Some reflections on urban and rural poverty ahead of a podcast with Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog and Action in Caerau and Ely
The next episode of The Community Development Podcast is one that’s been postponed many times but one I’m really keen to get ‘in the can’. I’m going to be joined by two community development practitioners I’ve known for a while. Like me, Ceri Cunnington, from Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog, and Dave Horton, from Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE), are ‘refugees’ from the long running (2001-2018) Communities First programme in Wales.
We’ll be looking at the distinctions, if any, in their approaches to community development in the rural and urban areas in which they are based.
Ceri works for Cwmni Bro, an organisation that acts as an umbrella for a range of community and social enterprises based in and around Blaenau Ffestiniog, the Gwynedd town that is synonymous with the north Wales slate industry.
Dave covers the large housing estates of Ely and Caerau in the west of Cardiff, built interwar and postwar respectively. ACE is a membership-based development trust set up in 2011 as a means of sustaining the activities initiated by Communities First beyond the programme’s end.
My gut feeling is that there will be little distinction between Dave and Ceri/Cwmni Bro and ACE, in terms of values, principles and ethics and that distinctions will be largely external: the funding environment, partners or local priorities.
Though perhaps austerity dogma, financial stridency and the rolling back of the state at all levels renders the rural/urban distinction as increasingly redundant?
Perhaps it always has been?
The renowned poet and scholar Iorwerth Peate, a carpenter’s son from Llanbrynmair near Machynlleth, disliked the distinction, which, in a Welsh context, he regarded as sentimental (Peate, 1943). For Peate the ‘rural’ was characterised by the dual foundation of agriculture and industry within which industrial organisation was as necessary in ‘rural’ communities as it was in ‘urban’. He regarded the village as self-sufficient in which work, leisure and enterprise combined to produce a polity nearer to “perfection” than that experienced in other communities where extremes of wealth and poverty were more marked (ibid.).
He would have in mind had communities in Bro Ffestiniog – the name for the area covering Blaenau Ffestiniog and its environs – an area that arguably industrialised earlier than coalfield communities.
This is not to say that inequalities in wealth did not exist in rural communities. Peate had been a student of Herbert Fleure at Aberystwyth University who famously, and by today’s standards quaintly, came to the view that the material poverty of isolated communities in Wales was entwined with a cultural and artistic richness, linguistic distinctiveness and essential democracy (Cloke et al, 1997) that allows “the poorest labourer [to] often compete with his richer neighbours” (Fleure, 1941), in a manner reminiscent of the rural men in Raymond Williams’ classic 1960 novel Border Country (set, partly, in 1920s Monmouthshire) who, though “ordinarily slow inarticulate men” (ibid.), would on the Eisteddfod stage become “intent and strange in the practised, formal eloquence, which was warmer, more pressing on the heart than even the singing” (ibid.). In this novel, a rejection of pastorialism (Smith, 2017), the struggles of the depression of the 1920s and the General Strike of 1926 loom large over a rural village whose railwaymen regard the nearby miners’ struggle as part of that of a wider organised working-class and support them during the ensuing lockout.
A supposed essential inter-connectedness of poverty and culture might be seen as not so much quaint, but pious even. But Fleure was coruscating of the impact of industrial capitalism on communities, people and the environment (Gruffudd, 1994). Similarly Peate was a fierce opponent of the impact of modernity on small indigenous communities and the materialism it brought with it (ibid.); both hugely disliked the creeping laissez-faire materialism of the early twentieth century.
For Peate modernisation was a threat to Wales’s cultural distinctiveness. To Fleure the growth in tourism in Wales’s coastal communities as a departure from traditional rural industries was “socially degenerate” (ibid.). It would be interesting to hear Ceri’s view of this given the adventure-tourism and outdoor bounds focus of Antur Stiniog, one of Cwmni Bro’s portfolio of enterprises!
Contrast this, however, with the decline of the contemporary urban high street under late turbo-capitalism and the increasing homogenisation of place with town centres losing their distinctive identities as they replicate each other with the same chain hotels, shops and pubs. But the decline of public spaces – parks, libraries, halls, institutes, etc; also, known as ‘social infrastructure’ – via sale, closure, privatisation, degradation through poor/no maintenance, and the levy of fees are eroding social capital (Putnam, 2000; Gregory, 2018). Their loss serves also to reduce the number of what Ray Oldenberg calls ‘third places’ (1991). These are spaces away from ‘first places’ – the home/hearth – and ‘second places’ – the workplace (though they may be attached to it, such as a works social club).
Among other characteristics, third places are inherently democratic and neutralising of hierarchies, while promoting debate and discussion, philosophising and the opportunity to organise and collectivise. The sorts of spaces that propogated what Raymond Williams defined as working class culture: “the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from this” (Williams, 1958, emphasis added). This collective ideal is equally fundamental in communities such as Ely/Caerau and Blaenau Ffestiniog; how it is expressed is maybe where difference occurs between the two.
