It’s been strange couple for weeks for those of us working on the Communities First (CF) programme.
The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government (PfG) failed to mention CF at all. The First Minister was repeatedly pressed by Radio Wales on the programme’s future but refused to yield any clue as to what happens at the end of this financial year. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children also failed to suggest CF has a future when setting out his portfolio’s priorities to the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government & Communities Committee.
The cherry on top was Wales Online’s decision to dredge up the 2009 Plas Madoc scandal as part of its reporting of the PfG. Never one to offer balanced reporting of CF it typically failed to report that auditors found precious little of concern in governance inquiries in the scandal’s aftermath.
The Bevan Foundation’s commentary is at least a measured comment at a time when there is a a worrying information ‘vacuum’ about the future of CF. Communities First, which is in its fourteenth year, deserves better.
True, few programmes have received the cross-party consensus and longevity of funding that it has. There have been bumps along the way and the programme was fundamentally misunderstood for many years in its infancy. But we must remember that it has operated in the most disadvantaged communities in Wales.
These are communities that find themselves routinely at the wrong end of tables for chronic health, mortality, employment, educational attainment and numerous other indicators. Given Wales itself tends to fare badly when compared with other home nations and English regions on such proxies for disadvantage, it serves as a sober reminder that these are communities whose disadvantage is so entrenched as to make them among the most deprived in the whole of the UK, and probably further afield.
The Bevan Foundation is right to draw attention to how CF “simply could not swim against the tide of major economic and social forces” such as welfare reform and austerity policies; and who yet knows how CF areas will cope post-Brexit?
However, the truth is that Welsh Government itself has relatively few levers to mitigate the impact of welfare reform and austerity. Stringent cuts to the public sector are not confined to England, and where the Welsh Government does have some devolved scope to mitigate impact, such as discretionary housing payments, these will be increasingly under budgetary pressure in coming years.
CF may be largely impotent against such forces, but we should not devalue or overlook the merit in knowing what the impact of such forces is on communities, neighbourhoods and households. Immersed in communities in the way that CF is means it has ‘intelligence’ in abundance. Better sharing of this intelligence is required however. Since 2009 I have been involved in supporting, training and advising the Communities First workforce. The Communities First Support Service talks increasingly these days of supporting the workforce’s learning. Having such a dispersed programme and workforce across Wales means that it seldom acts with a unified voice on issues. Numerous CF staff will be acutely aware of the complexities caused by, for instance, Universal Credit and housing on the lives of people in or on the cusp of poverty. They will work closely with individuals whose efforts to return to the labour market are undermined by fragile mental health or abusive domestic environments. Or they will see at first-hand how aspects of ethnicity, gender or faith can aggravate poverty. But they rarely share the learning that has happened to inform this understanding.
How these, and a myriad of other factors, combine to affect the lives of disadvantaged individuals is witnessed by Communities First staff, who are potentially as expert as anyone on poverty in Wales. The challenge for WCVA and Welsh Government is to better connect the workforce and so that it can inform policy and practice, both of Communities First and other agencies.
But what underpins this relationship with individuals and communities is trust and the Bevan Foundation is absolutely right to note that it is unlikely that:
“large-scale, government schemes that offer similar services [to Communities First] will have the reach or trust of people in deprived areas”.
But this trust has built-up in Communities First areas over the last decade and more and must not be allowed to dissipate wholesale when the future of the programme is resolved, as it all too often does towards the end of funding rounds as uncertainty creeps into the programme and staff churn happens.
The Communities First workforce is not just a group of workers on a government programme. It is a workforce that is informed about, trusted by and immersed in communities; whose training has been invested in over many years and whose skills have been nurtured; which is underpinned by community development principles; and which, along with Communities First’s cluster configuration, serves to provide an operational and practical apparatus for the connection of other more focused programmes such as Lift or Communities for Work. Moreover, CF provides for an ethical basis for these programmes. The more agencies such as Job Centre Plus move to an outreach approach, the more it needs a programme like CF to mediate its traditional delivery. In this ‘work’ blog about men’s engagement in the Upper Rhymney Valley the Cluster Manager, Sean, talks about how he invites JCP staff to drop by activities with local men in order to be more ‘humanized’. Part and parcel of being disadvantaged is feeling stigmatised and condescended by the very services charged to ‘help’.
