Tag Archives: communities

In response to the Bevan Foundation’s ‘Goodbye Communities First?’ blog

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.

 

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Community development thinking inspired by Tangled Parrot, Independent Venue Week & Music Venue Trust – a sector fights back

In July 2012 I blogged about how the crowdfunding effort to buy Newport/Casnewydd’s Le Pub live music venue was an opportunity missed to develop an alternative model of ownership based on mutuality and co-operation. In November I attended one of the Mclusky/Jarcrew fundraiser gigs to raise money for soundproofing at Le Pub. With a new fundraising effort needed I recalled not only the blog and earlier campaign, but the more recent one by the Tangled Parrot venue in Carmarthen/Caerfyrddin. Interestingly the group behind this venture, the West Wales Music Collective, set itself up as a Community Interest Company (CIC), a relatively new legal status that is:

“a limited company, with special additional features, created for the use of people who want to conduct a business or other activity for community benefit, and not purely for private advantage”

(Office of the Regulator of CICs)

Thus, a CIC is distinct from a company undertaking a bit of corporate social responsibility or sponsoring some community events or facilities. As such the Tangled Parrot campaign appeared to suggest that there was a realisation in the sector of the need for a model different to a traditional private ownership one.

Hot on the heels of the Le Pub fundraiser came the inaugural Independent Venue Week at the end of January (and another gig to attend in honour of a worthy cause) which is

“a 7 day celebration of small music venues around the UK and a nod to the people that run them, week in, week out…These venues are the backbone of the live music scene in this country”

Indeed they are and they deserve recognition. Hopefully the week will grow year on year and emulate its kindred spirit the annual Record Store Day. However if they are the backbone of the industry and are so crucial to the germination of bands; so crucial culturally-speaking to the folks who pay to watch them; and so crucial as the means for learning the ropes as lighting engineers, sound technicians or promoters, then all the more reason to involve them all in the running and ownership of such venues?

Now, I’ve said little more here than I did in my 2012 blog. But I recently saw the following tweet:

which led me to discover a new Trust set up as a registered charity that seeks to:

“preserve, secure and improve the UK’s network of small to medium scale, mostly independently run, music venues. We have a long term plan to protect that live music network which includes, where necessary, taking into charitable ownership freehold properties so they can be removed from commercial pressures and leased back to passionate music professionals to continue their operation”

(http://www.scribd.com/doc/253772403/Understanding-Small-Music-Venues, emphasis added)

This is not the same as mutuality and co-operation, but is in the same ballpark (as is the CIC behind the Tangled Parrot) promoting values of sustainability and responsibility. The interim report on the research into the experience of UK music venues believes there’s a “national challenge” to the live venue circuit which has left the network of venues in a “perilous and precarious state”. Many in the community development sector talk in similar terms about the erosion of public services, hollowing out of local labour markets and pernicious forces undermining and destabilising assets of all sorts that communities hold dear (see recent threats to Cardiff/Caerdydd‘s library and parks services); indeed, it is entirely likely that many people will include small music venues among such assets. The music venue sector will be one where community development values will resonate strongly. There will be a need to challenge not only uneven power relations, but in some cases the state-sponsored underpinning of these (the research refers to evidence submitted by venues citing “incredibly relaxed planning” as a threat to their survival) and the wilful disregard for community interests and opinions (the research refers to property developers having “little interest in community opposition, even when expressed via a petition with thousands of signatories”).

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Reblog (via @markpitman1): Cup connections stretch into the community

The below is an insightful look at how grassroots football is engaging with young people in two Welsh communities – Clydach Vale in the Rhondda, and Port Talbot – in order to promote positive and healthy decision-making by them.

http://www.markpitman1.com/2013/10/19/cup-connections-stretch-community/

Mark Pitman writes perceptively about all manner of issue pertaining to football in Wales. The seemingly wall-to-wall, year-round saturation of England’s Premier League has a stymieing effect on other leagues’ efforts at securing media exposure, and so any additional coverage that the grassroots game in Wales can receive is always welcome. However, not only is the coverage of the Premier League so pervasive. There is a very real danger that its increasingly exploitative commodification of supporters’ loyalty and debt-laden financial models are seeping across the border. If Cardiff City’s arrival in the Premier League under Vincent Tan’s ownership is the most high profile example in Wales, it has happened at less rarefied tiers in the game in Wales. Barry Town, Wrexham, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath FC and Llanelli have all struggled financially and in some cases have done so with a sole owner in charge whose erratic and increasingly megalomaniac behaviour has wilfully alienated and disenfranchised supporters and wider communities.

