Signs of hope at last
Tom Houghton charts the history of a housing estate inspired by a Utopian vision but which for many became a ‘bleak wilderness’. Now, however, there has been a ‘dramatic change’
PEOPLE who live or have lived in Penrhys often say its reputation was undeserved.
Yet, to those outside, it became a symbol of how bad life could become when planners got it wrong.
Perched 1,170ft above the Rhondda, the steep warren of grey, windswept, rain-battered fourstorey council blocks appeared an isolated community of poverty and crime separated from the Valley life below.
Its image to those outsiders was fixed in the 1980s and early 1990s when TV broadcasts and national newspapers carried reports of frequent arson in derelict blocks, and firefighters were pelted with stones when they dared to come to help.
In 1992 the Independent described “nightly confrontations between young arsonists, some about 10 years old, and firefighters and police”.
It wrote: “Scorched facades and roofs with tiles ripped off are a mute testimony to a troubled generation of youngsters, most of whose parents are on the dole.”
Today, Penrhys is very different. Nearly twothirds of the homes have been demolished. Others have been rebuilt and refurbished.
Yet its reputation has not died. And its 50-year story stands as a telling lesson to anyone who thinks planning alone can turn back the economic tide.
The hubris victims of the of the poorlythought-through, highminded Penrhys planners were those who had little, were persuaded or forced to call it home, and found they were left even more trapped in their poverty on top of a hill where it is said to rain sideways.
In the 1960s, the ambition for Penrhys had been immense.
Fuelled by the ideals of the Utopian architecture of the era, which aimed to build a better world, proposals for 954 homes on a 61-acre hilltop site of a former monastery with panoramic views over the Rhondda Fawr and its neighbouring valleys were put before Rhondda Borough Council in May 1964. The authority hoped building it would stop the drain of workers away from the upper reaches of the Rhondda, towards what’s now the M4 corridor, and provide spacious council homes with stunning views, very different from the typical Valleys terraces, as well as meeting a request by the National Coal Board for 250 homes for miners from the north east.
The larger Glamorgan council was sceptical, believing coastal development to be a more sustainable way of planning for the future, but Penrhys went ahead, with the support of former Commons Speaker, George Thomas, the 1st Viscount Tonypandy.
Yet Penrhys was not even completed before the problems hit. The coal board withdrew its request as the decline of mining in the Rhondda began to accelerate; the demand for council houses dropped and the drain of workers intensified.
It meant that by the time it opened many of its first residents were those who were already unemployed and had been marginalised in the Valleys villages. Some had to be forced to move there when their homes were compulsorily purchased, leaving them with “lasting bitterness”.
The nature of the estate also seemed to work against hopes of establishing a healthy community.
A clergyman who later moved to Penrhys in some of its darkest days would write that in the Valleys, the terraces fostered a community spirit as neighbours spoke in their gardens and streets. Up in Penrhys, which was deliberately designed to be different, the front doors faced in opposite directions so it was “very easy not to know your neighbour”.
The estate formally opened, perhaps inauspiciously, on a Friday the 13th in September 1968. It did have a revolutionary heating system which kept pathways warm and heated every home. But that, too, quickly became problematic. Homes close to the boiler house sweated in tropical heat while those further away shivered in the hillside cold.
People in the Rhondda didn’t quite know what to think. One letter writer in the Rhondda Leader fulminated: “Who in this world wants to live in such a bleak wilderness of a site?”
Another said: “I’ve not heard of anyone who wants to live there. There are no indications of traders wanting to take their business there. In fact, by all the signs, it’s a ghost town before it starts.”
Others had high hopes for an estate that became dubbed the “City in the Sky” and “Rhondda’s Little Switzerland”.
Welsh Office planning official JJ Clement urged other councils to follow suit and “follow the example of Rhondda and think big”.
And one of the earliest residents, an AJ Adams, who lived at 366 Heol Pendyrus, wrote to the Rhondda leader in January 1969, to praise the “foresight and courage” of its design.
He wrote: “I have nothing but praise for the architect who dreamed up and designed Penrhys. The people who are against Penrhys are the small shopkeepers who are losing custom by this project and the owner occupiers who, when Penrhys is finished, will have 1,000 less chances of selling their houses.”
Today, those early residents remember a happy community in spite of the problems that it faced.
Gaynor Underwood, who has lived on the estate since 1971, told WalesOnline: “It was exciting to move up here, something new.
“I used to laugh at my mother and others who used to say it would be the biggest white elephant ever built. “You have good and bad everywhere, don’t you? Unfortunately, back then, there was a little bit more bad than good.”
Susan Pope, who moved to Penrhys in 1973, added: “It had a bad reputation mainly from people who never lived there. The council were very complacent in keeping up with damp problems, repairing crumbling masonry, and refuse collections. “But that is a fault of the council, not the people who lived there.” However, the problems in Penrhys quickly mounted. Even before the last building works had finished, an 11-year-old girl was found battered to death in a partly-constructed house. A search for the culprit responsible for the death of young Catherine Williams rocked the “frightened and shocked” community and lasted weeks. Reports from 1976 in the Rhondda Leader describe rubbish store rooms being “systematically vandalised”, with doors broken down and used for bonfires, as well as complaints of slow or non-existent repair and upkeep. Maggie Fowler, now 56, moved to Penrhys in 1980. She said: “It used to be bad. I came up from the Rhondda and I liked it up here at first. I never had no trouble with anybody, but there were a few gangs and that. I wouldn’t have walked around the site on my own years ago.” Another ex-resident, who moved to the estate when he was just four years old and is now 52, added: “It was isolated and very cold in winter but everybody stood together. “It had a bad name but what do you expect when you put almost 1,000 houses on top of a hill?”
Perhaps the pivotal time for Penrhys came in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By then it was notorious not just in Rhondda but across Wales and the rest of the UK. Prince Charles visited in 1989 and criticised the planning decisions that had led to its creation. Many buildings were derelict; crime was rife; and interviews in Penrhys were frequently used by journalists as part of reports on crime, deprivation and social difficulty.
It was around this time that the powers that be came to accept that rebuilding or refurbishing Penrhys was not a viable option. Much of it had to go.
In 1986, Reverend Dr John Morgans arrived in Penhrys at the start of an 18-year stay that would see the creation of an inter-denominational church, Llanfair Penrhys, that would never be far from the heart of efforts to build the estate a new future.
In 1990 he wrote a book called Penrhys: The Story of Llanfair, in which he described its predicament.
“Penrhys was built without heart or purpose. It did not grow naturally like valley communities,” he wrote.
“Its current unemployment level is 93%, and has always been high. It has problems of the inner city plus the issues of geographical isolation.”
He wrote that a local social worker claimed Pen-