The Blog

Yes, This Government Is Failing Towns Like Pontypool, But These Proud, Strong Communities Are Fighting Back, Not Giving Up

If Theresa May's Government want to witness a community fighting back against the impact of its economic policies, Ministers are welcome to visit Pontypool. But if journalists want to paint a caricature of a poor, hopeless community on its knees, they'll not find it here.

Many people are struggling to make ends meet in twenty-first century Britain. Aditya Chakrabortty is right that Mark Lang's 'Deep Place' report into Pontypool outlines many of the challenges that people face. Along with the worldwide recession, Government cuts and benefit reforms have impacted disproportionately on the least well off, exacerbating inequality. Pontypool is situated in the Eastern Valley of the South Wales coalfield. Margaret Thatcher destroyed its traditional jobs, and the impact that the resulting economic deprivation has on young lives is devastating with child poverty far too prevalent.

Like many areas in the country, Pontypool has faced hard times; however, negative portrayals like Aditya Chakrabortty's should take care that they do not overstep the mark and become self-fulfilling horror stories. Because poverty-tourism travel writing that merely paints a bleak picture without recognising the positive things going on in these communities helps no-one. We must take care that our commentary builds hope rather than extinguishes it. That yes, we identify problems, but instead of ending there, we look to solutions, as Mark Lang's report does. Not only as the local MP, but as someone who was born in the Eastern Valley, grew up here and is now raising my own young family here, I certainly see the strength of our community as well as the challenges. Every day people are doing incredible things with scarce resources. We have a community spirit that puts far more prosperous areas to shame. I am extremely proud of the communities of the Eastern Valley, of Pontypool, where I was educated, and Trevethin and I will defend them with every ounce of my strength.

I agree that Government Ministers should visit Pontypool. They would see that their economic policies are failing, even on their own criteria: That it is often working families being tipped over the edge of financial survival by cuts to in-work benefits which leave them unable to heat their homes or feed their children. They would see that the inequality that the recession and their policies have worsened has left a gulf between areas sometimes separated by only a few hundred yards. Lang's report also points to some of the more prosperous areas in Pontypool, but I fear a reference to that part of the town would not fit the caricature some wish to paint.

Pontypool is an incredibly strong community. Just last week I saw it come together to raise thousands of pounds for the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal. Every week as the MP, I see local groups doing great work, strengthening our society. If we talk about poverty, we should also talk about the work these people are doing. Take Sue Malson and her team at Trac2, a charity based in Trevethin which helps people in need. They recycle everything from white goods to furniture to help those who would otherwise go without. This year they have saved almost 34 tonnes from landfill. On Christmas Day, they will again cook Christmas dinner for those who would otherwise go hungry or spend Christmas Day alone. Or take another Trevethin resident Matt Ford, who manages the local community centre, Cold Barn Farm. They run groups for local people of all ages, helping parents, young people, older residents and anyone in the area who needs support or advice.

This is not a community 'stripped of purpose' or 'slung on the slagheap'. This is a proud, strong community making the best of things under a Tory Government that doesn't want to know the reality of life in places like Trevethin.

Neither is our town centre dead, as Aditya Chakrabortty's article suggested. Yes, it faces difficulties, as do so many other town centres in an age of out-of-town retail and online shopping. But recent statistics show that Pontypool was one of the few towns of its size in Wales to see an increase in footfall over the past year. It has a refurbished market full of committed stall-holders whose efforts we should not talk down. It has one of the most beautiful parks in Wales. Further north in Blaenavon, we have the location of the birth of the industrial revolution, recognised with World Heritage Status and visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year. We can either ignore all of this, talk down our area and ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy, or we can focus on our strengths, work together with our shopkeepers and our community and talk up our town.

Local people are making a difference and good news is there to see. Frog Bikes recently opened up a facility nearby, and many other employers are drawn to the area for our skilled and loyal workforce and good transport links. Torfaen is a great place to do business. The local Council is working hard to promote our area through the city deal and work with the community to tackle the issues that cause barriers to employment. The local Communities First scheme has seen some of the best results in Wales for its work to improve skills and get people into employment.

If Theresa May's Government want to witness a community fighting back against the impact of its economic policies, Ministers are welcome to visit Pontypool. But if journalists want to paint a caricature of a poor, hopeless community on its knees, they'll not find it here.