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Life | How Green is my Valley?

In this programme, Life visits the valleys of Wales, where the coal and steel industries have left a legacy of ill health and unemployment. For every statistic on health and poverty, the Welsh Valleys top the charts for Western Europe. The highest rates for chronic emphysema, cancer, heart disease, asthma, poor housing and sanitation, low birth weight and accidental death combine to mean that people living here suffer the highest mortality rates in Western Europe. Coal and Steel were the lifeline of the Valleys – but today these industries are all but gone. Their legacy is a polluted pocket of poverty – 180,000 people nestled in the steep-sided windswept valleys of Caerphilly County. There are schemes to regenerate the entire area – health projects, with incentives, working groups, investment and employment strategies – but are these really working and what more can be done to lift this community out of its depression?

Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University: ‘We have illness problems which look like developing country problems, because these are the problems of poverty, poor diet, sub-standard housing: these are the problems of development.’

Lindsay Whittle comes from a long line of miners. Today he is leader of Caerphilly Borough Council. In his lifetime he’s witnessed the decay and dereliction that came with the closure of the collieries: ‘When coal was King in these valleys, at its peak the coal industry employed 40,000 men and boys – now it employs none. Many of those men and boys were to lose their lives and were to lose their health’¦’

Andrew Davies, Minister for Economic Development and Transport in the Welsh Assembly, spells the problem out: ‘Many if not most of those towns and villages, their whole economic raison d’etre was coal-mining and once the mining industry went, so did the economic base for those communities. The combination of industrial disease together with poverty, unemployment, has meant that we have some of the worst health indicators for the whole of Western Europe, in terms of chronic illness, disability, heart disease, lung diseases as well as high levels of mental illness depression and anxiety.’

Some 18% of people living in the South Wales Valleys report long-term sickness – more than double the UK average. One in four people here suffer from respiratory problems and cancer rates are among the highest in Western Europe. This huge burden of ill-health has been blamed by experts on a noxious cocktail of poverty, di

Former miner Willy MilesFormer miner Willy Miles has been breathing through an oxygen mask for almost 20 years. He’s lost the use of one lung altogether, and can use only a third of the other. And Terry Jones, another former miner, points out another consequence: ‘When you was working the mines, you’d go home from work, the first thing you’d do is call in to your local pub or club’¦ you know you had that up and go feeling, but when you can’t do it and you’re sat there and you’re sitting back and you’re thinking I can’t afford to that and I can’t afford to do this, it’s obvious to take its toll on you.’

There’s depression – and a certain fatalism. The teenage girls at the Young Mums’ Centre in Caerphilly reflect this: ‘If you’re gonna get it you’re gonna get it no matter what you do, no matter what precautions you take – if you’re gonna get something you’re gonna get it.’

Coinciding with the decline of the coal industry there was a major tragedy which struck the small mining village of Aberfan. A mountain of slag piled high behind the village and loosened by two days of rain slumped and spilled across Aberfan. The village primary school in which 200 children had just begun their first lesson of the day was smashed and half buried under rubble. Over 140 people died, most of them children – and none of them miners.

Lindsay Whittle recalls:

‘Every town and village had a slag heap above it, and this disaster could have happened anywhere – that shock was felt not only by this village but by Wales and the world.’

Kevin Morgan sees Aberfan as a turning point in official attitudes to the environment, because the slag heap was a cheap solution to an environmental problem. ‘October 1966 is the point in my view when many people in Wales first began to re-assess their attitude to the environment and they realised there are enormous human costs attached to environmental indifference.’

Jackie Matthews, a specialist respiratory nurse, sees all the problems caused by mining and unemployment. ‘Smoking is a huge problem. The main diseases we see are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and lung cancer’¦ all of which have a legacy related to smoking and poor diet and poor lifestyle’¦ it’s called the Valley lifestyle.’

It’s not just coal and mining which is responsible for the ill health of the Valleys.

Kevin Morgan Kevin Morgan says there’s more to it: ‘Nor is it just poverty, because there are equally poor regions in the European Union which don’t have our illness figures. So it’s not poverty – it’s culture plus poverty, and those are the reasons for our illness figures today in my view.’

Unhealthy diets are thought to contribute to the rising incidence of diabetes known to affect more than 93,000 people in Wales. For the first time ever Wales is seeing type 2 diabetes in children – normally only seen in people over 40.

Reaching the health targets set by the international Millennium Development Goals applies as much to areas like South Wales as it does to developing countries.

Lindsay Whittle is also Chairman of the local Health Alliance, and he doesn’t pull any punches when he opens a new Health Living Centre. ‘It’s important that we educate ourselves – it’s no good us drinking and smoking ourselves to death and taking no exercise – we’ve got to take a little bit of responsibility ourselves’¦’

Wales receives substantial European Union aid in the form of structural funds. 1.2 billion pounds has been pumped into West Wales and the Valleys since 2000, but there are now fears that new members of the EU will start to take priority over Wales.

There’s other good news too. Willy Miles has finally received compensation from the Miners’ Compensation Scheme, the largest compensation programme in the world, costing the UK Government an estimated 8 billion pounds. As his lawyer points out: ‘It doesn’t make up for the terrible disabilities that many of them suffered but in some way it is at long last a recognition of what the miners have been through, what they did actually suffer for really being the engine house of the British economy for so many years.’

Part of the regeneration funding pouring into South Wales is now going into creating new country parks, removing the last remnants of industry and re-landscaping the valleys. Says Lindsay Whittle: ‘The slag heaps are now being either removed or landscaped to ensure that it doesn’t look the grim black ugly scar on the landscape that it always has and we are greening the valleys now.’

Professor Morgan adds: ‘If Wales has a viable future it’s through sustainable development: making its environment pay more economic dividends rather than degrading the environment and having to relive the costs of that through an Aberfan.’

As the Valleys struggle to throw off their image as Europe’s sick relation, there are hopes that making the Valleys green again will encourage the brightest of the next generation to stay in Wales. And Minister Andrew Davies recalls: ‘The old mantra in Wales was you had to get out to get on – Wales’ most valuable export for decades was talented young people, and for me – as a minister – one of my lodestones or my basic principles is how can we create the opportunities so that our young people can exploit their potential and develop that potential here in Wales.’

RELATED LINKS:

To learn more about Caerphilly, visit Caerphilly Borough Council, ThisisCaerphilly.net, or VisitCaerphilly.com. Click here to read about the South Wales Mining Trail.

Welshcoalmines.co.uk has an extensive collection of photographs of Welsh collieries – and a list of mining disasters and accidents.

Visit the website of Risca Male Choir, whose voices are heard in the film. For a report on a pilot study on heroin abuse in the Welsh Valleys, go here.

For more on the Aberfan disaster and its implications, go here. Or you can watch the film on the subject on World Wide Wales.TV.

For details of Wales in Europe, go here, and read about the impact of EU policies and programmes on Wales. The EU has said that it does not want Wales to lose out because of the enlargement – see EU Press release.

To find out more about the Millennium Development Goals, visit the Development Goals website

TAGS: development energy & fuel health people & communities

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