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‘It’s Not Rocket Science – It’s Just Community’: Radical Ffestiniog

Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales was once the slate capital of the world. Now it's pioneering grassroots alternatives to the devastation of post-industrial capitalism – and pointing a way toward a socialist society.

Blaenau Ffestiniog is the town in Wales with the most social enterprises per capita, fifteen of them employing nearly 200 people before Covid-19. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

The first thing you notice about Blaenau Ffestiniog is the slate. The two-up two-down houses that line the narrow streets blend into the mountains directly behind them, which are covered in mounds and mounds of thin, grey sheets of cast-off stone. For every tonne of useable slate that was produced in the area, about ten tonnes of waste were left in heaps on the mountainside.

These piles of slate still sit there today as a constant—and somewhat precarious—reminder of the town’s history, like the slag heaps scattered around England’s former mining towns or the auto factories that pepper post-industrial Detroit. But there is something quietly beautiful about the sheets of grey that adorn the mountainsides.

Most of the villages around Bro Ffestiniog—of which Blaenau is just one—can trace their history back to slate mining, which dominated the Welsh economy in the nineteenth century. For a while, the Oakley quarry, which lay just outside of Blaenau, was the largest slate mine in the world. By the 1880s, when the slate industry peaked, Blaenau boasted a population of nearly 12,000 people, most of whom spoke Welsh as their first language.

The recession of the late 1800s hit the Welsh economy particularly hard, hastening the demise of the slate mining industry. Slate has always been relatively expensive to produce, as splitting still has to be performed by hand. Over the long term, demand for Welsh slate—rendered less competitive by rising labour costs—declined. The few quarries that remained following the Second World War closed during the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1960s, following Harold Wilson’s promise that his Labour government would deliver prosperity and equality through innovation, investment, and industrial strategy, a new nuclear power station was built in Blaenau. For a brief time, the white heat of industry—or, in this case, nuclear fission—revived the town. The plant brought well-paid jobs, and there was a sense that the town might have a future beyond the mines.

But Britain’s brief attempt at building a developmental state ended with the crisis of the 1970s. And while guaranteeing decades of prosperity for London and the South East, Thatcher’s neoliberal reforms did little to reverse the fortunes of towns like Blaenau. By the time the nuclear power station was decommissioned in 1991, the town’s brief post-war confidence had ebbed once again.

With another vision of the future foreclosed, people left the Bro to try their luck in Liverpool, Cardiff, or Manchester. Others stayed behind, while the town diminished, jobs dried up, and wages fell. By 2011, the population had shrunk to just over 4,000. Today, Blaenau is one of the poorest places in the United Kingdom. Slate, which does not provide especially good insulation, has also left another legacy—Blaenau has the highest rate of fuel poverty in Wales.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, after decades of contraction, the towns and villages scattered through the Ffestiniog are similar to the slate that adorns the surrounding mountains: left over, left behind. This attitude remains pervasive among the politicians, charities, and businesspeople who deal with the Ffestiniog. It’s a puzzle; a conundrum; a place to be ‘fixed’ from the outside.

Over a pint at the local pub, Lowri Cunnington Wyn recounted how strangers with clipboards would frequently descend on the local school to ask the kids about their lives. Her brother, Ceri, nodded in agreement, telling me that the people of North Wales were some of the most studied—and least listened to—in the UK. Things are hard in the Bro—for some, extremely hard.

But in other ways, the Ffestiniog is extraordinarily rich. Along with its awe-inspiring natural beauty, it has large slate deposits and vast opportunities for the generation of renewable energy. French energy company Engie recently spent £50 million to improve the response time of the Ffestiniog Hydropower Station, which you can glimpse in the mountains over Blaenau on a clear day. The Ffestiniog has a close-knit community, a good education system, and, perhaps more than anything else, a deep will to survive. As Ceri told me, ‘We already have the gold—we have the energy, and we have the people.’

But that gold hasn’t particularly benefitted the community. Outsiders have come in, extracted the area’s natural resources, exploited its labour and moved on when the profits have dried up. The narrative many of the locals hold about their relationship to the outside world is not dissimilar to that held by the dependency theorists of the 1960s: foreign capital dominates the economy, local workers are exploited, and profits are exported to the core. Wales, more than one of my interviewees reminds me, was England’s first ever colony.


What drew me to Blaenau was not its past, however, but its present. My journey to the Ffestiniog began several months previously with an unusual speculative email. Karel Williams, an academic at the University of Manchester, opened his message matter-of-factly: ‘Grace, as you are half Welsh and take Christian social teaching seriously, you should come to the launch of the Blaenau report on March 18.’  As it happens, my dad grew up about an hour’s drive from the Ffestiniog, just outside of Bangor. My childhood memories are populated by time spent with my godfather in a particularly remote part of north Wales.

