Regeneration Route: New Futures for the Heart of Wales Railway
Rural Wales today is a land of loss, of public services gone away, of rural spaces used for the benefit of people elsewhere, as vistas for holiday consumption, as water stores and as electricity farms. Remember the Development Board for Rural Wales, which was supposed to power economic revival? The DBRW was extant for 18 years, 1977 to 1995, and had the job of economic revival in Powys, Ceredigion and Meirionnydd. Job done in 1995? Of course not. So do we need a modern version ?
Buzz words today are ‘city regions’. The Welsh Government sees Wales as two-and-a-half city regions: (1) greater Cardiff including Newport, and (2) Swansea Bay, with north-east Wales as the half, linked to the industrial hinterlands of the river Mersey in England. Investment would be concentrated in these regions, leaving all of Wales outside the urban bubbles even shorter of resources than they are already.
You can argue that city regions are anachronisms in a world pushing up against limits to growth, but ‘sustainability’ did not feature centrally in the City Regions in Wales report presented to the Welsh Government in 2012.[i] Nor did climate change, nor the Welsh Government’s professed aim for the country to use no more resources than our single planet can provide. The concept of a city region as a growth magnet poses all sorts of unanswered questions, such as
- Where will cities’ food come from?
- What sorts of income-earning jobs will the inhabitants do, in a climate-challenged, resource-depleted, environmentally damaged world?
Here in north-west Europe, judging by TV adverts and supermarket shelves, it can seem as though there are limitless supplies of everything, but that’s only because we use far more than our fair share. Who could live on 85p a day? Some 1.2 billion people – around 19 times more than the population of the UK – have to scrape by on less. There aren’t enough resources to supply everyone with a north-west European standard of materialism.
The very notion of the ‘sustainable city’ is perhaps a triumph of optimism over history, because civilisations collapse when cities can no longer be provisioned. Political instability ensues, and surviving populations melt into the countryside.
In Wales, too many politicians regard ‘the countryside’ as the past, not the future. Fortunately, small groups of people are working for rural revival, and more than a dozen of them met in Llandovery on Friday at the start of a campaign to bring new life to the communities along the Heart of Wales railway, which crosses Wales from Swansea in the south to Shrewsbury in the borderlands of England, and is ‘rural’ within Wales most of the way from Llanelli in Carmarthenshire to Knighton in Powys, a distance of some 80 miles.
Professor Paul Salveson[ii] asks “Could the Heart of Wales Line become a linear ‘Mondragon’ network supporting a network of co-operative enterprises?” The Mondragon federation is the (mostly) successful co-operative economic engine of the Basque Country in Spain, and I think the answer to Prof Salveson’s question is ‘Yes’. Not just along the Heart of Wales corridor, either, but also to the west, either side of a resurrected Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway.
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Glenn Bowen of the Wales Co-operative Centre — the largest co-operative development body in the UK, according to Wikipedia – was on hand at the Level Crossing hostel by Llandovery Station yesterday to outline the pros and cons of various types of corporate structures, to representatives from the Heart of Wales Line Development Company, Heart of Wales Line Travellers Association, Friends of Llandovery Station, Llanwrtyd Community Transport & Events Recycling, Transition Tywi Trawsnewid, and the Calon Cymru group which exists to promote sustainable activity along the line. Early days, but there is enthusiasm to create a Heart of Wales Enterprise Network.
Calon Cymru last year devised a plan for a string of ‘garden villages’ along the line, and submitted it for the Wolfson Prize. The Wolfson competition sought ideas for a new garden city, rather than garden villages, and the entry did not win an award, but I think it shows that low-impact developments have much to offer rural Wales, in helping to rejuvenate the population profile, creating land-based enterprises including ‘One Planet’ ventures using only those resources which our planet can continue to provide, and bringing critical mass to support public services including transport. Click on The Linear Garden City: a One Planet vision to read the plan.
Separate campaign groups have been labouring away, often for years, in their own back yards, and as small ventures made only limited political impact. The current move to collaborate could mark the start of a new, more positive phase in the history of the forgotten back-lands of rural Wales.
A new Development Board for Rural Wales? No, that would be planning imposed from the top downwards. The idea now, a much better idea, I think, is to support individuals and community groups as they set about creating their own futures.
[i] City Regions Final Report, July 2012. ‘Sustainability and Climate Change’ comprised paragraphs 145 to 149, saying sustainable development should become a unique selling point for attracting investment. The climate change issue was summarised in one sentence in paragraph 147: “Studies have found that while cities create many of the problems of climate change they also offer increased scope to maximise resource efficiency”.
[ii] Paul Salveson MBE is visiting professor in transport and logistics at the University of Huddersfield. His reference to Mondragon is in ‘Unlocking enterprise and creativity in Mid Wales: a rail-based approach’, which he wrote for the Heart of Wales Line Development Company: click to read Unlocking enterprise and creativity in Mid Wales