To the Skyline – Community land stewardship in the South Wales Valleys

Blog post by Chris Blake, Skyline. Photo credit, Mike Erskine.

Coal and steel created the Valleys communities. The Valleys today illustrate a striking paradox – a landscape that has been largely repaired but a society struggling to respond to the loss of industry and the impact of globalisation.

Physical geography has intensified the post-industrial problems in the Valleys. Steep-sided valleys have created communities that are both geographically and psychologically isolated – communities unable to take up economic opportunities along the M4 corridor. The high moorland that surrounds each valley does not support any economic activity that engages the local economy.

But the Valleys communities are also isolated by land ownership – by the red lines of land registry maps as much as by contour lines. Uniquely for post-industrial communities, each Valley town is surrounded by publicly owned land – the forests of Welsh Government Forest Estate, legacy coal boards, and local authorities. None of these landholdings provide any economic benefit to their communities. Where the land ​is​ of economic value – from forestry and wind power- it is managed by national and international corporations with no direct economic benefit to the local community.

Could we give the community the right to manage the land that surrounds the town – for the long-term? Could we go beyond giving the community access to a patch of woodland, or a lease to build a small wind turbine? Transfer to the town the rights to use all of publicly owned land – to the skyline?

Let’s imagine a Skyline project in 30 years’ time. The microhydro scheme and the wind turbine sell low-cost electricity to the local community but also power the greenhouses built on the old colliery site growing vegetables all-year-round. The forest school building, constructed from timber processed at the community timber yard, is part of the curriculum for all of the existing schools and colleges and in the evening is the venue for skills training – forestry, horticulture, animal welfare. Children use the woodland as an outdoor play area, young people for somewhere to hang out and adults can be seen making use of the different paths and trails on foot, on bike and by horse. On the western hillside the conifers were felled a decade ago – partly for cash and partly for some of the new building. In its place the new broadleaf woodland now flushes pale green every spring – in another decade it will be coppiced for biomass production. The wilder land to the north is still as it was at transfer – the community meeting to discuss its future is next week to shape a new Lottery application. The flatter land nearest the town has been leased in 1-2 hectare blocks for smallholdings and includes some permaculture sites that have attracted some new families to the valley.

This vision doesn’t provide a thousand full-time, paid jobs with secure pensions. But it is, gradually, providing an economic link between community and landscape. Incomes can be supplemented, economic activity enhanced. Families are more active and reduce the demand on the NHS. Forest fires are a thing of the past. A psychological bond between community, economy and landscape is forged. 

Find out more about Project Skyline here.

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