I have previously argued that football clubs in Wales would do well to adopt a community development approach that draws on the local community as members and though the mutual, fan-owned model has relatively healthy in Wales with Wrexham FC, Merthyr Town, Barry Town United, and to a lesser extent Swansea City, it is more than just about the structures that new fan-owned clubs adopt but the principles that underpin them. A fan-owned club which lacks transparency, is undemocratic and which doesn’t seek to involve the community in its fabric is only marginally better than one owned by the likes of Stuart Lovering (Barry Town), Geraint Hawkes (Neath FC) or Mark Guterman (Wrexham). My experience as a member of Wrexham Supporters’ Trust – and therefore a proud co-owner of Wrexham FC – suggests that values of transparency, self determination and democracy are in abundance within these fan-owned clubs. Nonetheless it is heartening to see other community development principles such as empowerment and participation also present at the grassroots in the likes of Clydach Vale and Port Talbot.

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My response to Mike Hedges AM Bevan Foundation blog on the use of statistics in programmes that tackle poverty

Mike Hedges, Assembly Member for Swansea East/Dwyrain Abertawe blogged at the Bevan Foundation on how a greater flexibility in interpretation and design of data should be used to enhance the identification of people in need. My response to it is available to view on the above link. It is expanded upon here in order to articulate the value that community development brings to this process.

I’m not sure using units smaller than LSOAs necessarily leads to more accurate identification. LSOAs are already small and have been used in the most recent editions of the WIMD precisely because they allow for a more nuanced sub-ward analysis of deprivation at community level. They are constrained by the arrangement of electoral wards above them, which would presumably be costly to rearrange. With such rapid growth in housing in some wards (Butetown springs to mind) the LSOAs need to evolve to reflect the new communities that spring up; this is not necessarily about the size of LSOAs, but the cohesion and sensitivity with which a ward is carved up into them. At a macro level it is less about the size of the LSOAs and, rightly as Mike Hedges points out, about how flexibly they are interpreted by the programmes that use such data and whether other data is eligible to complement WIMD and census data. The experience of Communities First (CF) is salient here.

CF, through its use of Results Based Accountability, requires a story behind the baseline. In essence ‘what else does one know about a community beyond what the statistics suggest’. This is welcome. I recall CF community development workers (CDWs) in the Dulais Valley citing broadband connectivity data that suggested it was among the most 2-3% ‘dis-connected’ communities in the whole UK. Data related to digital connectivity, whether it is use or availability thereof, is not an indicator that WIMD draws upon; though arguably with the increased shift towards online access to job searches and availability of financial products and transactions it is a key indicator that shapes deprivation. CF allowed for additional data and research to shape the argument for resources towards particular tackling poverty activities. CDWs do not merely raise awareness of such a statistic but are well-placed to interrogate the assumptions that it informs, such as the extent to which it affects accessibility to employment advice and job adverts, and the effect on morale, confidence and preparation for the recruitment process. In such an instance the story behind the baseline does not narrate itself, and certainly not on a collective basis.

The emphasis on the size of LSOAs potentially draws attention away from the underlying indicators that the WIMD draw on. Mike Hedges focuses on two housing related indicators: tenure and council tax band. This is particularly interesting for two reasons. Firstly, that the last WIMD in 2011 deliberately reduced the weighting in the calculation of the overall WIMD of the housing domain from 10% to 5% because it drew on census data from 2001 and this was felt to be less robust than it might have been. Thus, irrespective of which indicators are used, the key issue is that the weighting of the different domains reflects the proportionality to which different indicators cause, aggregate or reflect poverty. Secondly, tenure and council tax seem reasonable indicators to accompany the current housing domain indicators of overcrowding and presence of central heating. One might argue however that data related to affordability of housing might be more pertinent again; or even availability of housing. In respect of tenure, is the status of tenure or security of tenure that is a more pertinent indicator to levels of deprivation within a community? This reveals how politically-laden the identification of indicators actually is. Why is there no business start-up related indicator? Or self-employment related indicator? Whatever the indicator, the data has to be available consistently at whatever unit level is employed because the more gaps there are the harder it is to be flexible in the interpretation of data for which Mike Hedges calls. Again CF’s experience is helpful.

The gaps in ‘NEET’ data at LSOA level made for a very patchy understanding of even the statistical extent of the problem and provided for a muddled picture among CF clusters. If the extent of a problem is not accurately known, how can progress be accurately measured? Perhaps this is why WIMD does not use ‘NEETs’ as an underlying indicator.