Other than the sheep, the thing I remember about the walks we took on those trips is that they were cold and grey. On this front, not much has changed. The grey in Ffestiniog is not the same kind as you have in London—it doesn’t feel oppressive and close. It’s a grey that feels remote and indifferent to your existence. Paired with the magisterial mountains it feels almost mystical. At more than one point on the journey through Snowdonia, I found myself on a tiny road winding its way along a cliff edge, surrounded by peat and gorse, and realised that I was more alone than I had been in years.

The pull of some sort of an idea of returning to my roots was enough to convince me to drive for five hours to spend a week in a village I’d never visited; there was a vague promise that something exciting was about to happen there. And this is exactly why Karel had emailed me in the first place. After spending most of his career researching the financialisation of the British economy in Manchester, Karel eventually turned his attention back to his homeland. What intrigued Karel about Blaenau was not why so many people had left – as a migrant himself, he could very easily have answered this question. It was why people stayed.

The paper he attached to his first email framed this question using the idea of restanza, or resting in a place, a term coined by Italian anthropologist Vivo Teti, who spent his entire life studying the small village in which he was born and where he still lives. On the first page of the document, there was a long quote from Teti: ‘Restanza means choosing to stay in a place in a conscious active and proactive way by actively guarding it, being aware of the past while enhancing what remains with an impulse towards the future where a new community is possible. In this sense, staying is a dynamic concept, it is a form of journey.’

I had never heard of Teti or restanza, but the framework deeply resonated with me. Places like the Ffestiniog boast astonishing natural beauty but few economic opportunities. Many people feel they have no choice other than to leave. And our national conversation about place is defined by those who have left. Leaving is what the smart, ambitious, and dynamic people do—that’s why they call it the ‘brain drain’. Those who stay behind are treated with curiosity at best, pity at worst.

Seven years ago, the Economist summarised the logic of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse as ‘[allowing] the failing places to fail, but [helping] people move to the boomtowns’. This, it argued, was a good thing. Cities benefit from ‘economies of agglomeration’—a boost to productivity derived from having people and businesses located close to one another. ‘Failing towns’, on the other hand, are associated with all sorts of social problems: from crime to teenage pregnancy to drug abuse.

Politicians like Osborne treat our small towns and the people who inhabit them as problems to be solved. This is why the idea of restanza is empowering. Most of us feel some attachment to our homes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to leave, to move, to explore—remaining does not mean sacrificing one’s sense of adventure.

We often understand place through the paired binaries of staying/leaving, dynamic/static, thriving/declining. But a just world, a more human world, would be one in which everyone could move and adventure freely, and one in which no one was forced to leave. And if you want to see what such a world might look like, you could do worse than explore Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Co-operative Blaenau

‘Everyone looks at Blaenau Ffestiniog as a pretty bleak place,’ Rhys told me during a tour around CellB, the cinema, youth centre, and bar he owns, housed in the town’s former police station. His friend Ceri echoed the sentiment when I spoke to him a few days later: ‘When you’re born here, you’re encouraged to leave.’

Rhys and Ceri did leave. They started a band—Anweledig—when they were both at school and went on to become stars. Ceri told me a succession of stories from their touring days, including the time they opened for the Super Furry Animals and met Bob Geldof. But they both decided to return because they wanted to give something back to the place that had inspired their music.

At the time, the Welsh government was distributing funding to disadvantaged communities through its Communities First programme. Ceri set up a social enterprise called Antur Stiniog, a mountain biking centre that would create jobs and bring investment back into the community. After that, he set up a local environmental charity—Dref Werdd—that focused on maintaining the natural environment and supporting local clean energy projects.

Not long afterwards, Rhys’ dad died and left him an inheritance that he used to purchase and convert the old police station. With the help of some enthusiastic local teenagers, he converted it into a youth and arts centre. ‘There was no plan to it,’ Ceri assured me, ‘it’s just love of your community, love of your area, and knowing that there’s something special here.’

Before long, social enterprises were springing up all over the Bro. About a mile down the road in Llan Ffestiniog, 200 residents banded together with support from the Welsh government to purchase their local pub, Y Pengwern. A few minutes from Y Pengwern lies Cwmni Gwesti Seren, a hotel for people with disabilities. Ceri set up Cwmni Bro to organise all the local co-operatives and social enterprises and help them to obtain funding—his office sits directly above that of Dref Werdd, which is now a multipurpose community hub that helps people struggling with food and fuel poverty.

