Nick Smith has served as Labour’s Blaenau Gwent MP since 2010. IAN CRAIG met him at his home to talk about some the challenges faced by the area and what he hopes to achieve during his time in Parliament.

BLAENAU Gwent has one of the most storied and varied histories in South Wales.

Birthplace of the NHS and once a centre of industry, the closure of the coal mines in the 1980s hit the area hard, and today it is the most impoverished region in Gwent.

So Labour MP Nick Smith, first elected in 2010, has a lot to deal with.

Born in Cardiff and growing up in Tredegar, Mr Smith said he had developed an interest in politics as a teenager.

“I was very sure of my views and very sure of my values,” he said.

“My first proper political memory is of being a teenager in the miners’ strike in the 70s where my uncle and I went up picking coal off the patches in Tredegar to keep the house warm.

“I knew who was right and who was wrong at a very early age because of that.

“All my uncles on my Mam’s side are all colliers, so that whole belief that we’re in this together, there’s a wider trade union movement and a Labour Party which looks after our interests is something that was part of who I am.

“I joined the Labour Party when I was 16 and the first meeting I went to was at Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre.”

Although Mr Smith served as a councillor in London for eight years, he said becoming a Parliamentarian was never an inevitability.

“For a long time I was a Labour Party staffer here in Wales and I had worked as (ex-Holborn and St Pancras MP) Frank Dobson’s agent,” he said. “He has been a good friend and mentor for me, and he was Labour secretary of state for health, a person who really made a difference.

“I’m from round here, I grew up on a housing estate in the north of Tredegar – for me to be an MP wasn’t something I was ambitious for, but over time as I grew up and got a job and became more senior in the jobs I performed I realised it was attainable.

“It wasn’t a natural ambition, but something I realised I could do over time.

“When you’re a working class person you’re not sure you can do what you think of as high-falutin jobs. You grow into them and that’s what I think I did.”

As MP for Blaenau Gwent Mr Smith has a lot on his plate. Rates of unemployment and poverty in the area are far higher than elsewhere, while average pay is more than £100 a week lower than the national average.

Mr Smith said he believed the problems were down to a number of issues.

“When I was growing up around here we had coal and steel,” he said.

“They were trade unionised, well-paid and skilled jobs and we had a sense of community. It was a good place to be.

“But then we lost those two key industries, and the lesson from that is you can’t have just one or two good things, you have to have a number of sectors in your local industry so if one sector has a bad time another might pick up.”

He said he believed an answer would be to have a mix of industries working in the area as well as better transport links.

“Our challenge is we are 25 miles away from the M4, which is the main belt to South Wales, and so, as well as a number of different sectors, we need to have good access to the motorway,” he said.

“The Welsh Government has done a good job with the Gilwern to Brynmawr road and the Heads of the Valleys improvements, so that’s good for east to west travel, but we also need to improve north to south.

“We’ve got a good train service, but it’s only one train which takes an hour.

“I think we need at least two trains an hour, and faster ones, that’s why I’ve supported electrification.”

He added: “People get frustrated because they want the very best for their community and they want it to happen sooner rather than later.

“You can absolutely understand that.

“Our challenge is structural. That’s why it needs to be done bit by bit over time.

“People don’t want to see announcements, they want to see action.”

But he said he was concerned about the UK Government’s focus on projects such as HS2 and the Crossrail scheme would mean schemes sorely needed in South Wales may go unfunded.

“People in Blaenau Gwent are the most loyal and most hard-working people,” he said. “Loyalty and graft and basic can-do attitude is something we see here.

“But we’ve got to improve educational achievement so companies can come here in the future and see our young people are better trained, particularly in digital and green industries.

“And we’ve got to do something about our health, we’ve got really poor health in Blaenau Gwent.”

One of the biggest stories in the area recently has been the Circuit of Wales.

The plans for a £425 million racetrack and other facilities including hotels and an extreme sports centre in Ebbw Vale had been on the cards since 2011. But it last month it was blocked by the Welsh Government for the third, and seemingly final, time over the amount of public investment the developer was asking for.

Mr Smith said he was “frustrated” it had taken so long, but understood why the decision had been taken.

“I was never sure that the circuit itself could make money because they don’t in other parts of the country,” he said.

“But what did excite me about it was the extreme sports, because they were sort of playing to who we are up here.

“When I was a kid in Tredegar I used to love going on the top of the mountain, it didn’t matter if it was horrible weather. If you like walking on mountains, and lots of people do, then we are a fantastic gateway to the Brecon Beacons and mid Wales, so that was the bit that excited me.

“The thought that extreme sports could be part of our offering appealed to me because it was something different and would add another spoke to the wheel.”

He said the jobs the circuit would have created were a particular loss.

“We yearn for the jobs and that’s what’s at the bottom of the disappointment here,” he said. “We want young people to have jobs and we need a range of businesses to give those young people the start in life.

“When I go round the doors here and people ask what’s the latest with the Circuit of Wales they’d say ‘I’m supporting it because I want my grandchild to get a start.

“That’s the nub of the disappointment here.”

Anecdotal evidence shows a high number of people living in Blaenau Gwent commute outside of the area to Cardiff, Bristol or further afield for work, and Mr Smith said he would like to see this change.

“There’s nothing wrong with that in principle,” he said. “I travel to work and it’s the bane of my life.

“There’s nothing worse than the M4 outside Swindon on a wet Thursday.

“That’s OK but equally we’ve got to have a strong local economy too and it’s got to involve more private sector as well, at the moment its very public sector.”

He added: “I’ll be writing to Carwyn Jones about that, saying we need at least two trains, an anchor employer and we need to improve educational attainment.”

While most MPs keep their home and political life separate, Mr Smith is married to Darlington MP Jennifer Chapman, who was also first elected to Parliament in 2010.

“It’s been a wonderful thing to fall in love at work,” he said.

“It’s great because we both understand the pressures we face. We go back to different ends of the country at the weekend, but then we’re back together again on Sunday evening and go through the working week together.

“That works well for us – other people have exactly the same stretched lives.”

He added: “What I’ve always emphasised is I’m a local bloke, I understand the issues, take them to Parliament and bang the drum for Blaenau Gwent.

“Just doing that every week is what matters.”