The changing levels of social capital and loss of third places does not to my mind feel like a singularly urban phenomenon. Rural communities have lost numerous schools and chapels and with recent press coverage on the volume of house sales in Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Ynys Môn being for second home ownership, the demographic shifts in rural Wales that Cloke et al noted in the mid 90s (but by other observers as much as 20 years previous too) is mutating. It is one thing in-migrants relocating to rural Wales with imagery and an idyll in mind different to an indigenous one and occasionally bringing new poverties that challenge the essential democracy noted by Fleure (Cloke et al, 1997), it is another when they reside in communities for only several weeks a year, and stimulate out-migration of young people native to the area who are priced out of the local housing market.
Both ACE via The Dusty Forge, a former pub, that is referred to on ACE’s website as the ‘community’s living room’, and Cwmni Bro via Y Pengwern, a community-owned pub in Llan Ffestiniog, have recognised the fundamental need for places in their communities where people can socialise, mix and interact. The Men’s Shed located at The Dusty Forge is another example of this and when I visited the Forge recently – which, incidentally, was heaving – there were wellbeing sessions taking place which I recalled again when reading the recent coverage of Britain’s unhealthiest towns and the prevalence in them of bookies and fast food outlets. It is not too much to suggest that in the hands of laissez-faire market fundamentalism in some areas the high street is killing us. Now if this isn’t socially degenerate then I don’t know what is. Cwmni Bro and ACE are fighting back.
Both Fleure and Peate argued for a communalism and social mobilisation around agriculture and indigenous industry, encouraging Welsh communities to go ‘back to the land’ in an effort to maintain a self-sufficiency beyond merely food but economy, culture and more. This was not an insular parochialism though, with Fleure believing that it could serve as an “inspiration refreshing…the jaded and overstrained business life of our perplexed modern England (1922, in Gruffudd, 1994). This doesn’t sound a million miles from Leanne Wood’s 2011 Green Print and its “decentralised community socialism” and suggestion of a Green New Deal for south Wales Valleys communities.
And neither does Fleure’s lexicon – ‘jaded’, ‘overstrained’, ‘perplexed’ – feel out of place today. Labour markets are being hollowed out and there is growing concern at the impact on labour of artificial intelligence and automation. With in-work poverty growing (JRF, 2016; 2018) the basic remunerative value of work is shrinking for many, let alone the social capital benefits it brings. My employer Indycube is offering trade union membership to the self-employed whose precarious and uneven income pushes as many as 77% of independent workers into poverty. As Harvey (2012) observes the ‘precariat’ have replaced the ‘proletariat’, with implications on how the former can organise because they lack the industrial factory setting in which the latter was solidly planted.
Despite this, government poverty alleviation strategies continue to be predicated on the value of work (some further thoughts on this here). This will come as no surprise from those on the right; but the British left is now beginning to question the wisdom of this labourist bias that has elevated paid work over other forms of labour such as caring (Standing, 2016). It simply is not working for increasing numbers of people. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic and the enforced lockdown have given us a glimpse into the post-work future and what a wellbeing economy might value. No wonder the UK Tory government has, at the time of writing, encouraged people in England – worryingly premature – back to work; it hasn’t liked what it sees.
Consciousness of rural poverty trailed its urban equivalent in the immediate postwar years. But from the mid 1970s across civil society policy responses began to emerge and inquiries to increase understanding proliferated:
- Quasi governmental bodies such as the Development Board of Rural Wales, established in 1976, reflected the prevailing centralist-managerial approach to uneven economic development (Cloke et al, 1997).
- The Child Poverty Action Group (founded in 1965) commissioned and convened research to uncover rural poverty in the late 1970s (ibid.).
- This work influenced the incoming Conservative UK government to commission case studies into five rural areas in England, while community councils mobilised their own rural appraisals (via ACRE in England, and Jigso in Wales) (Clarke et al, 2002).
- In the late 1980s the Archbishop of Canterbury convened his own commission into rural poverty (Cloke et al, 1997).
By the early 2000s the recognition of rural poverty prompted the Welsh Government to include four ‘deep rural’ areas in upland Ceredigion, west Flintshire, Pen Llŷn in Gwynedd and the Dyfi Valley in Powys, despite the ‘headline’ ward level deprivation indices obscuring the poverty in these areas.
The deep rural partnerships were disbanded in 2012 and the areas they covered were jettisoned from Communities First and its strategic configuration in its final trimester (2012-2018). Other rural areas were also abandoned by Communities First. One of these were the Bowydd and Rhiw wards in Blaenau Ffestiniog.
It will be great to catch up with Ceri (and Dave) to see what has not just survived, but thrived, in the intervening six years.
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