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“It’s just survival up here.” Anger and AusTerity in the Welsh Valleys.

Photography: Veronika Merkova. Words: SC Cook.

Cymmer - a village deep in the South Wales Valleys - has paid a heavy price for the huge spending cuts ushered in by the coalition government of 2010. Now, people here are fighting for more than just services; this is a battle for the future of the community itself.

Melanie Emmett is leaning across the counter of the Cymmer Afan Community Library. Immediately facing her are a few tables and chairs, a row of computers and, beyond that, shelves of books and a play area for children. Behind her sits neat stacks of fizzy drinks and a coffee machine. For a tiny building nestled deep in the Afan valley, there seems to be everything you could need. But as she rests her arms next to the till and tells us about how she came to volunteer here, it quickly becomes apparent that it could all soon be gone.

The library where Melanie spends most of her time had its funding pulled by Neath Port Talbot council five years ago. “There was a fight”, she says. “We had a hundred people in here. They were up in arms, but it got us nowhere.” In the end, a group of locals had no choice but to run it themselves.

Cymmer and its neighbouring villages have faced catastrophic levels of austerity in recent years. Sustained by huge mining and industrial infrastructure in years gone by, the area now suffers from drastic under-investment and joblessness. Similar cuts to those which hit the library have also befallen the swimming pool, bus services, the fire station, youth clubs and, worst of all, Cymmer Afan Comprehensive School.

“People are very angry,” Melanie tells us. “Because they seem to be picking on this place, picking on these valleys. There's been massive, massive cuts.”

Melanie joined the library when she was just twelve years old. It was the same year - 1974 - that she started in the local comprehensive school. As she proudly explains: “This place opened at the same time and I’ve been here ever since.” Now, thanks to around twenty volunteers and an irrepressible chairman, Cymmer Afan Community Library opens its doors four days a week and puts on an impressive range of activities: from art groups to baby massage, tai chi and Welsh language classes.

But Melanie admits that, almost five years since the community took it over, things are only getting harder. “We try to keep it going at all costs,” she says, “but it’s getting a bit dodgy at times.” Funding comes in small pots and mainly from the huge wind farms that now tower over villages like Cymmer in the South Wales valleys. Filling in grant applications is an arduous task and money is never guaranteed.

“We’re just stumbling from one financial year to another,” Melanie says in exasperation. Closure, she admits, would be “devastating” for the people in the valley.

To show us what she means, we are invited back to visit the art group that meets on a Tuesday morning. As we return over a week later, Melanie is standing on the front step to greet us as we pull in. The library now has a large table in the middle of it and around the edges, eight people sit with easels or drawing boards, calmly doing their work.

Art Class, Tuesday 5th February 2019.

At the end we get a chance to speak to one of the participants, Hayley Jones

Following a mental health crisis, and without knowing anything about Wales, Hayley moved from England to Croeserw, immediately South of Cymmer. As she says: “I just wanted to get away”. Her problems continued though and after another relapse, she ended up in Neath Port Talbot hospital. Looking for something that would help her recover, the nurses introduced Hayley to a local art group.

Hayley Jones: “These are my friends, these are my only people,”

“I didn’t know what to do when I first come,” she remembers. “Coz I don’t paint, I don’t draw, I don’t.... No, I didn’t think I could do anything.” On her first day, she says she “just coloured in” but then thought: “I’ll get some paints and I’ll have a little go, so that’s what I done.”

Now, as well as painting, she has started yoga and sometimes takes part in Tai Chi sessions. In the absence of family or a support network, this place has become a lifeline for Hayley.

“These are my friends, these are my only people,” she tells us.“They’re the reason I got up today."

When I ask what the impact would be on her if the library had to shut permanently due to lack of funds, Hayley chokes up a bit.

“Well I wouldn’t get out if it wasn’t for this place,” she says. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be alive.” Hayley pauses. “I really wouldn’t be, because I don’t do nothing. This is the only place I could come to, coz I lost all my confidence. I don’t drive now. I’m not working. So coming here was a big incentive to get up.”

In the eyes of most people, Hayley’s story would be reason enough to keep the library open, but there are others in the area who also need help. Under the stewardship of the Trussell Trust, the same group of volunteers have also been running the local foodbank. And in the last 12 months, demand has “escalated” according to Melanie.

“I’ve had an eye opener. All types of people [come in], and any age. Youngsters, middle age, it's all walks of life. Some people are working, some people are not. Some people had their benefits stopped.”

