Places in Wales – They used to be something – they used to mean something – they were where they were for a reason – they mattered more than just a place where you lived. We didn’t really care if they were a village, a town or a city; we cared that they were a community that sustained families, economy, work, education, recreation, wellbeing (in its broadest context) & spirit.
Each place had its individual spirit.
Big places were split into smaller bits. Each of those smaller bits had their own spirit too. A sort of sub-spirit.
And that spirit was clear. For some it was a genteel spirit; for others a harder edged working spirit; and for some towns it was something much more distinct.
If you were to ask someone from a place to articulate its spirit 150 years ago, that would have been easy – many of those places were just emerging at the time, they were full of pioneers; the people who created these places. They knew what the spirit was, they were it.
As the places grew, the spirit changed slightly; it grew with it. The pioneers were being replaced by people who rooted these places (let’s call them the rooters). These were second and third generation ‘locals’ who came from those places. They added history, folklore & their own family and community values. They developed the civic infrastructure: the schools, the churches, the welfare halls. They built on what the pioneers started. They knew what the spirit was, they were it.
Then something happened.
It wasn’t intentionally bad.
But it definitely wasn’t good either.
Something happened that stopped the spirit of the place developing – we allowed bureaucracy to get its cloying hands on the development of our places. Locals let the bureaucrats take decisions on their behalf, whether they were local politicians, council officers, or those with some sort of civic authority. The locals abdicated their responsibilities for developing their own village or town, and left it to others. This coincided with a sense of self, over community.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a point where systems and rules ensure civic life works, and works safely and to the average benefit of all… The thing is, when it comes to spirit of a place, to its generative ability, bureaucracy has no place.
The place you were from helped to describe you; it helped to ground you, and whether you ran away at the first opportunity or stayed there for a lifetime, the spirit stayed with you.
In Wales, these separately identifiable places weren’t isolationist – far from it. People from one place knew people from other places, and if they didn’t know them, they certainly knew someone who did. The concept of six degrees of separation just doesn’t translate to Wales; in Wales it’s one or two – sometimes you need to look a bit harder to see it, than would have been the case a hundred or even fifty years ago, but those strong linkages between places are there, and therein lies one of Wales’ greatest untapped assets.
Which brings me on to the reason behind this blog, and perhaps even some action. I feel like it’s action on a guerrilla scale, so that’s kinda cool 🙂
This constant onslaught regarding the power of cities, and City Regions (we have two or maybe three here in Wales, and some are hoping North East Wales will hang on the shirt-tails of the Northern Powerhouse too) misses the point – it ignores this massive asset we have here in Wales that we’re connected. I think there’s an alternative, and it lies within our communities – it’s emerging, and there’s little officialdom can do about it.
When I recently visited Ebbw Vale (Ebbw Vale Institute to be precise), I met the former MP for the area, Dai Davies. I started my Indycube spiel…. change the way Wales does business; too fond of government handouts; blah; blah, and he stopped me.. He said “Let me tell you, Ebbw Vale built the world! We produced the steel that built the ships, the bridges, many of the world’s fixed assets.” Our towns evoked a sense of pride. People like Dai still have that pride for their place, but as those old stories fade, if we’re not careful so with that, will go that sense of pride.
Barry is an interesting place… In 1881 the ‘beautiful little country village of Barry’ had 85 residents living there. More surprisingly, they lived in 17 dwellings. Today – there’s close to 50,000 residents living here, and the house count continues to climb.
Barry grew very quickly – when David Davies got fed up with the Marquis of Bute overcharging for poor service to the Coal Barons at Cardiff Docks, he did something about it – he built his own (I’m riding fast and furious over history here, but hey feel free to add in the comments). The building of the docks was the building of Barry – the town exploded into vibrant life – by 1913 it was the biggest coal exporting dock in the world – I wonder how it must have felt to have been part of those pioneering years? I wonder
Many of our Welsh towns/cities are in the process of regeneration. Some are seemingly further ahead than others, but the underlying focus of their Renaissance seems to be flats, shops, and the occasional ummm, unmmm….. no I can’t think of anything else. It’s all flats and shops. The upshot is we’re ending up in places that are indistinguishable from the place up the road – they’re bland and uninspiring. Worse still, they do very little (read nothing) to change the economic well being of the area. It’s not regeneration at all. It’s degeneration.
Why is that? My view is we’ve lost that pioneering spirit – we’re caught up in claptrap and ‘echo chamber’ speak, and very few people are shouting out.
What if we took the ‘re’ out of regeneration, and instead of using the current everyday levers of change to make things happen, we just started with an engaged conversation or two?
So here’s the rub. If you want to improve a place, there are things you can do…
1- lobby for a solution. There are lots of very well meaning folk who put a lot of energy into trying to persuade and lobby the powers that be, that their idea is worth pursuing.
2- become a local politician – and get lobbied by those well meaning folk, and if you agree (or find it politically expedient) pass it on to the officers of the local authority.
3- become an officer in a local authority – you could really make a difference here – but the local authority is the last place to take risks & be brave. You manage the risks into mediocrity and ultimate failure. You say ‘No’ far, far too often.
4- JFDI (however small the ‘it’ might be) – you just never know. There’s a good chance some things will fail…. Lots probably, but the few things that succeed could well be the pioneering changes that’ll last generations. Or if you don’t feel like pioneering, what things need ‘rooting’ in?
So, what is the great idea, that’s so easy to implement, and could re-instil a sense of pride back into Barry in the first instance? I’ve got some ideas to share, but more importantly, I’d really like to hear other people’s ideas too.
So, if you’re a 2015 pioneer, or a rooter, and are interested in true regeneration in Barry, come & join us for a couple of hours
What we’d like you to bring…
something to sit on
a flask of your favourite hot beverage
something to eat, that ideally you’d like to share between the group
your passion & your ideas
I can’t promise that it’ll turn into anything. I don’t for one moment pretend that this is a democratic meeting. But Barry needs to regain its pioneering spirit. Are you in?
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