Opinion: Wales is a good place for the government to start its levelling up

With just under 30 per cent of its children found to be living in poverty, Wales should be in the sights of a government committed to helping left behind people and places, says Tim Williams.

As a person of Welshness I’ve never quite given up on two notions. The first is that I will play rugby for my country, despite having no talent and being now in my early 60s. The second is that I will be called back from my decade-long sojourn in these southern climes by the Welsh people, united as one in seeking to show - contrary to the views of our Lord in similar circumstances - that a prophet can indeed be honoured in his own land. I assure you I won’t hold my breath while I await the calls from the Welsh Rugby Union, or indeed the nation as a whole.

I mention all this for the avoidance of doubt, as I am not universally thought to be a patriot by all in my homeland, having played a not insignificant part in the almost successful campaign to persuade the Welsh to vote against devolution. But on the principle that, as the Welsh language saying has it, “Gorau Cymro, Cymro oddigartref/the best Welshman is the Welshman abroad”, I have reserved the right, despite living in Sydney, to put my oar in from time to time in matters Welsh, particularly relating to economic development, urban regeneration and transport. This is one of those times.

I am prompted by two things. One is research done by Loughborough University for the End Child Poverty Network in 2019 showing that just under 30 per cent of children in Wales lived in poverty, defined as being in a household where the income is below 60 per cent of the median income. In places in the Valleys, near where I was born, the proportion is over 40 per cent and in some communities further up the Valleys it is just under half.

To be clear, although joblessness or under-employment remains significant in such communities this shamefully large cohort of very poor children in contemporary Britain includes many homes where both parents are actually working but in low paid employment, often part-time and increasingly on zero hours contracts. My mood, when I read this data, lies somewhere between anger and despair at the waste of such lives. 

Having read the many reports on poverty in south Wales by the indefatigable and really quite marvellous Victoria Winckler of the vitally needed and under-funded Bevan Foundation, I wasn’t surprised but I was dismayed. Aren’t you? Something other than cutting benefits needs to be done by the UK government. Sharpish.

Where to start in levelling up

Which brings me to the second thing which prompted this piece. The election of a government committed – it says – to ‘levelling up’ and to bringing transformation to ‘left behind’ peoples and places. I’d like them to start with Penrhiwceiber and the 49 per cent of its children living in poverty. 

However, I suspect the claims of Bishop Auckland and points north (of England) will attract their attention as a priority. I get that, but I really hope that the kinds of policies and interventions the new government comes up with can be applied across such communities across the UK, so that a post-industrial town in the Valleys, or indeed in the west of Scotland, can access the same renewal funds or strategies as in the former coalfield communities of south Yorkshire, say. Clearly, it will be important for this to be the case if the pressures tending towards the break up of the UK are to be reduced.

Vitally, the government needs to remember that despite the fact that Wales voted to leave the European Union, it did indeed receive significant regeneration and development funds from the EU’s convergence initiatives. While much of this investment, in my view, was wasted or delivered sub-optimal results, a quantum of replacement funding needs to be found by the UK government - and close working with the Welsh government and local councils will be required so that a strategy is co-designed and fully leverages their co-investment potential and maximises public outcomes.

At the same time, the Welsh government needs also to embrace post-Brexit reality and the need to work cooperatively with the new UK government. This may mean accepting some renewal programmes invented in – say it quietly – London. It may also mean that Welsh councils will be seeking to attract the support and investment, not only of the Welsh government but also of Boris and Mr Cummings. Bring it on. 

Most Welsh people in the troubled communities will not be asking whether investment or policy innovation is coming from Brussels, Cardiff Bay or the Palace of Westminster. They just want action.

Tim Williams is cities lead at Arup and is its Australasian lead on urban renewal. He is also an adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.

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