But perhaps what shocks Melanie the most is that there is demand for it at all. When I ask if there would have been a need for a food bank fifteen years ago she responds bluntly: “No, two years ago we wouldn’t have had a food bank up here.” But now, "people are very hard up,” she says. The multitude of problems facing the communities scattered across the upper Afan Valley - inflicted quite deliberately by government policy - is leading to a general sense of apathy and even despair.

“People are gone.” Melanie sighs “They don’t care. It’s gone past that – everything is closing.”

If there is one thing that epitomises this mood - and which could even turn it around - it is the local school. Opened in 1965, Cymmer Afan Comprehensive sits at the top of the village and serves the adjacent valleys. But in November 2017, plans were revealed for its closure. As things currently stand, this coming term could be its last.

“The way they've treated the school is sad ...It’s appalling,” says June Corcoran, a library volunteer and mother of a teenage daughter who attends the comp. The teachers, she tells us, "found out through social media”. Now the workers must see out the final few months in the knowledge that they will probably be unemployed soon.

The road into Cymmer

As for the children themselves, they even set up a high school band called Save Our School (SOS) to protest the closure. One pupil, speaking after a council meeting, implored politicians to change course: “We know each other and care about each other and we want our school to stay,” she said. Others described it as “the death of the valley.” None of it could budge the council however.

June is furious: “They haven't even thought about the children.” Her daughter, who currently lives round the corner from the school, would now face a journey that could last an hour each way on winding roads. One simple knock on effect of this will be that they stop seeing children in the library after school because they get back so late. One group of boys, who have already moved campuses, no longer visit the library at all. "If the school goes now then that’ll be it,” Melanie says. “It’ll be an older population here and the younger ones will go.” But people in the valley are not letting it go without a fight.

When plans were announced for closure, June says there was a huge meeting that was “packed out”. The school was full! They had to put on buses. It was good to see. People came from three valleys.”

June Corcoran “If they take the school away the future generations up here will have nothing,”

On top of this, 433 written objections to the school’s closure were received by the council. Now, unions and campaigners are leading a battle in the courts. They believe the council has contravened the Future Generations Act, a law brought in by the Welsh Government in 2015. “If they take the school away the future generations up here will have nothing,” June says. “So we’re taking them to court because of that. Nobody has acted on it yet so we're gonna try it and see what the judge says.”

This landmark case is due to be heard in the coming weeks, but it is more than just the school which is at stake. For people like June who have campaigned tirelessly to stop its closure, it also represents the future. Take it away and you take away people's hope that the next generation will have something better.

June Corcoran, outside the Cymer Afan comprehensive school

So much of the chaos that this area is facing stems from decisions taken in Westminster, and when I ask their thoughts on what is happening in parliament, Melanie and June look dismayed. "I can’t watch it anymore because we got so much going on round here,” June says. “Pity they wouldn’t come and see us instead. I have wrote to every MP, everyone. Honest to god I have plagued them. I have stalked them about the bloody school!”

“Don’t even mention Stephen Kinnock.” Says Melanie. When I ask why, Joan lets out a frustrated sigh. Melanie gathers her thoughts and simply remarks: “He doesn't do a lot.” June is less restrained. “He ain’t ever gonna have my vote, ever in his life again!”

Kinnock is the MP for Aberavon who regularly appears in the media, either to attack Jeremy Corbyn or speak out against Brexit. The fact that he spends more time focusing on this than the social catastrophe unfolding in the Afan Valley does not go unnoticed.

"Labour have lost it completely up here," Melanie says bluntly. When I ask why, June insists it is because of the school: "They didn't give us no support whatsoever." Melanie simply says "everything," but is keen to point out that the local AM, David Rees, and a councillor Scott James, have fought their corner. But with the exception of some good councillors, Joan says she has “got no time for any of them at all. I’d probably be able to stand on a soap box and say better things than them."

Cymmer

They go on to explain that the upper Afan Valley used to be a Labour stronghold. "You couldn’t budge us," they say. But now, almost every councillor is an independent. One of these is Nicola Davies, a councillor for Glyncorrwg who Melanie introduces to us to on our second visit.

"I'd just had enough of everything being taken away from the village and nobody really fighting our corner," she tells me over a cup of tea in the small library cafeteria. "Everything was closing and at the end of day I’m born and bred here - I’m sick of things just being taken away."