Community development is crucial in advocating on behalf of less vocal and/or visible interests. In this way it is able to draw attention to other indicators that can inform the analysis and measurement of disadvantage. Issues about statistical rigor remain, such that there may be legitimate technical reasons why something cannot be used. But the advocacy role is two-way and CDWs can help explain to communities why indicators are not adopted. I recall working in a Gwent valleys community where there were concerns about the mortality rate from breast cancer in that sub-ward community. The data, the Local Health Board told us, was available at sub-ward level (this was in the pre-LSOA days) but to circulate it would risk revealing the identities of the individuals who comprised the statistics, which might be insensitive and distressing, as well as breaching data protection legislation and confidentiality protocols. My and others’ roles were to facilitate that dialogue. Did the unavailability of that data affect project planning? Or our understanding of the experience and psychology of, and services for, breast cancer? Possibly. But it was a reminder that there is always a human face behind statistics; human faces that can articulate the experience and knowledge that shapes the stories behind the baseline…if they are given a suitable, safe opportunity to do so. Community development helps create such opportunities and allows them to enter the political nexus that exists around debates related to disadvantage in a way that limits the extent to which that experience can be exploited for political gain.

Returning to Mike Hedges blog, it is extremely helpful that he puts statistics and policies’ use of them under the spotlight. The opportunity to participate in the construction and design of WIMD is one which should be more prominent than it traditionally has been. A more public profile would allow the debate about what is relevant in defining ‘in need’ to be pluralised, and this is crucial and goes beyond not just finding out where people in a pre-determined and possibly remotely-determined need are.

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An inquiry into peer learning/support in community development

I have spent the last few days preparing a discussion paper on options for peer support in the Communities First programme.

I have found some interesting examples of it operating in other sectors, programmes and organisations e.g., the Families First and the former Mentro Allan programmes in Wales, the Big Local programme and between rural communities in England, and in community renewal in Northern Ireland.

There are instances where the peer support occurs within a workforce; others where it focuses on brokering support and exchange of ideas and experiences between volunteers and community activists. In some cases it is entirely peer-led; in others there is a permanent role for external agents (either as facilitators, organisers or curriculum designers).

Some have a pastoral element to them, meaning that the development of solidarity, appreciation and camaraderie is encouraged. Others are geared more clinically to outcomes and effectiveness of delivery.

All require the peers, to at least some degree, to consider themselves: their values, their practice, their method.

In one programme the peer support and learning occurs in Action Learning Sets (ALSs). This is not novel as they are an established method for tackling important organisational issues or problems and learning from the attempt(s) to change thing. However, contrary to my understanding and experience of ALSs they are compulsory for practitioners and topics for discussion are externally prescribed to the sets. I am keen to ascertain to what extent ownership of this process occurs. Questions arise in my mind about confidentiality, trust and the extent to which set members/contributors internalise their learning. This is something I intend to probe further.

Another key element of the inquiry is the use of digital and online media to facilitate contact and discourse between peers. Big Local is presently developing these to complement thematic events. Others use platforms such as LinkedIn or Basecamp which are externally moderated and allow for a relatively cheap (even free) means of hosting a forum, either permanent or temporary, in which peer discussion can occur. Communities First has not had a programme-wide moderated forum for almost five years, and its use when it did exist was, at best, modest.

One of the guiding principles of the general inquiry, not just the paper, is a presumption that peer support already occurs in Communities First, no matter how informally. Furthermore, that any framework to develop and enhance it must wherever possible complement such relationships and processes.

I would be interested in hearing from any other instances where practitioners, paid or unpaid, share and reflect on their practice and experience. Please contact me on Twitter at @llannerch or through this blog.

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27 ways to increase participation” from oscarlearnoscarteach

These are also simple watchwords by which one can ensure community involvement retains its focus, credibility, responsiveness and inclusivity. 

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May 29, 2013 · 2:01 pm

Clarke, S, Mendola Byatt, A, Hoban, M, Powell, D (eds.) (2002) Community Development in South Wales, University of Wales Press: Cardiff.

Can’t believe this is now over a decade old. A must for any community development worker working in Wales (even north Wales!).

Surely it is time for a revised version or a collection of new perspectives?

Communities First entering a second decade; the publication of a national framework for community development; a much expanded and trained community development workforce; government recognition of the need for and funding of ongoing development of the workforce; recession and forced austerity; continuing divergence of UK and Wales regeneration policy; advent of primary legislative powers for the National Assembly for Wales; the Children and Families Measure in Wales.

All have surely re-shaped the community development and tackling poverty scene in Wales?

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February 22, 2013 · 10:00 am