IHBC 2020 Yearbook

44 Y E A R B O O K 2 0 2 0 constrained. Blaenavon, for example, is spaciously laid out with residential streets flanking a high street, and Tredegar is essentially a planned town. Other urban settlements developed with a more conventional structure. Some of the older settlements such as Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil were essentially remade in the 19th century by the sheer intensity of industrial development. Merthyr Tydfil became the largest town in Wales for a while and was perhaps the place that gave best expression to an urban and industrial way of life. Merthyr’s development reflects the importance of the iron industry in the first wave of industrialisation and urbanisation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but much of its architectural sophistication reflects the wealth later generated by mining. All these industrial towns were dependent on a limited economic base. By the interwar period, the grim realities of economic collapse had asserted themselves, leaving many of them struggling. In Merthyr, unemployment was at 62 per cent by 1932 and the population was falling. In 1939 a parliamentary report even recommended that the town be completely abandoned, and the population moved either to the Usk valley or to the coast. A more interventionist government after the Second World War helped create a climate of renewal here and in other towns across the region, manifesting in a range of public projects, and in resources for slum clearance and redevelopment. Any confidence restored by this investment was eroded in the later 20th century by the dismantling of the coal industry, which posed a new threat to Valleys communities. Since then, a series of regeneration initiatives and funding programmes have channelled resources into these communities. In recent years, these have included specific regional programmes such as the Heads of the Valleys programme, as well as more general regeneration frameworks, such as Vibrant and Viable Places, and Building for the Future. There is now also a Valleys Taskforce seeking to deliver change for the South Wales Valleys around the three themes of jobs and skills, public services, and the local community. Although heritage has not been the main driver in any of these initiatives, all of them have brought some benefits to the historic environment, including investment in conservation and reuse schemes for individual historic buildings. By tackling some of the worst effects of serious economic decline, regeneration programmes have also helped to create a climate in which heritage can be recognised and valued. The Valleys Regional Park, which was launched by the Taskforce in 2018, aims to ‘unlock and maximise the potential of the natural and associated cultural heritage of the Valleys to generate social, economic, and environmental benefits’. But how is ‘cultural heritage’ to be defined? These communities have a strong sense of identity, and a highly distinctive landscape character. There is also their legacy of industrial heritage sites, some of which form a regional route in the European Routes of Industrial Heritage. But what of the wider historic environment that contributes so much to the distinctiveness of the landscape? In terms of designated assets, many of the Valleys’ towns have relatively small numbers of listed buildings and conservation areas: in the whole of Rhondda Cynon Taf, for example, there are only two conservation areas (both in Tredegar), and 53 listed buildings. Even Merthyr Tydfil only has 234 listed buildings and eight conservation areas; although a heritage strategy produced in 2009 recommended 17 new conservation areas, only five additional ones were designated. There have been some successful projects targeting individual historic buildings. Notable examples include the former town hall in Merthyr Tydfil, reborn as the Red House centre for the arts and creative industries. The dereliction of the town hall had been a sad commentary on the depth of economic decline in the town; it is now a focal point of urban renewal. The former general office building of the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Company, known as The Works, has been refurbished as an archives and library, meeting and conference facility. Alongside the flagship projects like these, there has also been some area-based heritage investment. Townscape Heritage initiatives in Pontmorlais, Merthyr Tydfil (2011), and in Aberdare (began in 2009), for example, have helped to transform The steep main street of Blaenavon, revitalised after years of neglect (Photo: © Crown copyright 2020, Cadw) The Workmen’s Hall and Institute at Bedwas, a mining community at the southern edge of the South Wales coalfield (Photo: © Crown copyright 2020, Cadw)