Policies that encourage communities to greater ownership of assets, local plans and co-production of services are all well and good but inherent in this is a requirement to re-fashion power relations between stakeholders. Power is seldom given away. So community development as a practice is committed to fairer distributions of local power and a workforce that is trusted to work in the interests of communities will be required to help facilitate and broker new settlements. Former Sustainable Futures Commissioner for Wales, Peter Davies, recently addressed the One Voice Wales conference for Town and Community Councillors. He said:
“We need less of the top down national programmes parachuting into local communities on short term contracts and more support for community led projects that can meet local needs for the long term”
People living in poverty will continue to be vulnerable to pernicious economic and social forces but they are often not having their local needs met either. There should be scope in programmes such as Communities First – or whatever it evolves into or is succeeded by – to help support the third sector and community interests to develop strategies to increase community resilience and not just to work with individuals to improve theirs, as important as this is to them.
It should also be remembered that ‘community-led’ will itself be a contested concept. Local authorities may have a particular interpretation of community-led that differs from independent local trusts or associations. Town and Community Councils may have another. In his address, Davies is right, by quoting Conservative Assembly Member Angela Burns, to draw attention to so-called representative community organisations that actually serve to represent only narrow (self-)interests.
In this respect, governance arrangements must be robust and fit-for-purpose but also allow for the inclusion of new and traditionally under-represented interests.Support for people to enhance their understanding and broaden their skills will be required to ensure that there is plurality in decision-making and that succession planning can provide for continuity. Funders need to be flexible in how they shape and prescribe their funding programmes. At the heart of CF or – gulp, a post-CF programme – must be a commitment to asset based development that recognises that all communities have strengths and assets and should not be defined by their problems or issues.
Among its suggestions for a post-CF approach to tackling poverty, the Bevan Foundation is right to assert that there should be a strong anti-poverty theme in all Welsh Government strategies. Moreover there should be a strong anti-poverty theme to all government – local and central – strategies in Wales and those of government sponsored bodies. If the time has come to end CF, as the Bevan Foundation suggests because it doesn’t address the underlying causes of poverty, there is a danger in pitching programmes and interventions against each other. Peter Davies says the time has come for fewer top down national programmes and I wouldn’t disagree. But there’s an argument that says until the Welsh Assembly has adequate control over (and appetite to use…?) the tax and welfare levers that can mount a robust challenge to poverty at a national scale, then local responses to the impact of poverty will still be required, albeit perhaps fashioned in a different configuration to that which is presently the case. Besides, we certainly need more bottom-up approaches, but if they come at the expense of top-down governmental commitment and vision then change may prove to be only piecemeal and patchwork across Wales. If the powers that be decide that the majority of projects that CF delivers are of, at best, only modest impact, so be it. There is potential to tackle poverty in reconfigured forms of food and energy production, new approaches to caring for our elderly and vulnerable members of society, and in mobilising alternative currencies. If other things work better than CF then I would be among the first to herald them. However, these can be piloted and mobilised locally but aggregating and scaling-up the benefits is not inevitable. It also requires a lot of learning – that L word again – to take place to understand why they are (or might be) successful.The Bevan Foundation suggests transferring the most successful Communities First activities to community ownership; paramount in this is also identifying and sharing why they are successful.
And this is key: ‘might be successful’. It takes bold political vision to try and persist with different approaches and that can be found at a local level but on its own can be a lone voice. It takes bold visions at all levels, including the neighbourhood, and for those visions to mesh and connect to achieve lasting change.
Until we better understand poverty – which in the Welsh context the Bevan Foundation does commendable work to do – our policies, strategies and interventions will continue to make only modest in-roads.