Talking down the Valleys

My recent article on The unbearable sadness of the valleys has caused something of a stir in Wales.

I stand accused of having "insulted and angered" the good people of Blaenau Gwent. The first minister has told the Welsh assembly I had gone there "with a particular view" and ignored the facts of development. The local council leader has said he is appalled by "such stereotypical negativity".

On the other hand, I have received scores of letters and comments from people in the area and beyond, congratulating me for highlighting the issues faced by people living in Blaenau Gwent.

One correspondent from South Wales thanked me for my "sensitive depiction of the Valleys", another wrote how refreshing it was "to read an open and honest article" about the difficulties the community has to deal with.

Having watched my film, one man told me he had raised £10,000 in a morning for the children of Waundeg. I understand a number of people have offered to help the community centre that has computers but no internet access.

There is, though, an important question here. In focusing on the profound challenges of Blaenau Gwent, does my article "talk down" an area that desperately needs to build confidence among local people and potential investors?

It is an argument I wrestled with throughout the time I was filming and putting together the story. My guiding principle was simple: to be truthful about what I found.

I hoped my report would do what we too often fail to do: look poverty in the face. What usually happens is that the struggle of people in deprived communities is turned into a catalyst for political argy-bargy. The story quickly becomes "Who is to blame?" rather than "What is it like?".

The film wasn't about partisan politics. I didn't talk to politicians. I didn't point fingers at any party or institution. Instead, I interviewed local people about their neighbourhood.

What emerges, I think, is a portrait of extraordinary people struggling to survive against the odds.

Did I go there having made up my mind about the story? Well, yes - in the sense that, as I said in the film, I went because of the numbers. Data from the Census 2011 told me that Blaenau Gwent had some of the most profound social problems of any in the country.

Before I travelled to Wales, I read the Blaenau Gwent Regeneration Programme from 2002, the Blaenau Gwent Community Plan 2005-09 and the plan for 2010-2030, the Blaenau Gwent Single Integrated Plan, the Ebbw Vale Masterplan, the Strategy for the Heads of the Valley, the Blaina Action Plan, the Wales Spatial Plan, the South East Wales Spatial Plan…

What struck me from all these plans and projects and programmes was the contrast between the optimism of some of the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

It was obvious, as I said in my film, that there are many "good people who have tried to help". I talked about the new college, new hospital and new leisure centre on the site of the old steelworks in Ebbw Vale (despite the first minister's claim that I had "completely failed to mention the works at all"). I wrote about the millions that have been spent in the Valleys on new roads and infrastructure. I talked about the hopes for the Circuit of Wales project.

But, in the end, it was obvious to me that all this activity had not yet got close to delivering the promised "transformative regeneration". Indeed, almost without exception, everyone I met told me their community was living through desperate times and most feared matters were getting worse.

What about the criticism that I had employed, as one correspondent put it to me, "every cultural cliché and stereotype that external visitors to South Wales repeatedly re-hash to construct a picture that is so outdated to people now living in the Valleys that it is almost a Comic Strip parody"?

I suspect that this is just another way of saying "don't look at the chronic deprivation - look at this shiny new shopping centre or fancy clock". People in South Wales may be overly familiar with dying streets, welfare dependency, chronic widespread depression and charity food aid. But I think that is why we should look at it more, not less.

In response to my article, Victoria Winckler from the Bevan Foundation think-tank argues in a blog that I ignore the "significant successes" of the area.

"In Blaenau Gwent, for all its problems, six out of 10 people of working age is in a job," she writes. "And not any old job either - nearly one in five of them work in professional and managerial jobs - teachers, nurses, designers and chief executives."

This is, of course, true. But I would argue those figures are far from being a tale of significant success. In fact, they are among the worst in Britain.

Another criticism is that there are other deprived parts of Britain I might have gone to. "Mark Easton could have saved himself a bus ride to Ebbw Vale and instead visited Newham," the blog argues.

It is quite right to say that Blaenau Gwent does not have a monopoly on poverty - I have reported from a great many very deprived areas in my time.

But I wanted to go to South Wales precisely because I don't go there often. The statistics that flow out of the Valleys are almost universally troubling and we too rarely hear the voices behind them.

My intention was never to "point the finger of blame at the Valleys". I wanted rather to highlight the profound challenges they face. If, in doing so, my report has inspired a conversation about how we serve the proud people who live in this beautiful corner of the UK, then I think it has been worthwhile.