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Modern detached houses beside the River Taff in Aberfan, Wales

Project Riverside and the regeneration of Aberfan

Brian Mainsbridge and Paul Maliphant

The lesson from an exhausted Welsh town is that small details can have big impacts on the outcome of infrastructure projects. They reward attention.

Just over 50 years ago, in October 1966, Aberfan junior school and neighbouring houses were engulfed in a torrent of liquefied mining waste, unleashed by the collapse of a colliery spoil heap. At a stroke, 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives.

The community of the Welsh town was deeply traumatised – the psychological and emotional effects rippled from one generation to the next. And the community suffered a second devastating blow with the closure of Merthyr Vale Colliery, Aberfan’s main employer, in 1989. For decades, the town felt hopeless. Its people were economically and physically isolated from even the nearby city of Cardiff. But hope is returning.

The Welsh government and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council have put combined investment of £8.2M into flood protection, a new access road, bridge and footbridge that reconnect the communities of Merthyr Vale and Aberfan, and a new waste recycling centre. Combined with a new community primary school opened in 2012 and further works to move existing homes out of a high-risk flood zone, this is known as Project Riverside.

New homes for residents plagued by flooding have been provided through a niche public private partnership arrangement where builder Lovell constructed 11 new houses, sold six and gave five to the council for the use of those most in need. And the new road has provided much-needed access at the former Merthyr Vale Colliery site for much larger-scale housing development.

Project Riverside has been a huge shot in the arm for the town and changed the community’s focus from the disaster and the economic impact of the colliery closure to anticipation of a brighter future.

Community-oriented ‘add-ons’ have turned the project from one simply providing improved amenities, into one that engages and motivates local people. The new footbridge provides easy access to the banks of the now healthy and biodiverse River Taff. The St John’s Ambulance Hall has been refurbished, while a new community facility, built with support from the Aberfan Disaster Fund, will host events, such as the town’s Christmas Fayre, and is home to a new Scout troop.

These developments would not have happened without Project Riverside, but they are now firmly established and are symbolic of the community’s emerging focus on the future and people’s appetite to reach out and interact after years of isolation.

In truth, the add-ons were as essential in turning Aberfan around as the infrastructure. They have been recognised by a Responsible Business Award from Business in the Community Cymru, and Mott MacDonald is using these experiences to launch a new internal initiative, Think Future Generations! This pushes staff to consider what legacy the company leaves behind after a contract has been delivered.

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