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How does lack of accessible transport within Wales drive young professionals out of their communities and contribute to rapid decline of towns and villages? Nuriya Aliyaskarova draws on her interviews with young people and a social work activist to gain an insight into the relationship between poor transport and population decline, and how people are negotiating tensions between attachment to their roots and their need for work.

Features by masters students from the School of Journalism, Media and Culture (JOMEC) at Cardiff University, commissioned and published as part of our sponsorship partnership with JOMEC.

  Cardiff University 
Left: Rob Williams. Right: waiting for the train. All images © Nuriya Aliyaskarova.

Left: Rob Williams. Right: waiting for the train. All images © Nuriya Aliyaskarova.

Rob felt quite bitter about his new white shoes, which he managed to muddy as he was getting off the 64 bus from Cwmllynfell, and rushing to make it to the X6 bus that would take him to Neath, from where he would take the train to Cardiff, and from Cardiff Central station, it would only be a twenty-minute bike ride to his place… But Rob missed the connection, and was not quite sure when the next X6 bus was coming, and whilst sheltering himself from the unexpectedly heavy rain he was thinking about all the reasons he decided to leave the Swansea Valley in the first place six years ago.

He had only recently finished college then and was working freelance. He couldn’t quite find common interests with friends from school and distracted himself by learning French to escape the boring reality of having only a bakery, a local shop and a pub in his hometown. He used his free time to go to Europe and travel, but when the time came to find a permanent job further afield, he couldn't help but want to keep his close links to his family.

Rob enjoyed the wider cultural horizons of Cardiff and was lucky to get a well-paid job in the Welsh capital. Now every time he goes home to see his parents, he is reminded of the inner conflict of having a strong Welsh-speaking identity and wanting to live at home but also how very sparse opportunities are in many communities.

'The public transport links are awful, except for one bus in the morning and one in the evening, but they may not even come. If you don't have a good steady or at least feel part of something, you are going to have a miserable life… I could never ever move back there,’ says Rob.

The Neath Valley includes many villages similar to Cwmllynfell, and although the county itself recorded a slight increase in population in the 2021 census.

'In my opinion it is up to the government to change that. At the moment they don’t prioritise us at all: normal people will just move to Swansea, or Cardiff, or Bristol or London. We are just an afterthought if that. I can't even see it changing, unless there is someone who is ready to represent us and our communities,’ says Rob.

Without the ability to travel effectively between areas by public transport, young Welsh people at the beginning of their career stop seeing the appeal of staying in Wales, aside from in the larger cities. If they want to return to their roots later to raise children, the challenge of infrastructure remains.

This is a problem found throughout the country: ‘You can’t really travel in Wales. In terms of nation-building, if you like, there is a lot to be done still: to connect different communities and allow young people to use those links. For now the rail transport and even buses are quite irregular,’ says ex-director for social services for Ceredigion, and social work activist Sian Howys.

While Rob does not see himself returning to Cwmllynfell, he misses a sense of a tight community and doesn't want to forget his roots. This drove him to attend a weekly Welsh language and culture group in Cardiff called Sgwrsio yn Cymraeg. Soon he took over managing the events at the club and is working hard towards popularising the use of Welsh language among Welsh learners and speakers in everyday situations.

'Growing up, I took Welsh for granted, but when I moved to Cardiff I barely used it. So, you know, it fell wrong. The older I got, the more I grew to appreciate how much it gave me, so I wanted to meet more people like me … Most people are similar to me, they all grew up bilingual and they just love the feeling of being able to use the language socially outside of school and away from family,’ he says.

Another member of Sgwrsio yn Gymraeg, Stuart is originally from north-west Wales and the Welsh language and culture are important to him, yet the scarcity of jobs in finance in Wales make living in Cardiff for him the best solution he can imagine, albeit he still has to make sacrifices.

'When I have children I would like them to go to a Welsh school so that they can have the upbringing I did and keep speaking Welsh,’ says Stuart.

He works at the Development Bank of Wales and says that Cardiff is as far west as he can go into Wales for a good job in finance, and he would choose to start a family in Wales so that his children could get to know their grandparents and visit more often.

Stuart’s home county of Gwynedd has suffered greatly from population decline in the recent decade, according to the 2021 census. With dramatic increases in house prices far exceeding what’s affordable through low average wages in the area, as well as the general lack of well-paying jobs and poor transport links to the rest of Wales, many counties like Gwynedd have suffered an exodus of economically active people, exacerbated by gentrification from English holidaymakers and second-home owners.

'You do see that in the local communities: many schools have closed and merged into bigger schools, the school I went to is now closed because there are not enough children there,’ says Stuart with little hope for change in the near future.

Residents and experts mention the connections between poor transport and population decline in many areas, and the lack of investment that would help redress this. The lack of funding into transport leads to population decline, factors which in turn lead to local businesses and social infrastructure shutting down, thus exacerbating the exodus in a vicious circle.

In an article for the website Business News Wales, Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, a Welsh charity that strives to tackle inequality, writes ‘In areas of population decline, essential infrastructure, from schools to public transport, may be underused, wasting earlier investment and contributing to the contraction of services and facilities for the remaining population. There is likely to be reduced consumer demand which can result in shops, pubs and other businesses closing.’

With fewer businesses employing people, there are fewer jobs, apart from precarious and often seasonal work, e.g. in tourism.

The government has previously addressed the urgency of the lack of consistent bus and train routes within Wales in various reports between 2012 and 2023. Those reports acknowledged the role of transport in the exodus of young people, proposing the expansion of infrastructure. But many routes that are implemented serve the tourist season thereby contributing to the prevalence of temporary seasonal employment opportunities over secure, long-term work. For example, GWR’s Summer Saturday London – Pembroke Dock service, an extension of a London-Swansea rail route to Carmarthenshire and Tenby in the summer. These transport investments are therefore only benefiting the local and commuting infrastructure slowly, in limited ways.

This leaves many people like Stuart facing a hard choice to move far from home with little chance that they will be able to come back, or staying put while losing out on quality of life.

'I think it would be very difficult to change that, unless you provide opportunities and understand that it will cost the government money for the first x-amount of years before making them a return. Unless there is an acceptance of that, I think it can be very hard to change the decline of rural areas, because the lack of opportunities is quite extreme,’ says Stuart.

Elin Jones, the Presiding Officer of the Senedd, and Ceredigion MS has previously responded to the population decline and the exodus of younger people in an interview with the BBC, calling it ‘a phenomenon of rural depopulation’, and calling for change, partly attributing the exodus to the lack of infrastructure.

Substantial change remains an uncertain waiting game, and much depends on the future actions of policy-makers. While living in their home communities wasn’t possible, Rob Williams from Cwmllynfell, Stuart Mitchell and his wife Angelina, as well as many other members of Sgwrsio yn Gymraeg chose Cardiff over living in England or abroad as they cherish their Welsh heritage, culture and language.

Left: Stuart and Angelina Mitchell. Right: Sian Howys. All images © Nuriya Aliyaskarova.

Left: Stuart and Angelina Mitchell. Right: Sian Howys. All images © Nuriya Aliyaskarova.

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