Last night BBC Wales broadcast an episode of Week In Week Out (WIWO) entitled Wales’s Most Deprived Estate: The Fight Back. The 60 minute documentary is available to view on BBC iplayer.
It focuses on the Lansbury Park estate in the St James ward in Caerphilly/Caerffili. The 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation singled it out as Wales’s most deprived community. The WIWO coverage was largely balanced and was a nice antidote to the usual exploitative ‘poverty porn’ coverage of poverty and deprivation.
The principal theme was how some local people – all women interestingly – had decided to set up their own action group because, in the words of one of the women, they
“Have been let down. Big time”
The focus of their efforts and a cause célèbre for their frustrations was a derelict community centre. The other motivating factor was the perceived lack of engagement by the local authority, and by extension, the Communities First (CF) programme.
The BBC online article that served as a taster for the broadcast refers to the usual list of public expenditure invested in a community as proof of action, while CF is cited as actually prioritising and targeting Lansbury Park, despite the residents feeling they are “forgotten people”.
There is a tendency by such programmes to see things in such binary terms – either forgotten and ignored, or prioritised and focused upon. The figures supplied by the local authority stating that 8,600 people were helped to improve their parenting, employment prospects and to escape domestic abuse suggest that clearly some people are not forgotten about.
Therein lies the nub though.
CF has evolved from the sort of intervention that would hold highly-visible community events, meetings and consultations to one which is more intensive, responsive to individuals’ needs (often very complex) and targeted at those determinants of poverty and disadvantage. A derelict community centre is not such a determinant; which is not to say that it was not an eyesore or that the need for neutral, accessible space is not important for communities to express themselves, interact, celebrate and collaborate. The challenge for CF has been to retain and nurture the broader community interest in and emotional attachment to this new approach that cannot, by default, respond to those who are most articulate, loud or determined. Indeed, it must respond to often marginal voices, uncover hidden poverty, and sometimes be discreet and confidential. However, an overlooked, in my mind, aspect of the community involvement strand of CF is the imperative of establishing the right to act, even, the right to be there.
It is not enough to tout new-fangled budgets and programmes, well-meaning rhetoric, or even to genuinely aspire to make a(ny) difference. In rugby there is the phrase “earning the right play”. It means doing the spadework that gives you not just the ability but the right to express yourself and to apply your tactics and gameplan.
Community development requires the same thing and it requires one to be cognisant of the surroundings and circumstances in which one finds oneself. Arguing the extent to which Lansbury Park is forgotten or prioritised is irrelevant; that that is the perception, at least held by some, is what is key. I could not help but feel that the current CF configuration and strategies had left too many people in Lansbury Park behind, and so its right to act – irrespective of how effectively, on what, and with what statistical justification – had not been earned (or perhaps had been lost in CF’s evolution over the years). Quite simply, there seemed to be little acknowledgement on the part of some the residents of what CF had been doing and achieving locally.
There is not a CF area in Wales that will not admit it can do more and better to enhance the level and quality of engagement with local people. Acting reflectively and self-critically are key principles for community development. By doing both off the back of the the broadcast and accompanying profile, will serve to articulate things in less binary terms, with the aspirations of local people and the focus of CF potentially being able to dovetail for mutual benefit. There is enough room for CF to do what it does, for the women to do what they think is important, and for other people in Lansbury Park to do what they want to do. Grassroots action in communities like Lansbury Park can be all too rare, enfeebled and reliant on too few pairs of hands. The greater the mosaic of community action, the more sustainable its roots will be; the more energy it can generate; the better regarded it will be by local people.
All of which, frankly, makes it easier for Communities First to achieve.