The communities dying in plain sight of a town being pumped with millions of pounds of investment

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Famous for its castle and cheese, Caerphilly town centre is easily one of the most iconic in the south Wales valleys. And with ambitious plans worth over £50 million underway to transform it, it’s hoped it will become a hub for tourism and trade within the next 15 years.

The ‘Caerphilly 2035’ regeneration program will see a new £30 million transport interchange in the heart of the town centre; a major £15 million mixed retail and residential development; a new leisure quarter offering new leisure, retail, commercial and business opportunities; the creation of a new boutique hotel development at the old Specsavers building; and a £5 million investment in new visitor facilities at the castle. Some of these projects have already begun.

But if you travel deeper into the Rhymney Valley and speak to those who live at the top of Caerphilly borough, many will tell you they feel left behind. One of them is 53-year-old Jeff Vernon who owns Retro Hair Studio in the town centre of Bargoed.

Read more: The pensioner refusing to heat her home: The crippling effect the energy crisis is having on one Valleys community

“There is definitely a feeling that this top half of Caerphilly has been forgotten about and if you ask anyone in the area they will tell you the same thing,” he said. “I can understand of course that a lot of funding and attention would go in to Caerphilly town as it’s a lovely place with a lot of things like the castle and shops to draw people in, but at the same time for people living just a few miles up the road it feels a little bit unfair.”

Jeff said there is a definite feeling of abandonment in certain parts of Caerphilly, with a divide developing between the top and bottom half of the borough. He said: “We’d love to see some funding brought in for places like Bargoed and Rhymney where the money really could make a big difference to people. Things like shop fronts and buildings on the main street in Bargoed could really do with a bit of work and TLC to bring them back to life and increase the footfall, but it just doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment. Even at Christmas there wasn’t really a budget for them to hang decorations and trimmings in the town, so in a lot of ways it’s as if we’ve been forgotten about which is quite sad.”

The red outline highlights the geography of Caerphilly borough, with Rhymney at the top and Caerphilly town at the bottom (Image: Google Maps)
Jeff Vernon owns a business in Bargoed town centre (Image: Lewis Smith)

Shop worker Ethan Jones said while he feels there is a lack of attention across the borough as a whole, he feels it becomes significantly worse the further you travel away from Caerphilly town. The 21-year-old said: “I’ve lived in Bargoed my whole life, and looking at it now there is nowhere near the same amount of shops and people on the high-street as there was when I was growing up. If you want to buy anything like clothes or trainers you would have to go over to Blackwood or Caerphilly town because there’s just nothing on offer further up. It’s frustrating as there is a good community spirit in the area and I’m sure people would like to be able to stay closer to home if they could.

“I’m not sure how we can change the situation at the moment with more shops seeming to close than open, but I would like to at least see some effort made to regenerate the town and bring it back to life. For me I do feel as though these parts of the borough are getting left behind, and from what I’ve heard it actually gets worse as you go further up the valley from Bargoed towards Pontlottyn and Rhymney.”

Ethan Jones (Image: Lewis Smith)

When WalesOnline approached Caerphilly council for comment, a spokesman said that while significant regeneration is concentrated in Caerphilly town centre, other high streets and villages dotted around the borough were not being neglected. For example, the Place Shaping Programme consists of half a billion pound of investment spread across the whole county borough.

As part of the initiative, £153 million has been spent so far between 2017 and 2020 on major investment packages including new school developments, highway improvements including Pwllypant roundabout, council house improvement as part of Welsh Housing Quality Standard (WHQS) and investment in 3G pitches. You can get more news from Caerphilly borough and other story updates by subscribing to our newsletters here.

Currently, there is also around £129 million of investment underway on projects such as demolition of properties on Hafodyrynys Hill, the Chartist Garden housing development, WHQS improvements and leisure facilities including a new running track in Oakdale and additional 3G pitch investment. A further £231 million is earmarked for future developments.

But this hasn’t stopped residents living north of Caerphilly town feeling left behind. Maureen Vaughan, 84, has lived in Rhymney her whole life and says the area is at a real risk of becoming a ghost town as things currently stand.

She said: “Rhymney as a town is not the place it used to be and that’s putting it lightly. I’ve lived here all my life so for me I’ve seen a big decline which of course is very sad. There’s hardly any shops here at the moment and if you look around the high street you can see it is becoming a bit of a ghost town. Anything that would be used to draw in shoppers or genuinely keep the area nice is all being sent further down the valley at the moment, while up here we are just left to get on with it, and for businesses who are trying to make something work I think it must be very difficult.”

Maureen Vaughan of Rhymney (Image: Lewis Smith)
Glyn Thomas of Rhymney (Image: Lewis Smith)

Similarly Glyn Thomas has lived in Rhymney for over 40 years after moving from Tredegar in his early twenties, and said he feels like many areas outside Caerphilly town have been feeling a lack of acknowledgement in the last ten years, which could have some serious consequences in the long run.

The 64-year-old said: “When it comes to the towns such as Rhynmey and Pontlottyn I genuinely don’t think the people in charge can be bothered with them at all. If you want to have anything done, whether it’s road works or any kind of maintenance or refurbishment jobs it can take months to get someone out.

