Torfaen may be one of the smallest local authority areas in Wales, but it’s made big gains in vibrancy, rising seven places in the Vibrant Economy Index over the past five years.
Up from 18, Torfaen now ranks 11 out of 22 for overall vibrancy. The area’s improving position is built on gains across a number of measures. It ranks 12 out of 22 for health, wellbeing and happiness (up from 16 in 2013) and five out of 22 for resilience and sustainability (up from eight in 2013). The biggest change has been in inclusion and equality. On this measure, Torfaen has jumped eight places over the past five years and now ranks eight in all of Wales.
Alison Ward, chief executive at Torfaen Council, talks about the county borough’s changing fortunes.
Welcome to Torfaen
At only 12 miles long, Torfaen is one of the most densely populated areas in Wales and has three distinct communities: Blaenavon, Pontypool and Cwmbran.
Blaenavon in the north is surrounded by a wonderful landscape, with World Heritage Site status. Its amenities are of a high standard for a valley town; boasting a fabulous primary school with community facilities, including a games area and dance studio. There is also a state-of-the art health centre offering GP, dentist, optician, chiropodist and chemist services all under one roof. Nevertheless, as a former mining community, the town still has its challenges. Affordable transport is one of these. A one-way ticket to Cwmbran in the south costs around £10 – a serious issue for those without a car.
Further down the Valleys is Pontypool, which is in the middle of the borough. The council’s main offices are based here, so there’s a large presence of public sector workers in the town. Nevertheless, keeping the economy of Pontypool vibrant is a challenge, although it has a beautifully restored market hall. There are some areas of relatively high deprivation around the Pontypool area, but a strong focus on getting the community to work together with the council and the police has delivered improvements in the lives of local residents, including reductions in crime.
Further south is Cwmbran, a new town built in the 1950s and part of the M4 corridor. Its town centre is a large, popular shopping mall, with free parking and the lowest shop vacancy rate in Wales. To extend the town centre, a bridge has been built over St David's Road and the council has worked with developers to build a cinema, bowling alley and restaurants along the bridge to extended Cwmbran’s shopping offering into leisure activities in the evening. Plans are well underway for a new Sixth Form College to be built on the edge of Cwmbran, offering a modern, high-quality educational facility, as well increased footfall into the town.
There are a range of programmes that will have impacted our ranking on the index. On the economic side, we’re working to bring visitors from the World Heritage Site and the Big Pit National Coal Museum into Blaenavon to spend money and grow a vibrant tourism industry.
To increase skills and innovation, we’re aiming to attract smaller, R&D-type businesses as well as larger manufacturers. Industrial land is in short supply and much of it is locked up in the ownership of private land owners, so what we do have doesn't come in very large plots and if a major manufacturing company wants to come here, there aren’t many places to put them. However, an exciting development in Cwmbran is a major new university teaching hospital which is currently being built alongside the A4042. The Welsh government owns significant land around the new hospital. Together, we’re focused on setting up a specialist R&D medipark environment. This will attract very high-quality research jobs of a different order to the jobs we've previously seen in the Torfaen.
City region ambitions
Another initiative that should create high-quality jobs on our doorstep is the development of a semi-conductor cluster on the south side of the M4 in Newport. This is centred on manufacturing components for a range of very high tech equipment for global markets. The Cardiff Capital Region (CCR) City Deal has invested £39 million in the new cluster. This investment is entirely repayable, allowing the City Deal to reinvest in other projects in the future. The ambition is to use this investment to stretch the arc of innovation, which currently stops at Bristol, right through South East Wales.
The City Deal is a partnership of ten local authorities in South East Wales. All have invested heavily to help create a £1.28 billion development fund, which also includes money from the Welsh and central governments. A large proportion of this money will be to fund a Metro integrated transport system, helping to make all parts of the City Region accessible.
Social improvement a priority
While projects like the new teaching hospital will help to drive economic development, our priorities in our corporate plan are focused on social improvement. A few years ago, we set up a community housing association, Bron Afon, transferring all of our housing stock. It was able to access housing funding unavailable to the council and has used this to bring nearly all the houses up to the Welsh quality standard. This means housing quality in all the former council estates is much higher than it was. This has a positive impact on health and wellbeing, I'm sure.
Our corporate plan has three priorities: improve educational attainment, support vulnerable people and keep the borough green and clean. In the current economic climate, there's very little funding available for much else, so it outlines what we’ll do for our residents, what we’ll do together and the things we expect them to do for themselves. We're very aware that communities will increasingly have to do things they traditionally relied on us for. This is necessary if we are to invest the money we do have in our priority areas of service.
To take cost out of the organisation, we’re looking at becoming much more digitally savvy. For example, we've got a fantastic app that helps residents get fly tipping cleared up. Residents can send a photo directly to an operative working in their area to show them the problem and they get a picture back when it’s all cleared up. Managing the clean-up in this way costs a lot less than it used to cost, and provides a better experience for the customer.
Technology like this improves efficiency but risks distancing us from residents. So we’re thinking about how we can reinvest some of the savings we make into having more of a community presence. That way we can become facilitators for the community, helping them to build capacity to do more for themselves. This could be one of the things that helps to boost the sense of community, trust and belonging among our residents and see further improvements in vibrancy across Torfaen.