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A breath of life for the Slate Valleys;FE Focus

Martin Whittaker on a plan to teach traditional building skills to craftsmen from mining communities in North Wales, an area of "poverty in paradise"

THE Faenol Estate near Bangor, North Wales, is a fine collection of historic buildings set in hundreds of acres of landscaped parkland - all founded on wealth from the region's slate industry.

Out in the grey hills beyond the estate's perimeter walls, lies the legacy of that industry. The slate quarries of Gwynedd once employed 18,000 people and gave birth to thriving communities.

Today just 500 people work in the industry and these isolated villages and towns are poverty-stricken with chronic unemployment, shops boarded up and houses littered with For Sale signs.

Now the Faenol Estate is about to help breathe new life back into the slate valleys. From April its buildings, some of them dating back to medieval times, will be opened up to train local craftsmen.

Iwan Jones, strategy development manager for Gwynedd Council, says: "It's quite ironic that something built on the back of the slate communities is now part of the strategy to give something back to those communities."

This is part of the Slate Valleys Initiative - a regeneration scheme that recently won pound;3.27 million from the Welsh Office Capital Challenge programme. This adds to the pound;3.4 m already pledged from other sources, including the Welsh Development Agency and Gwynedd Council. The cash injection could also qualify as match-funding and open the floodgates to millions of pounds more from Europe (see The TESFE Focus January 15, 1999).

The Slate Valleys' problems have been compounded by what Gwynedd Council calls "poverty in paradise" - the natural beauty of the Snowdonia landscape that surrounds these communities masks their deprivation. And while the plight of the former coal-mining communities in South Wales attracted aid, the slate villages have gone unnoticed.

The initiative aims to redress the balance. It consists of projects aimed at stimulating the local economy, and will help small businesses, refurbish derelict buildings and develop walking routes.

Education and training are central to the initiative - FE colleges have promised to increase education in the local communities. Coleg Meirion Dwyfor in Dolgellau, for example, is developing courses up to degree level for adults in Blaenau Ffestiniog and is investing in a mobile IT training unit.

In April, one of the more unusual projects gets under way. For the first time, the Faenol country estate will open to the public. The hope is that it will become a centre of excellence for craftsmen. The estate contains a remarkable collection of more than 70 listed buildings, some dating back to the 13th century, which present a unique opportunity to train local people to work on North Wales' treasure trove of heritage sites.

"This is a rural area with lots of historic buildings," says Iwan Jones. "But there's a big skill shortage in this area in traditional building methods. Contracts tend to go to firms beyond Offa's Dyke. We're trying to address that problem by improving skills."

On the estate, the project's director, Sean Wood, points out a group of buildings. Here a 1911 dairy stands next to a 15th-century mausoleum. Further on is the estate manager's house, which dates back to Elizabethan times.

The scheme will initially take on 100 trainees in a variety of trades, including joiners and stone masons, and courses will be heavily subsidised. "We are looking for a large proportion to come from FE colleges," he says. "And we will be doing marketing presentations in the slate valleys themselves."

Another project will develop a network of lifelong learning centres in public libraries, with training programmes, delivered by FE colleges, targeting the long-term unemployed, women returners, single parents and the elderly.

The model for these centres is in the slate village of Penygroes. In the village library, the public can walk in and access the Internet and a range of software. Jobs are advertised on a noticeboard in the foyer. In a fully-equipped IT room upstairs, students are learning basic word processing on a course laid on by community group Antur Nantlle and the Workers' Educational Association.

Tudur Evans, the scheme's IT development officer, explains: "I'm running four of these courses per week. And we get a terrific age range, from about four to 82 if you include all the courses we do."

Over the next two years, the initiative aims to develop centres in the nearby communities of Bethesda, Llanberis, Blaenau and Ffestiniog at a cost of almost pound;500,000. Gareth Williams, assistant director of culture at Gwynedd Council, is confident the learning centres will have an impact, although who provides what training and how has still to be finalised.

"We see it as an integrated service so that children, the middle-aged, the elderly and the unemployed can all come in and access learning materials and courses.

"And with the National Grid for Learning, we have the strategic backing from the Government, which is saying to libraries, this is what you should do. That will give us more support financially.

"I think now they're talking our language for the first time in 20 years."

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