'Children come into school hungry' The Welsh communities looking to Boris Johnson to deliver his 'levelling up' pledge

  • Report by Work and Economy Correspondent Carole Green

“Levelling up, it is a good thing - if it happens “ says Davina as she serves up another roast dinner from the community hall kitchen bustling with volunteers in Dolywern.

She’s lived in the Ceiriog Valley all her life and knows these small rural villages close to the English border inside out.

Every Friday she co ordinates 120 meals on wheels for the over 50s, but she has little time to digest the bigger economic picture.

On levelling up, you sound a bit skeptical? I suggest.

She doesn’t want to get drawn on party politics but says what matters to the community here is feeling connected and getting the services they need closer to home. For Davina levelling up is just a phrase at the moment, a campaign slogan. She says the real test will be in the delivery.

“We’re a long way from Wrexham” Davina tells me as she wraps up another lunch. “We’re even further away from Westminster”. And there’s the challenge for her newly elected Conservative MP Simon Baynes. That Westminster promise to inject new economic life into those areas in the nations and regions which feel left behind will be put to the test here in Clwyd South.

Head down the valley and the villages give way to towns.

As I walk around Rhosllanerchrugog I’m stuck by the terraced houses, row after row built of locally made Ruabon red brick.

The works, and Labour’s stronghold in this former mining area have now gone. Clwyd South, once a brick in Labour’s solid red wall stretching from the Midlands and across North Wales, is now Tory territory.

At the high school I meet Yvonne Girvan, a teaching assistant with nine grandchildren. She has a vested interest in the success of levelling up. Chatting off camera she says, “The children come into school hungry”. Although I know food banks have never been busier, it’s still a shocking thing to hear in a classroom in Wales in 2020.

If I was looking for evidence of a need to level up, then here it is.

Yvonne tells me teachers have been bringing in food for pupils, or paying for their lunches in the canteen.

Those on free school meals have often spent their allowance by break time.

That’s children making a choice between having breakfast or having lunch.

Yvonne supported a campaign pressing the Welsh Government for an extra 80p for breakfast. The First Minister Mark Drakeford has committed to an extra £1 for those on free school meals starting this month.

Yvonne says it will make a real difference in the classroom, to behaviour and to achievement.

When I ask what levelling up means to her she wants to talk about jobs.

She’s worried there aren’t the opportunities for apprenticeships in the area there once were. She said her son went to Air Products, a large local employer, served his time and has done well for himself. I remember covering its closure during the 2009 recession. It was the type of company and community where several members of the same family all worked in the same place- closure a multiple blow.

Yvonne tells me the quality of work on offer locally needs improving. It’s often low paid and insecure.

“Families on minimum wage jobs are struggling”.

It’s a familiar story when the majority of children living in poverty in Wales live in working families.

It’s no surprise then Yvonne sees education as the way out to better quality work and a better standard of living.

She’s positive about the future and believes her pupils and grandchildren can be anything they want to be as long as they work hard, have the right support and encouragement. “It may take them longer compared to others who have been to better schools or universities” she says. “But they can get there. Everyone should have the same opportunities wherever they come from”.

Back on the main street, empty shops point to a busier past.

Chatting to a young woman she tells me Brexit and the immigration debate played their part in December’s election result here.

This was strong Leave territory and she says the simple message to get Brexit done was a vote winner.

She thinks and hopes this constituency will turn back to Labour next time around.

First though, Labour has to defend the seat of its Economy and Minister for North Wales Ken Skates at the Senedd elections in May.

Only then will we get a clearer sense of whether these communities have turned their backs on Labour temporarily.  Or whether there’s been a fundamental shift in opinion, voting patterns and party allegiances. 

The Westminster Government wants to put the emphasis now on “levelling up” but here in Wales it doesn’t hold all the key levers to deliver that promise.

Now the old political certainties have gone, neither party can take this constituency and others like it for granted. The winner in the long run may well be the communities themselves.