Just like that, Blaenau Ffestiniog became the town in Wales with the most social enterprises per capita. Fifteen of them employed nearly 200 people before Covid 19, and politicians have come down from all over the country to learn the key to their success. Ceri tells me, ‘It’s not rocket science—it’s just community.’

It wasn’t long before other areas started to follow suit. In Bethesda, 15 miles away, a group of volunteers set up Partneriaeth Ogwen, which purchased unused properties on the high street, offering the commercial spaces to local businesses and the flats above to residents at affordable rents. Then they started their own energy cooperative—Ynni Ogwen, a hydroelectricity plant powering homes and delivering returns to the community. A similar model was developed in Penygroes, where Yr Orsaf has, with help from the government, raised £1 million to purchase local assets and put them to use for the community.

People like Ceri bristle at the idea that their community has been ‘left behind’. He tells me about the ‘history of extraction’ that marks the town. ‘It’s a very rich area culturally, even economically, but it’s just been extraction, extraction, extraction—of young people, of wealth, of resource.’ He gestures out of the window to the mountains. ‘There is a multinational hydropower station a mile down the road owned by Engie—£8.3 billion turnover a year; 200 yards away the school can’t afford to buy computers and we’ve got the highest fuel poverty in Wales’.

A Community Alternative

Mai, who works downstairs in Dref Werdd, is on the front line tackling two overlapping crises in global capitalism—the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis. He works for Dref Werdd, the local environmental charity; he joined just after the charity received funding from the National Lottery, which it did by shoehorning itself into the funders’ brief. ‘It was the year of energy efficiency in 2015, which is a bit of a joke really in this town—the housing stock is 1830s at best. So we were trying to tell people to insulate their homes but people don’t have stashes of money hidden away.’

Despite his cynicism about the priorities of grant-making organisations, Mai is passionate about renewable energy and the opportunities it creates for a town like Blaenau—and he has a way with words. ‘It’s our rain that’s going into that river that’s being then converted into electricity and then extracted. We talk about trickle down; it’s pissing down here, and that’s all extracted.’

Mai spends most of his time responding to residents in fuel or food poverty, directing them towards food banks, government services, or other ‘sticking plasters’. The rest of it he spends desperately searching for ways to expand community energy projects in Blaenau, but he’s having trouble drumming up interest.

He thinks big businesses like Engie see their responsibilities to the town as limited to asking the local kids if they want a new football kit. Meanwhile, the National Grid is divided into two tiers, one to transmit energy from Blaenau to the rest of the country and the other to provide for local energy needs, which makes investing in community energy difficult. ‘The actual infrastructure’, Mai tells me, ‘is designed to extract.’ And then there’s the problem of second homes: ‘You can’t factor in a holiday home when you’re looking at public money to invest in that kind of infrastructure.’

Mai’s dad, like Ceri’s, worked in the quarry. He describes Blaenau as a klondike, ‘a company town’—the legacy of which is a ‘fantastic community’ combined with deep poverty. In his own town, just down the road, the social fabric has been ‘eaten by moths’ because of holiday homes and rentals. Mai’s mum, who still lives there, jokes that she only knows people from the waist up because she only ever sees them through their car windows.

The language is another pull factor—more than 80 percent of the town’s residents speak Welsh as their first language. When Mai went to work in Cardiff as a sound engineer, he found the experience alienating, not least because he was working for a channel producing Welsh-language TV programmes that operated entirely in English. Now he works mostly in Welsh. During our interview, he automatically transitions to Welsh whenever someone walks through the door.

It would be easy for a town like Blaenau to become inward-looking, given the ‘tight knit community’,  the language, and the legacy of extraction. But that hasn’t been the outcome here. In fact, the town’s strong community, workerist roots, and co-operative economy make it far more progressive and open to outsiders than many far larger and better-off places. Kurmang Rashid, a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, has been running the local bakery for seven years. He fit straight into the community, he said, and given that he speaks four languages, picking up another hasn’t been so hard. Practical considerations aside, Kurmang’s reasons for moving to Blaenau were romantic: ‘I like the mountains. They remind me of back home.’

A Grassroots Model

It could be something about the surrounding mountains that creates the spirit of autonomy and solidarity that you find in both Kurdistan and Blaenau, or it could be the experience of oppression—much starker in the Kurdish case but felt surprisingly strongly in Wales too. At one point during our interview, Ceri expresses his anger that his generation were never taught their history at school: ‘if we knew our history we’d be up in arms, we’d be up at the quarries with our pitchforks.’

Several people tell me that in the 1850s, Wales was the nation with the highest percentage of literate people in Europe—according to Sel ‘entirely through community effort’. But this was reversed with the ‘treason of the blue books’—a Westminster report that used similar disparaging tropes about Wales and the Welsh languages as those that had been deployed in the British Empire.

