Activities outside Parliament

Alliance Conference

Regeneration: The View from Aberavon and Westminster

By Dr Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs

22nd September 2009

Personal and Historical Perspectives

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak at this Alliance Conference to give the perspective of a Member of Parliament representing this Constituency of Aberavon which has successfully transformed itself through a range of regeneration strategies.

The Constituency now has a more diverse economy while still retaining many of the characteristic strengths of the past: centred of course on our steel industry and also in the future with the re-emergence of coal locally with the possible development, at last, of the Margam New Mine.

At the outset I would like to pay tribute to our Local Authority, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. Through its visionary and partnership strategies, it has become acknowledged as a leading and progressive Local Authority in Wales.

It is therefore appropriate that we meet here to salute its achievements and salute too the former leader, Mr Derek Vaughan, a newly elected Member of the European Parliament, and Mr Ken Sawyers, who retired earlier this month, a most effective and highly respected Chief Executive.

I would also like to focus my contribution on my perspective as the Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and explain how in the era of devolution and the advent of the Welsh Assembly Government the crucial strategy of partnership at every level – from the local to the global – is at the heart of our work and at the heart of our regeneration.

Fifty years ago next month my predecessor, Mr John Morris – now Lord Morris of Aberavon – was elected to this Constituency which was then dominated by steel and coal and a little later the other major industry – petro-chemicals, at Baglan Bay and Llandarcy. This made the Constituency probably the most industrialised in Wales, and certainly the one with the greatest trade union density – as it is probably also today.

Our new modern steelworks was then a metaphor for Wales’s post-war economic renaissance. And despite the trials and tribulations of the steel industry locally and nationally, the creation of the Deep Water Harbour and the effectiveness of local industrial relations, the industry has been sustained and I believe has a bright future, very much in line with its recent positive response to the Welsh Assembly Government consultation on green jobs.

Twenty five years ago there were enormous tensions at national level over the NUM’s blockade of the steel industry during the Miners’ Strike. I remember I organised a conference at Swansea University called ‘Britain’s Energy: Past, Present and Future’ and some of the NUM students from the North East, led by future Parliamentary colleagues of mine, John Cummings from Easington, and Billy Etherington from Sunderland, stopped off on the way and joined the picket line here at Port Talbot. That was, some would say, and early form of ‘alliance’.

It is testimony in part to the good working relations between steel and mining unions locally that the steel unions at least weathered that particular storm. Coal was not as fortunate as steel in surviving those difficult times but the focus on community survival and on broad alliances built during that year long struggle meant that unions, churches, local government and community organisations worked together to build such organisations as the Coalfield Community Campaign.

I well remember the enthusiasm, good will and fellowship which existed then when I was one of the speakers at its South Wales launch conference at Merthyr Tydfil on 15th May 1985.

And I am delighted that stalwarts from that time, Councillor John Marshall of Torfaen and Councillor Alun Thomas of Neath Port Talbot now lead Alliance in Wales as its excellent chair and vice-chair respectively.

Focus on Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning

Twenty five years on, despite many difficulties on a long and tortuous journey, we can be proud of the changed and changing shape of our local economy.

Much still needs to be done. An excellent Parliamentary briefing by Alliance for a recent adjournment debate identified a whole series of collaborative strategies need to be implemented so as to focus on hard to reach adults with low skills.

I believe we are trying to implement all these strategies, to a greater or lesser extent, locally.

We still have a still-strong manufacturing base, centring but not exclusively on steel, a more diverse base focusing on the Baglan Industrial Park, Baglan Energy Park, and what has been called the emerging ‘learning corridor’ at Jersey Marine. The arrival of such global players as Intertissue, Amazon and of course Tata, are all indications that our locality has already transformed itself in a very big way in recent years towards a vibrant knowledge economy.

There is also an exciting state of the art sustainable housing development at Coed Darcy, a growing tourist and leisure industry centring on the Afan Valley, Margam Park and our splendid Seafront.

But the most hopeful and promising development for the future I believe is the prominence given to skills development to build our knowledge economy.

With an already high and growing reputation in local primary and secondary schools as well as in further education at Neath Port Talbot College alongside lifelong learning via community based opportunities, the locality is now benefiting from a range of both basic and higher level skills provision.

