11 Apr 2012

How do you solve a problem like Merthyr Tydfil?

Data Correspondent and Presenter

Channel 4 reporter Ciaran Jenkins returns to his home town Merthyr Tydfil, where the government’s drive to get people off benefits and back to work is likely to prove especially challenging.

It is a damp April evening in Merthyr Tydfil, and in a pub in the oldest part of town a round bearded man begins to scream.

He calls himself Jazz, and he’s delivering his set piece poem, ‘Giro City’.

It describes a people who are hooked on government hand-outs, a people forgotten and left to rot.

The shouting draws appreciative nods from the huddle of poets, awaiting their turn to put this place into words.

Jazz writes a lot about Giros, how beautiful those green leaves of paper were, how once a month he would kiss each new cheque that slipped through his door.

But now the government wants to take his benefits away.

Despite a history of mental health problems, a recent mandatory medical assessment found him fit for work.

Unless he can successfully appeal, there will be one fewer claimant in this town labelled the sicknote capital of the UK: Merthyr Tydfil, my home town.

It is a moniker earned because more than a quarter of working-age adults are out of work on benefits.

But changes to the welfare system mean a thousand of them will be forced to look for employment over the next few years.

And according to Jazz, it’s already a long queue: one hundred applicants for every job, he says, 99 of them more suitable than he.

Jazz is two hundred years late to the party: in the nineteenth century, Merthyr Tydfil was one of the most important towns on the planet.

Its ironworks were the biggest in the world, the smouldering, sweaty heartbeat of the industrial revolution.

But when the demand for iron declined the workforce turned to coal, thousands of men clawing at the walls of South Wales’ underground corridors until one day, finally, it all came to a stop.

Hopes turned to light industry. The Hoover plant in the town employed 5,000 at its peak, producing washing machines that every family for miles, including mine, was proud to own.

When it shut its doors three years ago, many of the 400 remaining staff knew they would never work again.

Why? Because Merthyr Tydfil has for centuries been an industrial machine – its residents its constituent parts.

Understand that and you’ll comprehend how hard it is for those cogs, springs and axels to find another use, another purpose now that the mechanism has ground to a halt.

It has left an air of fatalism here – buildings that were derelict when I was growing up still lie neglected.

I meet a group of sixteen year olds, the latest generation to be disgorged from the education system without qualifications, or hope.

Do they expect to find work? No. What is the alternative? Benefits.

In this modest town, nearly 3,000 jobs need to be created to meet UK average levels of employment.

And while a new retail development has brought opportunities for some, there is no sign of the enormous stimulus required to get Merthyr working once again.

“Will it ever come?” I ask Victoria Whinckler, a local resident who runs a left-wing think tank.

“Why not?” she says. “You’ve got to be optimistic.”

It is a sentiment missing from Jazz’s poetry.

He is an ex-miner and an ex-factory worker in a town that has lost its mines and its factories.

“Got no future, ’cause there is no future,” is his next refrain.