And then there’s ‘Cofiwch dryweryn’ (‘Remember Tryweryn’), a graffiti memorial to a Welsh town drowned by Liverpool City Council in the 1950s to create a reservoir—an event which contributed significantly to the growth of Welsh nationalism in the latter part of the twentieth century. And then there’s the particularities of Welsh socialism. Sel tells me about the strength of the labour movement before the First World War; the strong history of political education, community organising and co-operative ownership; even the attempts by miners in South Wales to ‘democratically own the mines’.

Despite his strong sense of Welsh pride, Sel describes himself as a socialist, not a nationalist, but he nevertheless wants ‘as much political independence for Wales as possible’. And Ceri points out that he has ‘more in common with some of the Labour MPs in south Wales than [he has] with the nationalist Plaid ones up north.’ It is a complex and interesting moment in Welsh politics: the Corbynite Mark Drakeford is the first minister, but most of his party is considerably to his right. His party now governs with Plaid and emphasises the need for distinctive Welsh approaches.

But Ceri doesn’t view the problems that Blaenau faces, or the solutions he and others are developing, as uniquely Welsh. When he hears people talking about the problems faced by towns in the North and the Midlands, he feels a sense of solidarity and recognition. He’s worked hard to put Blaenau on the map, alongside places like Preston—and he speaks fondly of Matthew Brown, the leader of Preston Council. ‘We’re doing what they’ve been doing in Preston for ages’, he tells me, ‘but no one listens.’

From a more academic perspective, Karel critiques what he sees as some of the limitations of applying the Preston model to places like Blaenau. Local procurement and insourcing can only go so far in small towns like Blaenau—and Karel makes the entirely fair point that the purchasing budget of NHS Wales pales in comparison to the amount spent on staffing. From a political–economic perspective, what Blaenau needs is ‘accessible jobs and affordable housing’.

Blaenau isn’t so much an alternative to the Preston model as it is a bottom-up application of the same principles. In Preston, the impetus came from the council, so the focus has been on procurement, regeneration, and building new institutions. In Blaenau, it came from local people, so the focus has been on social enterprise, co-operatives, and community energy. For community wealth-building to work—for it to be applicable across the country—you need both elements.

Both Preston and Blaenau, of course, require a strong focus on devolution. The UK is one of the most politically and economically centralised systems in the Western world. Historically, as Sel points out, the Left hasn’t always been in favour of decentralisation. Even today, it’s often associated with right-wing shibboleths like freeports and enterprise zones. But it’s important that socialists recognise the importance of returning power to communities without exacerbating spatial inequalities.

Perhaps the strongest progressive case for devolution is that the Welsh government simply feels a lot closer to places like Blaenau than Westminster does to most English towns. Many of my interviewees are on first name terms with ministers in the Senedd. All of this means, Karel tells me, that ‘if you have the initiative, you can get things done in Wales.’

Within and Against

The world I found in Blaenau provided perhaps as close an insight into what it might be like to live in a socialist society—if not a socialist economy—as it is possible to imagine from within a capitalist one.

People cared for one another and the environment that supported them, in clear and practical ways. They discussed, debated, and theorised to make sense of what they were doing and to develop plans to take it forward. Not everyone was involved with the day-to-day running of the operation, but people gave what time and resources they had and received what support they needed. Every person who came to the project, with all of their peculiarities and failings, left with a deeper sense of what it really meant to live as part of a community.

Ever since travelling around the country during the 2019 election, I’ve been convinced that the conservative impulse in our society isn’t driven by the lack of desire for change. Most people can see that our political and economic systems aren’t working. Instead, the greatest obstacle we face to transforming our society is that most people do not believe change is possible; they do not believe that it is within their power to change anything about the world around them, deeply broken as it is.

State power is important—as anyone in Wales will tell you. It really is impossible to imagine a transition towards a socialised economy without some top-down action to expropriate capital and hand resources back to the people who truly own them. But it is impossible to imagine a socialist state without the beginnings of a socialist way of life—and, perhaps more importantly, a socialist imagination.

It is, of course, a little more complicated than this in practice. But the insight nevertheless matters because it shows quite how radical towns like Blaenau really are. The Ffestiniog is a world in which a critical mass of people stopped believing that it’s impossible to change the world around them. And as soon as they gave up that limiting belief, change just happened.

What made it happen in Blaenau? The community here was a fertile mix of those who had stayed, those who had left, and those who had joined, which created a beautiful synthesis between home and away—between community and individuality. In Blaenau, staying doesn’t feel like giving up. Staying feels like an adventure, which means that leaving becomes a real choice. If it is possible to imagine a socialist idea of ‘home’, then, to me, this is it.