“There’s so much going on in Caerphilly town but there’s just nothing here and we really feel we’re being left behind to be truthful. We currently have the train station down to Cardiff but that’s about it. The [borough’s] high streets seem to be dying with hardly any shops open anymore, and there’s a complete lack of funding in the upper parts of the borough. If something isn’t done soon there will be nothing left here at all.”

Donna Dunn (Image: Lewis Smith)

On the opposite side of the road Donna Dunn owns Dolly Dimples Hair Salon and says it’s the youth of the area she feels most sorry for as there is barely anything for them to do. She said: “I’ve owned my business here in Bargoed for around two years now and I have to say it does seem like the high-street is dying out. A lot of my business comes from people further afield in places like Cwmbran and Pontypridd at the moment, but I’m sure if there was more to do here in Bargoed then it would draw people in and I would get even more business again.

“It’s the youngsters I feel most sorry for though as there’s just nothing for them in the area, which ultimately leads to anti-social behaviour and problems in the town centre. I’d personally love to see a bit more invested in to the youth of Caerphilly borough, with things like after school clubs and youth clubs that would actually occupy them and give them positive things to do.”

Haroun Vaughan is a business owner from Caerphilly borough (Image: Lewis Smith)

Haroun Vaughan is a business owner from Pontlottyn and says despite his best efforts he is also struggling to keep going in an area that he feels is almost unwanted by its own borough.

He said: “We are 100% getting left behind in this part of Caerphilly borough and is something that can be quite frustrating. It’s like as if it’s classed as the end of the line up here and I think there are certain parts of the borough that desperately need some attention.

“For example we are constantly hearing of things such as crimes and violence taking place, but at the same time there seem to be more and more people moved in to the area who are known for having social problems. It’s to the point where you think that outside of Caerphilly town they just don’t care, and this area is being left for the unwanted.

“I currently have two businesses in Pontlottyn, and am in the process of trying to open a fish and chip shop but it is very difficult to get it going. I spent a lot of money on it myself but when I have tried to get grants and permission to do things to improve the outside of the shop it has fallen on deaf ears. As I said it’s frustrating because there are a still lot of good people here who want to make something positive happen for the area, and we are still hopeful that we can see some improvements in the coming years.”

What do people in Caerphilly town think about the funding?

We spent a morning talking to traders and shoppers in the town centre and found that views were mixed.

Leigh Richards (Image: John Myers)

“I think it is a complete waste of money,” said Caerphilly market trader Leigh Richards. “It’s more shops we want, not the [changes proposed]. We need better shops here because there’s nothing in Caerphilly whatsoever. You can’t even buy a pair of men’s jeans, unless you go to Peacocks. Having lots of shops here will bring people in. It saves them going to Cardiff or anywhere else where these big shops are.

“I’ve worked here for 42 years and I’ve seen a hell of a difference, it’s gone downhill. Mainly that the footfall has decreased. Even when we have the Big Cheese, it’s the quietest day for traders here. They come off the bus , they go straight through town, to the castle and that’s it. The boutique hotel is a complete waste of money and there are enough leisure centres around. The castle already has a nice tourist centre at the moment – why spend money when there’s nothing wrong with that one?”

Work being carried out at Caerphilly’s castle hoped to turn it into a major tourist attraction (Image: John Myers)
Work is under way at the site of the old Specsavers store on Cardiff road, which is going to be transformed into a boutique hotel (Image: John Myers)

On the other hand, Colin Mac thinks strong investment in Caerphilly town will eventually have a positive impact on the economy of the entire borough.

He said: “If you put money into Caerphilly, like any other European destination, it will attract tourists. The money will trickle up the valley by creating jobs – there are a lack of jobs in the valleys at the moment. I think the visitor centre going up and the new boutique hotel are a good idea.

“The only thing Caerphilly has really got going for it right now is the Tommy Cooper statue and Malcolm Uphill. Apart from that, Caerphilly town really needs to be put on the map. The more money that comes into the town, the more money there will be that will trickle up the valley and create more jobs. The people who have jobs, they will then go on to spend money as well.”

Colin Mac (Image: John Myers)

Similarly, shopper Lee Ramsay welcomes the funding. Although some of the projects, such as the boutique hotel are already underway, he’d just like to see more happen sooner rather than later.

He said: “It would be nice if we could have it in the next five years. I think any town needs investment. Caerphilly is an iconic town, so it probably is one of the places it is worth investing in. I can understand why people up the valley feel that way [that there is a lack of funding]. Caerphilly is more of a hub with people travelling and tourists.”

Lee Ramsay (Image: John Myers)
Jo Thomas (Image: John Myers)

Jo Thomas works at discount health and beauty store New Foundations directly opposite to where the new boutique hotel is being built. She said she is hopeful it will increase footfall in the area and into her shop.

“I think it’s a good thing, especially with the boutique hotel going ahead – that will bring more people into the town hopefully who will hopefully need some toiletries,” she said. “I think the new visitor centre at the castle will be a nice addition, because we do get a lot of tourists through the summer and the schools bring the children up, so I think that will be good. I think the town needs something definitely, I think they’re doing the right thing by spending the money.”

The spokesman for Caerphilly borough council added that there is “significant investment” in all parts of the county borough from Rhymney to Risca and Nelson to Newbridge. “Towns like Bargoed have already seen huge amounts of regeneration and investment over recent years – [including] a major new retail complex with Morrisons, Iceland, Greggs – highway infrastructure improvements, public transport enhancement, public artwork and other town centre improvements etc.”