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Grassroots regeneration

Grassroots RegenerationIn the first of a series looking at regeneration within individual communities across Wales, WHQ focuses on the Gellideg Foundation Group.

A bit of history

Gellideg is in the north of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil. Like many housing estates in South Wales, since the closure of heavy and light manufacturing industries during the last two decades, levels of unemployment, drug abuse and crime have been high. Located within the Cyfarthfa ward, (a Communities First ward), the Gellideg estate was built around 50 years ago and currently comprises a mix of council housing and right to buy properties. Approximately 2,000 residents live on the estate which forms a pocket of intensive deprivation within the ward.

Unlike many other estates in South Wales, Gellideg has not been involved in a series of regeneration initiatives over the decades. It was not until the mid 1990s that Groundwork Trust and Rhondda Cynon Taff received funding from the European Regional Development Fund and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council to consult with the community and carry out physical environmental improvements.

Following this, in 1998, with the support of Groundwork, residents formed the Gellideg Foundation Group to improve life on the estate. The group came together when mothers living in the area felt frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to their children and the rising levels of drug dependency in the area. Their initial focus was to secure the provision of community facilities, particularly for children and young people, enable young people to develop their skills and build confidence, and help people to get back into work. At first, the Group ran discos for the children and started a football team with volunteers, but had no base in which to meet or run activities.

The work of the Group

The aims of the Group are to:

  • improve the quality of life of all of the residents of Gellideg by enhancing the social, economic, recreational and physical environment
  • regenerate the community
  • work in partnership with other groups, agencies and the Council to the maximum benefit of Gellideg at local and national level

In 2000, the Group started to rent a flat from the local authority as a base and now pay a peppercorn rent for 4 flats in one block, as well as another block of 6 flats which is due to be refurbished to house a major training initiative funded by Europe. The Group also leases the local Church Hall and own a well-used kickabout area purchased through Sportslot.

The services provided by the Group are supported by a range of funders including Objective 1 monies from Europe, the Big Lottery Fund and Communities First. These monies go towards providing:

  • youth provision 5 evenings a week
  • an after school club 5 evenings a week
  • a crèche
  • a parent and toddler group
  • an older people’s group
  • a healthy living centre funded by the Big Lottery
  • job training
  • provision of information and advice on a wide range of issues

The Group has also worked with other organisations to make sure their services have become more accessible to residents. The community police, housing officer, health visitor and Working Links all provide services from the Group’s base on a regular basis.

The board of the Group has always been made up entirely of residents. But systems are also in place to ensure that people who don’t want to participate on the board can have a role. Street representatives are in place across the estate who keep in contact with all the residents on their street. This level of engagement has been formative in the development of Neighbourhood Watch. In addition, the Group has received training in gender and participatory practice from Oxfam and conseqently published in March 2003 Fifty voices are better than one. This looked at the different needs of men and women living on the estate to ensure that services meet real needs rather than assumed needs.

Communities First

The Gellideg Foundation Group is a grant recipient body under Communities First which pays for capacity building work and staff costs. Applying for funding to actually deliver programmes to the community has been a challenge. Some grant bodies have responded to bids by saying that if the area was eligible for Communities First, then it was not eligible for funding from their organisation.

The Group is represented on the Communities First Partnership Board. Their observations on how the Partnership Board is working to date are that:

  • it is very positive in terms of community representation, ensuring that issues important to communities are raised, but
  • it has not been effective at influencing decisions and challenging existing ways of working and seems to work in isolation

A specific example is that housing does not attend the Partnership Board and yet for Gellideg, housing is one of the key issues. The Tenant Participation Compact is borough-wide and therefore does not provide an opportunity to address issues that are specific to individual areas.

Wider networks

The Group is well linked with a range of networks across Wales and beyond.

Colette Watkins, the Group’s Project Manager, is a member of the Executive Committee of the Anti-Poverty Network Cymru which brings together many grassroots individuals and organisations to influence national agendas and ways of working. Colette is passionate about the need for the development of anti-poverty and regeneration work to involve people living in poverty rather than having things ‘done to them’. The Network has recently been involved in the Assembly\’s review of over-indebtedness and are currently undertaking an evaluation of Communities First in four areas in Wales from the perspective of the community sector.

Along with estates in Wrexham, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Newport, Gellideg is also involved in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Neighbourhood Programme. This Programme aims to support community empowerment through ‘light touch’ support and networking and involves 20 groups and projects across Wales, England and Scotland. Through this, the Group have become increasingly aware of the differences in the level of investment in communities between Gellideg and the English communities involved in the Programme.

The future

The Group have achieved a huge amount, now employ 26 staff, 20 of whom are local residents, and provide an impressive range of services and support to local residents. The annual budget for the organisation is now £2.5 million. A 3-year, £855,000 training, employment and entrepreneurship project will be starting soon.

Looking to the future, the Group:

  • are working towards the development of a new community facility/hall to replace the run-down Church hall
  • are exploring the establishment of social enterprises with service level agreements to sell services to other organisations
  • have identified the need for a support package for families living on the estate
  • are developing a plan to roll out capacity building work ward-wide

But, says Colette Watkins Project Manager, the issues facing residents and the area are so challenging that the Group cannot meet all the needs; the list includes debt, benefit dependency, isolation, low self-esteem, lack of aspiration and easy access to alcohol and drugs for young people. A key next step, she says, is the development of processes and systems to make sure that local needs can influence decisions made by the local authority and other statutory agencies. And so that the community sector can participate in decision-making processes on levels of funding and services allocated to, and received by, their areas. Enabling the voices of local people to really be heard is, after all, what Communities First should be about, she says.

Unsurprisingly, this echoes one of the interim conclusions of the Rowntree Programme mentioned earlier:

‘the current policy emphasis on the neighbourhood is welcome if local residents are to have a real say in the services and decisions that affect their lives. But real change will be needed in local authorities and other public bodies if systems and cultures of working are to deliver on the neighbourhoods agenda..’

Lending a hand: the value of light touch support in empowering communities, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 2005

Also needed are a source of funding for capital projects and sustainable sources of revenue funding – most of the staff employed by the Group are on temporary contracts. And, Colette notes, opportunities to link the estate and its people with wider regeneration in the Merthyr area such as the Cyfarthfa Retail Park need to be recognised and taken. The Retail Park has no on-site child care and transport infrastructure to reach the Park is lacking, as are training programmes for ongoing skills development and job progression with companies located on the Park. A real example of a lost opportunity.

The report Fifty voices are better than one is available online.

The toolkit which accompanies Fifty voices called What Men & Women Want – a practical guide to gender and participation is available online.

The report Lending a hand: the value of light touch support in empowering communities is available online.

WHQ would like to thank Colette Watkins and the team at the Gellideg Foundation Group for their time and assistance in putting this feature together. Colette can be contacted at [email protected].

If you would like to see regeneration work in your community featured in a future issue of WHQ, please email the editor.

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