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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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2.1.2 Regional differentiation in Wales

Despite the country’s compact size, scholars of modern Wales have frequently stressed the depth of its internal divisions and differences, which mean that people living in different parts of the country face a range of contrasting conditions and experiences. Consequently it has been suggested that there are some fundamental differences of perception and interest which tend to divide rather than connect the people of Wales. An influential attempt to capture these variations is Denis Balsom’s three-Wales model (1985), which distinguishes between Welsh Wales, British Wales and y Fro Gymraeg (see Figure 3).

Basing his analysis on answers to survey questions, Balsom focused on two key measures: whether or not a person spoke Welsh, and whether or not he or she identified as ‘Welsh’, ‘British’, or something else. By combining these indicators he was able to divide Wales into three distinct types of area, which had different cultural and political characteristics associated with distinct social groupings. According to Balsom:

The Welsh-speaking, Welsh identifying group is perhaps most distinctive and largely centred upon the north and west of Wales. This area is designated y Fro Gymraeg. The Welsh-identifying, non-Welsh-speaking group is most prevalent in the traditional south Wales area and labelled Welsh Wales. The British identifying non- Welsh speaking group dominates the remainder of Wales, described therefore as British Wales.

(Balsom, 1985, p. 6)
Figure 3 Balsom’s ‘three Wales’ model

Balsom’s main purpose in devising these categories was to predict and explain variations in patterns of party political voting. He suggested that these regions were already undergoing significant change at the time he was writing. New patterns of work and industry and changing population profiles were undermining old images of a ‘Celtic Fringe’ based on rural, agricultural Wales, and a Labour stronghold rooted in the coal industry. Balsom was especially concerned that changes affecting what he called the ‘traditional south Wales area’ (his ‘Welsh Wales’) would throw into question a form of Welsh identity developed and expressed in the English language. He said that this made it hard to imagine a future sense of Welshness that was not anchored in the Welsh language. In other words, he was predicting the likely disappearance of Welsh Wales as it merged more and more into British Wales. On the other hand, he acknowledged that Wales was still held together by a widely shared sense of being Welsh, and indeed there was evidence that this was being strengthened by the development of Welsh political institutions. From our perspective now, a quarter of a century later, we can judge the accuracy of these predictions.

Activity 4

Looking back over your own lifetime:

  • How far do you feel that Balsom’s prediction of the weakening of any sense of Welshness that is not linked to the Welsh language was correct?

  • Do more people now feel Welsh than did around twenty-five years ago?

  • On what grounds other than language might people consider themselves to be Welsh?


Although speaking Welsh is an extremely important aspect of Welshness, there are many other grounds on which people can feel themselves to be Welsh. These can include loyalty to their place of birth and origin, a sense of family and community connection to Wales, enthusiasm for Welsh artistic and sporting achievements, or engagement with political processes and voluntary activities in Wales. Each of these can produce a sense of Welsh identity. Whilst one might expect devolution to have enhanced senses of being Welsh, there is little evidence for this. (Curtice 2013, p.17; Welsh Government 2014).

It can be questioned whether the areas Balsom defined were ever really so neatly self-contained and distinctive as Figure 3 might suggest; in reality, the boundaries between them were probably much less clear-cut. For instance, many of those who peopled the area known as ‘Welsh Wales’ were drawn from the more rural parts of y Fro Gymraeg, and for a long time afterwards they maintained real, or sentimental, connections to it. Nevertheless, it is not unusual for Wales to be partitioned or subdivided in this kind of way, into distinct areas such as rural Wales; y Fro Gymraeg, sometimes referred to as the Welsh ‘heartland’; the Valleys; the cities, or urban Wales (Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Wrexham) and so on. Often these areas or zones are said to possess different sets of attributes, with associated meanings, or regional cultures, reflecting not only the size and distribution of their population, but also differences of class, occupation and lifestyle, which present their inhabitants with contrasting problems and opportunities.

Such areas have their advocates, and political representatives, and are represented in particular kinds of policy response and direction. For instance, there have been many policies and strategies for rural Wales, and others aimed at achieving urban regeneration. For several years there was a government-led Programme for the Valleys, designed to improve economic and social opportunities in a deprived part of south Wales. Since 2000 the whole of west Wales has received European (Objective 1, Convergence and then for the period 2014-2020, Structural) funding, on the grounds that its GDP per capita is under 75% of the EU average. Making the case for this European support required the map of Wales to be redrawn to highlight east–west divisions, emphasising the common problems faced by rural Wales and the de-industrialising Valleys of the south rather than the differences between (rural) north and (industrial) south that figure so often in Welsh political debates.

A more recent attempt to dissect Wales into its various parts is People, Places, Futures: the Wales Spatial Plan (2004; updated 2008), prepared on behalf of the Welsh Government. This partitions Wales into a number of distinct ‘regions’ or areas with contrasting characteristics, and is intended to help in making appropriate decisions for development over the next twenty years. According to this analysis, Wales has six significant ‘sub-regions’: north-east Wales; north-west Wales; central Wales; south-east Wales; Swansea Bay and the Western Valleys; and Pembrokeshire and the Milford Haven waterway.

The boundaries between these areas are not intended to be hard-and fast; they are ‘fuzzy’, because there are many cross-border connections and linkages in daily activities. However, on the basis of key statistical information and data about economic, social and environmental conditions, an impression is given of the different ‘social geographies’ found in present-day Wales. We learn, for example, that north-west Wales ‘has a very strong sense of identity, linked to the Welsh language, an outstanding landscape and coastline’ (Welsh Government., 2004, p. 38) whereas north-east Wales is described as ‘a key driver of the Welsh economy’ (p. 41). The ‘capital network’ of south-east Wales, centred on Cardiff, is referred to as an ‘interdependent but unplanned urban network’ (p. 49) that contains some major economic and social disparities. Central Wales consists of a ‘mosaic of relatively small settlements’ (p. 45) which are proving to be very attractive for their quality of life and environment.

The Spatial Plan provides a framework enabling local planning to be brought together with national aspirations and strategies. The assumption is that the people who live in a given area typically will enjoy different rewards, or face different problems, from those experienced elsewhere, and therefore require different kinds of policies and treatments. For instance, distance and access to services like health and education present more of a problem for those living in the Welsh countryside, where population is scattered and transport limited, than in the cities. It is even more of a problem for those who lack the financial and other resources to overcome distance – such as ownership of or access to a car. But it is important not to oversimplify, since there are groups and individuals living in more urban contexts who face comparable deprivation and marginalisation.

These distinctions are not just a matter of material provisions and inequalities – the ‘life chances [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ people encounter – but extend to how people think about where they live, and its positive and negative features. This can translate into differences of social and political attitude and concerns.

Thus Wales is officially a bilingual country, and all public bodies (and imminently private bodies such as utilities) are required to give the two languages equal status. But because use of the Welsh language is not distributed evenly throughout Wales, the politics of the language and the implementation of language policies vary from area to area. The language has a more prominent role in debates and discussions in Gwynedd or Ceredigion than it does in Pembrokeshire, simply because many fewer people speak Welsh, or attach such importance to it, in Pembrokeshire. Similarly, debates about open access to the countryside, or the legitimacy of hunting, get a different reception in rural areas, especially from groups connected to farming and agriculture, than they do from those who live in the cities, who naturally have more ‘urban’ interests. Different areas contain different populations, who to some degree engage in different activities and so develop different interests.