Rhys David measures the gap between vision and reality in the contemporary development of the first town of the industrial revolution
Is Merthyr Tydfil getting there? For those who only know the Welsh borough from its usual ranking at the foot of a range of prosperity and health league tables, the question might hardly seem worth asking. Yet, in the view of Alistair Neill, the determinedly optimistic Scots chief executive of the council, the figures that usually make the newspapers reflect a different past from which the area is now escaping.
According to Neill, a former senior executive with a number of multinational companies who is now in his seventh year at Merthyr, perceptions of the town are changing – whether they be those of its own residents, those returning after a long absence, or potential investors. Census Office statistics suggest that after declining for most of the past 100 years to a point where Wales’s once biggest town is now home to fewer than 60,000 people, the population has grown in each of the past two years, and is expected to continue to do so, albeit modestly.
The body blows that have hit the town over recent years have not stopped. The most recent was the cessation of manufacturing at the iconic Hoover plant, Merthyr’s biggest employer in the post-war period. It still has daunting socio-economic problems with some of the highest rates of sickness and lowest skills not just in Wales but in Britain as a whole.
Nevertheless, Neill argues, much of what was set out in Vision 2010, the plan adopted shortly after his arrival, has been achieved, starting with a transformation in the services provided by ‘Team Merthyr’, the 4,000 people who work for the borough. The Local Government Data Unit’s 2008 annual assessment found Merthyr to be the highest performing council in Wales. This was a marked turnaround from earlier Audit Office reviews that had identified it as a potentially failing council where intervention might be needed.
The changes have been brought about first of all by making sure councillors enjoyed a greater role in policy formulation – rather than implementation – and by ensuring staff were more aware of what was going on in departments other than their own and could contribute ideas more widely. Improvements have been sought through a bottom up rather than top down approach. “We wanted staff to know that their actions did make a difference and we were keen improvement teams were not just run by senior management. Someone on reception who sees 200 people coming in to the council each day is going to have a powerful set of views on how we react to visitors,” Neill says.
Working with the Welsh Government and a range of other partners, the council has been able to embark on a large scale programme of regeneration across the town. In part, Neill explains, the aim has been to provide for the people of Merthyr, and its catchment area of up to 300,000 people across the Heads of the Valleys, a range of facilities and services not previously available but which would be taken for granted in most communities across Britain.
A new retail park has brought in big name outlets such as Debenhams, Next and JJB Sports and also family restaurants. Such has been its popularity, a 65,000sq.ft Tesco superstore on land alongside the station has already had to add an upper deck to its surface car park. It is seen as a key support for smaller niche and locally-owned shops nearer the centre of town. The pedestrianised town centre has been paved in granite, and it is hoped one of its previously disused buildings, the old Town Hall, will re-emerge as a theatre and arts centre – a facility the town currently lacks.
A new business park has also provided the accommodation modern enterprises require and the Welsh Government has moved its social justice department to a site just outside the centre. Though many of those working there will be commuting from Cardiff, it is hoped some will decide to settle permanently and as staff move on they will, it is expected, be replaced by locally recruited replacements.
So, much of the ‘hardware’ – the town centre, new leisure, retail and business parks, riverside and heritage trails – have been put in place or repaired. Stock transfer of the council’s housing to a housing association promises to release substantial funds for bringing properties up to modern standards.
More difficult will be the ‘software’ – the educational attainment of school leavers, the skill levels of the working population, the poor health of not just the elderly retired but of many of those of working age. The investment that has taken place will be of little long term value if those problems cannot be sorted out.
An unstated part of the overall strategy has been to make people feel better about living and enjoying life, leisure and work in Merthyr and hence about themselves too. The next stage is to try to turn this into more positive attitudes towards learning – the sine qua non pathway to stimulating and well-paid jobs. Though many of Merthyr’s schools have been getting positive ratings from inspections and have had new buildings, this has not been reflected in the proportion of pupils going on to achieve good GCSE and A Level results, which still lag those for the rest of Wales.
Because of Merthyr’s small size its schools have not been able to offer a wide enough choice of curriculum options at sixth form level. There is also a problem of disengagement among young people not interested in academic options, many of them, in Neill’s words, having great brains and fantastic talents but weak literacy and numeric skills.
The proposed solution – currently out for consultation and not without its opponents -is a move to a new-build post-16 tertiary education system, the Merthyr Learning Quarter. This would cater on one site for academically and vocationally orientated young people, entering through the same gates for different courses enjoying equal levels of esteem. The centre will be developed jointly with the University of Glamorgan, which merged with Merthyr College in 2006. It is hoped the new Merthyr Learning Quarter will double the number of curriculum options available and greatly increase the numbers interested in carrying on with their education beyond 16 years.
Another ambition, is a university presence in the town. The idea is not simply to add to the already long list of Welsh universities. A university institution in Merthyr would begin by offering foundation courses designed to encourage individuals who might not otherwise have the confidence or the necessary qualifications to take the first steps towards a degree. “This is about saying ‘Look, we will bring a foundation course to you, we will work with you so that you don’t have to go away to study. You can prove to yourself you can do this and go on to another university to finish it’” says Neill.
New approaches being developed jointly with the health authority and local authority social services will attempt to persuade older people not to see themselves as “poorly” or less than fully fit, a significant attitudinal problem in the area. The aim will be to try to keep people away from hospital, or, later, a care home.
For other age groups a health park is planned opposite the retail park which will bring together GP surgeries, and a range of other primary care services, with a strong emphasis on the importance of diet and leisure activity as a means of maintaining health and preventing illness. It is hoped that this prevention strategy will reduce the high numbers in the area on incapacity benefit and speed their return to the workforce.
The aim is for the Merthyr that emerges from all this activity to have a growing population with higher skills and greater confidence and fewer individuals on benefits. At the same time infrastructure will improve. The town centre will be renewed with good communications along the upgraded Heads of the Valleys road and the A470, plus a doubling in the frequency of train services to Cardiff. Merthyr will be in a much better position to market its dramatic geographical situation and its potential as the southern gateway to the Brecon Beacons. All of which should make the town more attractive for investors
The gap between vision and reality could, of course, remain wide, particularly if the resources needed to complete developments in the pipeline – like the tertiary system – are not made available as a result of forthcoming public sector expenditure cuts. With the era of significant large scale overseas investment projects now over, it will be a challenge to create the jobs needed to keep an increased population in work, even if skill levels can be dramatically improved. And, of course, there always remains the prospect that the brightest and best will continue to flow out to the Welsh coastal plain and beyond.
There is an institutional danger, too, that the constant urge to re-organise public sector organisations in Wales – this time to reduce the number of local authorities from the present 22 – could yet see the borough distracted by further upheaval just as its plans begin to show promise.
For the moment, however, there is enough going on in the town and sufficient plans for a brighter future for the gloomy statistics not to appear to be all that the town is about. As Neill says: “Merthyr’s place in the past is secure as a driving force of the industrial revolution. Its current regeneration aims to restore it to a significant status in the economy and life of south Wales once again.”
March 3rd 2010