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’

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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-

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