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The Ely paradox

Ely, a huge housing estate in west Cardiff, was in the news last week for all of the wrong reasons.  Rioting broke out on the evening of 22 May 2023 after an alleged police chase ended with the deaths of two teenagers.  Police had initially claimed they had not been in the area, but CCTV footage later emerged showing the boys being followed by a police van in the minutes before they died.

While local establishment figures, along with many local people, have come out to condemn the rioting, it is a sad truth that it is only when social order breaks down that the spotlight is turned onto “left behind” areas like Ely.  Indeed, we have to go back to more widespread rioting in 1991 to find the last episode of hand-ringing and something-must-be-done-ing among the great and the good.  But just as in 1991, once the media moved on to new stories, so this time around Ely’s plight will no doubt be soon forgotten.

For the moment, all of the hackneyed hypothetical causes are being dusted down and trotted out.  Each depending upon the political affiliation of those proffering them.  Conservatives point to such things as the high percentage of single parent families and the generally high crime rate.  Meanwhile, those on the left point to high rates of economic inactivity.  And, of course, there is a degree of truth to all these indicators of deprivation.  In Ely East – the local area where the rioting took place – half of the adult population is economically inactive.  A third have no educational qualifications – double the rate for Cardiff.  A quarter (24.8%) of households are single parent, compared with just 8.3% for Cardiff as a whole.

Indeed, the plight of local areas like Ely is often hidden because they are included within the figures for Cardiff – one of the UK’s affluent and (until recently) growing university metropolises – as a whole.  For example, whereas the usual county-based deprivation figures tend to show Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent as the most deprived areas of Wales, local area data from the 2021 Census show Ely to be the forth most deprived place in Wales.  Indeed, as an NGO worker who called into Radio Wales explains, there is a somewhat hidden “South Cardiff crescent” of deprivation running from Ely in the west, through parts of Grangetown and Butetown in the south, and on through Adamsdown, Trowbridge and St. Mellons in the east.  As the local Census data shows, these areas accounted for six of the ten most deprived areas of Wales.

Ely might stand as a model for the rise and fall of ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small-town Britain.  A small settlement on the banks of the river Ely has existed since at least Roman times.  But even as late as the 1900s, the area to the west remained largely undeveloped.  The opening of a railway station on the main London to Swansea line in 1850 – at the eastern boundary of modern Ely – drew industry to the area, with the brewery (1855) and paper mill (1865) opening soon after.  But the estate itself was part of the “homes fit for heroes” developments of the inter-war years – the houses themselves being sturdier and more spacious than those in the post-1945 housing wave.

The big industrial employers in the area – joined by the giant Chivers food production (vinegar, pickles and jam) factory in 1890 – provided the industrial core to a wider economy of small businesses and services.  But these fared badly in the depression of the early 1980s, when the brewery and the food factory closed.  The papermill persisted on a smaller scale into the 1990s, although the shift to digital working led to its demise in 1999.

As is so often the case in precariat Britain, despite various half-hearted attempts by the local council and the Welsh Government to attract new jobs to the area, most businesses have favoured the gentrified areas around the city centre, the universities and the re-developed Cardiff Bay.  And since the type of employment created tends to be white collar and graduate-level, it does little for the large number of unqualified workers in districts like Ely.

The area is also suffering from the downside of the neoliberal use of NGOs to plug the gaps in an increasingly threadbare social safety net.  While NGOs thrive in periods of economic growth – as they did during Blair’s debt-based boom in the 1990s and early 2000s – after the 2008 crash and more than a decade of Tory austerity, NGO income from donations, grants and partnerships with the state has dried up just at the point at which demand has never been higher.  Nationally, for example, donations to foodbanks have fallen to the point that they have had to buy food directly.  The plethora of small, local services which are in trouble are less likely to make the news but are often more important for community cohesion.  In Ely, as Ann Marie Zogina at Voice Wales reports:

“The community secured funding for Archer road community centre and used local trades to refurbish it.  Unfortunately, after the pandemic, the council ran down the centre just as they did in Canton and now there’s no real youth provision at all.

“The library and boxing clubs were closed. Canton community centre, a former very busy resource that borders Ely, with a popular basketball pitch is soon to be demolished and replaced by a much smaller provision.”

Formally at least, Ely is represented by the upper echelon of Wales’ political aristocracy.  But as Zogina notes:

“Three Labour councillors… have not delivered for the area, and have voted through cuts and austerity that have seen the area asset-stripped.”

The council ward where last month’s rioting took place is held by former council leader Russell Goodway, who was once the highest remunerated councillor in the UK…  Although, with depressing predictability, it turns out that Goodway resides in the affluent rural neighbouring Vale of Glamorgan, where he is largely shielded from the living conditions experienced by his electorate.  Meanwhile, Ely’s Senedd seat is held by Wales’ First Minister Mark “dreary” Drakeford.  With that sort of political firepower – controlling the allocation of billions of pounds of public funds – on its side, one might anticipate that Ely would be booming.  After all, if such powerful political figures cannot even look after the people who elect them, then what good are they?  Then again, we might want to revisit a maxim set out by management guru Anthony Stafford Beer:

“The purpose of a system is what it does. There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.”

That is, the reason Ely is poor – and, indeed, why large swathes of Wales are poor – is intentional.  It goes back to something Tony Blair once said about keeping them poor because they have nowhere else to go.  In a place like Ely, the only thing worse than having Labour in power is to have the Tories instead.  But how long can this last?  Ely very nearly propelled Cardiff West into the Tory red wall at the 2019 general election.  As a local Plaid Cymru activist noted at the time:

“My opinion is based on canvassing data not bias. I live in Cardiff West. I’ve been knocking doors in Ely and Caerau and the number of voters who have previously identified as Labour now switching to Tory/Brexit is astonishing.

“This is a disaster of your own [Labour’s] making and I’m deeply disappointed by it…

“My point is if a similar swing like the one I’ve witnessed is seen in other parts of the country, the Labour party’s in a lot of trouble, and I put that down to inaction in opposition.”

Given the dog’s breakfast that the Tories have made of things since, it is doubtful they are going to be winning in Ely before Hell freezes over.  But it is equally unlikely that the people of Ely are about to embrace Keir Starmer’s brand of neoliberalism with any enthusiasm either.  And in its way, this is the most serious deprivation suffered by Ely – that in a political system which is based on people voting for a lesser evil – one which deliberately keeps them poor – there is no real, positive access to political representation. 

And given that political reality, rather than asking why rioting broke out last month, we might ask why, despite its many problems, Ely manages to limit its rioting to once every three decades or so.

As you made it to the end…

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