When the Football League was created, four Welsh teams joined the third division (South): Swansea Town, Newport County, Merthyr Tydfill F.C. and Aberdare Athletic. The two teams situated in the large cities of Newport and Swansea are currently still in the Football League and both teams have since featured in Europe’s prestigious club cups. The other sides, located in the towns of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, although starting in the similar league, have had a very different trajectory. Merthyr Tydfil F.C. had to drop down several divisions in 2010 after liquidation left the club in the tenth tier of football.
Merthyr Tydfil’s football club continues to fight for survival. It is an example of two wider phenomena, both highlighted in a series of papers we are publishing in the Bennett Institute’s Townscapes project which analyse the economic fortunes of towns across Britain’s major regions and nations. Firstly, town-dwellers across the country are struggling to maintain and support valued institutions which are at the heart of their community - such as football clubs. Secondly, evidence suggests that the success of city-based football clubs is related to the broader decline of towns’ local economies relative to cities across Britain. The long-term consequences of younger populations, financial investment and cultural offerings increasingly concentrating in our major cities means that town-based football clubs like The Martyrs in Merthyr Tydfill – along with many other services and businesses – are suffering.
Our latest report focuses on Wales’ towns and changes to their economies, populations and public services - it reveals that Welsh towns are the most deprived of any British region.
One of the headline findings of our data analysis is that towns in Wales experience, on average, the most poverty of any British region. Only seven out of the 40 towns in Wales have lower levels of deprivation than the British town average whilst another seven in Wales have twice as much.
Another key finding in this report is that 8 out of 10 of the most deprived towns in Wales are located in the South Wales Valleys. This region’s long-term economic struggles show few signs of abating and it is a hotspot for public service decline and low numbers of employment opportunities.
Meanwhile Wales has no examples of ‘boom towns’. No Welsh town features in Britain’s 40 most economically improving towns over the last decade. This leaves Wales with a townscape made up of many different, relatively small towns – with none having a population greater than 70,000 residents.
This briefing has also highlighted how the compact nature of towns in Wales means that, despite low levels of economic improvement and high deprivation, many of its towns score relatively well in terms of the numbers of services and jobs that they provide per resident. In a new measure we have created, Carmarthen comes out with the most numbers of public services per person provided within its town boundary.
The new UK government has promised to ‘level up’ all regions and all places in the UK – with particular focus being paid to the country’s struggling towns. Our report indicates both the scale of that challenge, as well as the importance of avoiding a blinkered approach whereby all attention and resource is fixated on the plight of post-industrial England. Wales has considerable economic deprivation, but it also has a unique geography. In responding to Wales’ high levels of poverty, policymakers would be wise to appreciate the nuances of the Welsh townscape.
The Townscapes project offers a deeper analysis of how towns are faring across the regions of Britain and elsewhere, with a series of reports on regions across Britain. It is run by Professor Michael Kenny with Research Assistant Benjamin Goodair.