I recently attended the launch of an excellent Wales Union Learning Fund initiative by the Community Trade Union at the Corus Steel Plant featuring basic skills provision. There is also great hope for a major construction institute to be located locally which would obviously link in to the Coed Darcy housing development.

We already have a growing higher education presence with the University of Glamorgan’s Hydrogen Research Centre and Swansea University’s Technium, both at the Baglan Energy Park.

Added to this is the joint venture of many universities at ECM² (the engineering centre for manufacturing and materials): this is fast evolving into a hub for many innovative small businesses, especially in the engineering and energy sectors.

The recent announcement of the £7million Steel Training Research Innovation Partnership between Corus and several universities led by Swansea is another indication of the growing significance of higher education in the Constituency.

I attended recently the twentieth anniversary of the largest community based part-time degree scheme in the country. Led by Swansea University’s Department of Adult Continuing Education, it targets under-represented groups in partnership with community organisations. This provides the core of the wider Community University of the Valleys strategy which now embraces many universities and many communities across South Wales.

And finally of course, the announcement of the development of a major science and technology campus by Swansea University within the Aberavon Constituency at Jersey Marine, with significant private sector input from such international companies as Rolls Royce is the final recognition that we are at the cutting edge of an emerging highly skilled economy capable of competing on the global stage.

The theme of all these inter-related developments is the importance of the holistic approach to regeneration, with skills at the heart of it. Moreover, as can be seen from the Welsh Assembly Government’s particular approach, inter-connected policy strategies are as much about people as they are about places - as much about economic regeneration as about social and cultural regeneration.

In a challenging and wide-ranging paper given recently by Leighton Andrews AM, the Deputy Minister for Regeneration, to a Regeneration Conference on the Coalfields of Japan and South Wales at Swansea University, he spoke of investing in people, in the skills base and in talent flow.

He spoke of building balanced communities where people want to live, work and play and of working in partnership with the UK Government on such schemes as the Job Match Programme in the Heads of the Valleys, funded by the Department of Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government.

And when it comes to tourism, leisure and heritage and their inter-relationship, I believe skills enhancement and community learning are at the centre of all these policy developments. In our thinking and actions locally here – whether it is at the Brunel Tower, the South Wales Miners’ Museum, the new Sustrans cycleways, Glyncorrwg Mountain Bike Centre or the newly refurbished Miners’ Institute at Duffryn Rhondda which has become the outstanding Afan Lodge Hotel – we are making a major and transformative contribution, both culturally and economically.

That leads me neatly and directly to the role of Westminster and my Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

Aberavon, Wales, Westminster and the World

I would fancifully call it ‘Aberavon, Wales, Westminster and the World’. More accurately, our mantra on the Welsh Affairs Committee has increasingly been:-

“A Global Wales, not a Fortress Wales.’

As an ardent supporter of democratic devolution I have been very conscious of the need to achieve as much joined up government as possible – between different levels of government - to ensure harmony not conflict for the benefit of the Welsh people.

That has not always been easy. In the difficult times of the 1980’s besieged local communities and local government benefited enormously from European funding when national governments were not always enthusiastic - until the arrival of our Labour Government in 1997, after which we achieved even more substantial lifelines with Objective One and Convergence Funding.

Equally, more recently, our pre-legislative scrutiny work on the Welsh Affairs Committee sometimes appears to put us on a collision course with our Assembly colleagues. The reality however is somewhat different, but we often have to deal with perceptions rather than the realities, often created by the media.

As Welsh MPs, we see our task as working in partnership with our Assembly colleagues to raise the UK, European and global profile of Wales, with them and with the public. Indeed, so many of the policy areas affecting the daily lives of my Aberavon Constituency and Welsh people as a whole are non-devolved, such as macro-economics, broadcasting, benefits, police, defence, legal affairs and pensions, or partially devolved, such as energy and the environment, university research, science policy, digital inclusion, transport (including ports) and the Olympics and Paralympics.

Taken as a whole all these policy areas, whether devolved or non-devolved, make their vital contribution to regeneration. Joint working between Whitehall and Westminster on the one hand and Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government on the other is vitally important.