In the village where she lives of Glyncorrwg, Nicola says that the only activity provided for young people is a play area. She contrasts this to her own childhood in the 70's and 80s. "Growing up we had the youth club that was open every night," she says. In the holidays, they had a summer camp in the school "which we had for the whole six weeks."

"It’s affecting children." Nicola says, "If they haven’t got somewhere to go or something to do, they are going to suffer more aren’t they? And get more depressed and more isolated. If this shut..." she gestures to the library, "well, I think it'd be dead. Coz it's well used, so it's something else gone again." She looks on in dismay. "I dunno, a lot of people just say 'why don’t they damn us and be done with it.' I said we just gotta fight for what we want and if we don’t fight we're not gonna get anywhere anyway."

Nicola Davies: "I'd just had enough of everything being taken away from the village and nobody really fighting our corner."

Nicola originally intended to stand as a Labour candidate but missed the application deadline so stood as an independent instead. She thinks, however, that it worked out for the best. "I'm glad I didn’t because it's a Labor run council that's closing everything and at the end of the day it doesn’t look very good, does it?" Like Melanie and June, Nicola understands that austerity ultimately comes from Westminster, but the failure of the local council or Welsh Government to properly fight back has had a huge effect.

"Westminster cuts back; Welsh Government cuts back; then local authorities. So it's just a knock on effect," Nicola says with exasperation. "What they don’t seem to realise" June says "is the impact it's had on people. You know, real people living up here"

"We're Invisible," says Melanie, "they don’t care."

"We’ve got a beautiful valley, people are proud of the valleys. But what the Tory Government have done... " she pauses for a moment before continuing, "I know the money comes from the Tory Government, but it's the Labour Government [in Wales] as well. I got faith in none of them. Not Jeremy Corbyn, none of them. A lot of people will say that. They’ve turned their backs on us." On the subject of national politics, I ask if Brexit will make things even harder.

Nicola sighs: "I just look at it [Westminster] every day and I think it just gets worse and worse. It will have a knock on effect but to be honest, there’s not much more they take from us up here." Melanie agrees: "Ninety nine percent of people in this valley don’t care about Brexit. It’s just survival up here." In fact even the prospect of crashing out of Europe without a deal - something described as a catastrophe by most politicians - is not what worries people here.

“I'm absolutely petrified of the roll out of universal credit," Melanie tell us. The controversial benefit change is yet to hit Cymmer, but Melanie has no idea how she will cope when it does.

"I'm not very computer minded," she admits. "I think I can do it, but I’d have to do it for myself, I’d have to do it for my disabled son and I’d have to do it for my mother. Because how do they expect my seventy eight year old mother to do these computer things?" She’s on housing benefit and council tax benefit - she’d have to do it. I’ll have to do it. I’ve got a son with autism. How is he supposed to do it?"

I ask Melanie what would happen to her if she fell victim to the notorious five week wait before receiving any payment under Universal Credit. "Well, I'd be in the food bank," is her blunt response. And many others, it seems, would have to join her.

Despite this, Melanie still holds out some hope that Universal Credit will never reach these valleys. "I hope here will be the last to roll out," she says. "And by then it will be a different government and they might have done away with it." Given the scale of the political crisis we are in, this may be closer than it seems. But in the meantime people here are not giving up. The trustees at the library are now trying to team up with other groups from the area to get a bigger grant that they could share. There is no guarantee that this will happen though, and much will depend on money coming from the wind farms, but it is the best hope they have got in the circumstances.

"We just seem to be fighting all the time," Melanie says.

This fight will continue into the future whatever happens. But what shape it will take is impossible to predict. The sense of disillusionment and even isolation has burrowed deep into people's consciousness. Across the channel in France, burning anger over regional inequality and poverty has exploded on to the streets in recent weeks and led to huge disruption. But a concoction just as potent as that which is driving the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement in France exists in Britain. Its consequences are not yet known, but it could prove to be far more dramatic than a few broken windows.

*Shortly prior to publication, I phoned the library and spoke to June. The judicial review into the closure of the school had just been heard. Their case was not upheld and the school is due to close this Summer. Joan was furious, but wanted me to specifically mention how brilliant the teachers and staff had been in supporting the children, and how outstanding the school's head, Gavin Groves, had been throughout the campaign.

Melanie Emmett: "Ninety nine percent of people in this valley don’t care about Brexit. It’s just survival up here."

Credits:

Veronika Merkova

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