have daily papers. Those without a car have to walk more than a mile to the nearest alternative store.

"The buses now stop at 6pm," says Mrs Morgan, the deep worry lines folding on her thin face. "Mind you, that was due to vandalism."

She, like nearly everyone else, blames drugs. Residents complain their kids are picking up syringes and needles all over the estate. Mrs Edwards says everyone knows the houses where the deals are done.

Pensioners insist there are jobs for those who really want them. But Mr Raza scoffs. Youngsters, he says, are being paid pounds 1.50 an hour at some jobs. "The kids are just used as slave labour."

Don Wilcox, the local council's deputy leader, agrees that the Valleys, further from the seats of power and conveniently out of sight, are losing out to inner-cities. Working- class pride, he says, increases their invisibility.

At a local day centre for the mentally ill, a manager flicks throgh a client index, peppered with the names of former steelworkers and miners who never worked again after being made redundant.

For tuhem, unemployment was the start of unrelenting poverty. On top came loss of self-respect and gradually life was robbed of all its meaning.

She asks an ex-steelworker to be interviewed. "It's bad enough that I have to come here," he says. "Forget it."

But Bill (not his real name), will talk. He is a gentle giant of a man, but was always considered a bit "slow". Now 61, Bill worked down the pit for 32 years. Then the mine closed and his mother, who looked after him, died. His world disintegrated. He was brought to the day centre by an employee who could bear no longer to see him standing all day outside the local Co-op in the rain.

Elsewhere, he might have stood in the rain until he caught pneumonia. His adoption by the centre is testament to an enduring sense of community.

But Don Wilcox says that traditional local spirit can no longer be relied upon. In the Valleys, he explains, there is increasing crime and less social cohesion: "I put that down to hopelessness."