Thinking big in Blaenau Gwent to lighten economic gloom

The Works, Ebbw Vale
Image caption The former steelworks site in Ebbw Vale is expected to create 1,500 to 2,000 permanent jobs when complete

On the face of it, life is tougher in Blaenau Gwent than anywhere else in Wales.

Its unemployment rate is the highest in Wales, it has the lowest number of businesses per head of population and those lucky enough to be in work earn some of the lowest average earnings in the UK.

And at a time when local authority budgets are being slashed, it was once ranked as the most vulnerable county to cuts in public spending.

The steelworks at Ebbw Vale disappeared almost 10 years ago and secure, well-paid jobs in Blaenau Gwent - and, for that matter, anywhere else in the Gwent valleys - are at a premium.

However, scratch a little below the surface and you might be surprised to hear there is some cause for optimism.

New life is being breathed into the former steelworks site as it is undergoes a £350m transformation creating, it is hoped, up to 2,000 permanent jobs eventually.

Biggest employer

And developers are looking to create at least 2,500 jobs through a £200m plan for a motor racing circuit, with related research and development, near the Heads of the Valleys road at Ebbw Vale.

Ebbw Vale will also be the focus of one of the Welsh government's five enterprise zones, where companies will receive rate relief and may benefit from tax breaks to expand.

On a smaller scale, there is a £13m scheme to revamp Abertillery and a £13m plan for Ebbw Vale town centre which ties in with the steelworks project.

Donna Wallbank, whose Kutz N Kurlz hairdressing salons in Brynmawr and Abertillery employ 16 people, is realistic but not without hope.

Image caption A proposed racing track at Ebbw Vale could host events such as motorcycling's MotoGP

"I think there is a worry because there aren't a lot of jobs. Blaenau Gwent council is the biggest employer," she said.

"There is the worry of how people are going to pay the bills because so many of our families are on benefits.

"But although there's lots of negatives, you've just got to look for something positive and run with it."

On a personal level, she has recently started taking on apprentices again, partly thanks to the £50 per week she receives from the Welsh government for each apprentice.

Racing track

Ms Wallbank, who is also chair of Brynmawr Business Forum, says the racing track plan and the steelworks site development, known as The Works, give people in the area confidence for the future.

The Works has created about 1,600 jobs during the construction phase, of which about 500 are within 10 miles (16km) of the site, and there are estimates of 1,500 to 2,000 permanent jobs in the future.

It includes a learning zone for post-16 education, homes, a hospital and a wetland park, among other things.

But it also has a long-term aim, and part of that is to create a better trained and educated workforce.

Richard Crook, project director, said: "When you look at the developments on The Works site, there's a huge amount about education and skills.

"What the growth sectors will be in the future we don't know, but we're putting in place something that can generate a skilled community that means we're more resilient in the future."

He said the goal was creating a community that could generate its own businesses locally but also skilled enough to get work elsewhere too if necessary.

Image caption A £13m revamp of Abertillery includes turning a former chapel into an indoor market hall

The proposal for a racing circuit capable of hosting major events like the World Touring Car Championship has certainly raised eyebrows locally.

The developers say they have been attracted by what the region has to offer and are keen to help revitalise it.

Sustainable jobs

Paul Shackson, spokesperson for the Heads of the Valley Development Company behind the project, said: "The area has been impacted by the closure of major industries and therefore has comparably high levels of unemployment and is one of the most economically deprived in the UK and across Europe.

"Therefore it has substantial potential and is surrounded by natural beauty.

"Our investment programme will offer direct opportunity for sustainable jobs that can be delivered locally."

He said the racing circuit would be a "catalyst for regeneration" whose impact would be felt "locally, regionally and nationally".

'Rock solid'

The track is just the sort of innovative entrepreneurial scheme that Dr Kath Ringwald, of Glamorgan Business School, says has too often been lacking in the south-east Wales valleys.

While Dr Ringwald, who lives not too far away in Bargoed, may be envisaging far smaller, local enterprises, the principle is the same.

Image caption The learning zone at The Works aims to create a skilled workforce for the future

"There's something about the culture in the south-east of Wales. We do tend to be risk averse," she said.

"When I was growing up, and for the generation behind me, it was 'get a steady job, get a safe job, be a nurse, be a teacher'.

"They were jobs that were considered rock solid and now are the ones that are uncertain.

"There's never been a great entrepreneurial tradition in the area."

Changing that "tradition" and producing a generation of potential entrepreneurs, offering ideas both big and small, could well be the key to Blaenau Gwent thriving in the future.

As Dr Ringwald says: "The one thing that is really true of the current climate is it's no good looking at what worked last time - the old answers are not relevant any more.

"It's real vision, creative thinking that is required."

BBC Wales across online, TV and radio is looking at the economy in a Crunch Christmas series this week. On Wednesday, unemployment will be examined and retail will be the focus of Thursday's coverage.

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