We have found in most of our recent Welsh Affairs Committee inquiries that the key to regeneration has invariably been the skills agenda, as the Leitch Report in the UK and its equivalent in Wales, the Webb Report, have clearly highlighted.

The main finding of our major Globalisation Inquiry was that skills of all kinds were essential to the building of a 21st Century economy. The essence of the Report is summarised in this way, focusing as it does, on the need for local action, to address global challenges:

“Our inquiry convinced us that the most important way in which Wales can address the challenges of globalisation is by constantly re-evaluating and increasing the skills of the population at every level. Skills will be crucial to Wales’s ability to weather the economic downturn as well as [achieve] long term growth. More work needs to be done to ensure that the Welsh population has the basic numeracy, literacy and interpersonal skills to compete with countries around the world. These will also form a basis for lifelong learning, which is likely to become ever more important as the pace of globalisation increases and economic demands shift more rapidly.”

Whether we looked at China, the Czech Republic, Poland the Basque Country or Catalonia in Spain, this was the universal solution to the universal problem.

And yet acquiring skills in the narrow sense is not just about competitiveness in the global economy, whether we are dealing with a better understanding of global warming, digital inclusion, cross-border (England-Wales) policies or even the impact of the Olympics and Paralympics and the acquisition of skills in sport, it is about a great deal more than that.

When we fought to protect the steel and mining industries across Britain in the 1980’s and 1990’s we were striving to preserve sustainable industrial communities based on a highly skilled workforce.

And so today too, in an even more challenging global environment we need to be sensitive to that sense of responsibility to one another, locally and globally.

Drawing on that sense of cooperation and mutualism, we concluded our Globalisation Report in this way:

“...We find much to commend in the ethos of internationalisation which we saw espoused in Mondregon in the Basque Country: an open and internationalised environment, building through external networks, social cohesion, solidarity with the world and respect for the environment.” [1]

In that spirit, I believe that our Local Authority here at Neath Port Talbot is very aware of the need to give the highest priority to schools performance, skills attainment and lifelong learning through such strategies as its new learning network and the Western Valleys Strategy and also more higher educational opportunities locally. I have commissioned a study with the Bevan Foundation on the future of the Afan Valley as I believe that the skills agenda is the key to transforming our post-coal mining communities.


I have already mentioned that I attended a conference last week on regeneration in the coalfields of South Wales and Japan. Next year I hope to organise a similar comparative conference in the Appalachian coalfields of the USA. There is much to be learnt from such ventures as we are indeed learning today at this conference.

I believe that is what Alliance stands for: in its very name it is about mutual support, partnership, learning from one another, a recognition of harnessing globalisation and often doing so through localisation.

That I believe has been the Aberavon experience and the Welsh experience, and will probably be our experience in the future too.

I would like to end on both an optimistic and cautionary note. Whilst localism and globalism are inter-related – viewed positively they can be two sides of the same coin – we need to have a better understanding of the economic and cultural impact of China on all our lives and all our futures.

And that is why I say ‘cautionary’. Globalisation as we understand it today, created by Western values and Western civilisation will not be the globalisation shaped tomorrow by China, which is influenced by what Martin Jacques has called ‘different historical furniture’.

Jacques asserts in his recent book When China Rules the World (2009) that China’s impact is already so huge it has a gravitational pull on every nation. Its size and remorseless transformation, allied to what he challengingly calls its ‘superiority complex’ is something that needs to be fully understood.

The modern Chinese application of Confucius calls for a knowledge economy and a knowledge society. No wonder Swansea University places great store on its recent gift from the Chinese people of a fine, imposing statue of Confucius.

The impact of China on us all will be accelerated as a consequence of the world recession, as its economy continues to grow and will force us to re-evaluate the way we understand and develop our regeneration strategies now and in the future. [2]

To understand our future we need to understand China’s view of the knowledge society.

[1] House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, Globalisation and Its Impact on Wales, January 2009 (HC184-1) p 4, 117
[2] Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (Allen Lane, 2009) p. 432

Martin Jacques will give the Annual Bevan Foundation Lecture at Swansea University on 23rd October 2009.

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