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The apple pie needs beefing up: Communities First – the story so far

The apple pie needs beefing upGary Foreman looks forward to the further development of Communities First.

Wales Audit Office report

Communities First, the Welsh Assembly Government’s flagship programme to tackle deprivation and improve the conditions and prospects for people in the most disadvantaged communities across Wales, recently came under the scrutiny of the National Audit Office. Jeremy Colman, Auditor General for Wales, and his team published a comprehensive and clinical report on progress to date.

In summary, the report suggests much effective work has been done to develop people, partnerships and communities throughout Wales, but that there is room, and acres of it, for improvement when it comes to programme bending. Where the deep-rooted needs in designated communities call for targeted intervention from mainstream agents, the process of bending national and regional resources seems somehow arthritic. Structures and systems properly designed to satisfy utilitarian need, and safeguard against irresponsible or unscrupulous expenditure from the public purse, lack the suppleness to address hotspots of concentrated need at neighbourhood level. Necessarily stating the obvious, the report emphasises that excluded communities are, of themselves, powerless to effect significant programme bending and that, ‘the primary responsibility for achieving programme bend lies with service providers’ over which communities ‘have no authority and little influence’.

Community in control?

Repeatedly, this critical issue of the (dis)ability of communities to control service delivery emerges throughout the report, challenging the programme’s integrity and capacity. Why give people a voice only for it to be ignored, or build a community’s capacity to …do what?… recognise its ranking in the multiple deprivation index, discover what disempowerment really means and monitor perpetual decline? Does the programme remain fundamentally over-ambitious or will political and public leadership and processes evolve alongside more enterprising and entrepreneurial communities to forge creative and effective ‘third-way’ solutions?

Reasons to be positive ….

Therein lies hope. Communities First is a bold programme. It represents at least the potential for joined-up co-operation within and between agencies to produce real benefit for local communities and for Wales as a whole. The Wales Audit Office report highlights the brokerage role of Communities First Partnerships and professionals which help unearth the benefits of national and regional programmes, enabling resources targeted at disadvantaged communities to achieve optimum impact. Local intelligence, such as knowing where or where not to park your roadshow for greatest engagement, or having the familiar face of a development worker present when visiting professionals parachute in to impart information to local residents, can make the difference between successful outcomes and a completely misdirected deployment of resources. ‘The existence of a partnership and its staff has been useful in helping some public bodies deliver projects in Communities First areas where otherwise they would have struggled.’ Similarly, the report commends the community development practice of dedicated and highly motivated professionals, activists and volunteers who, supported by Communities First, offer more intensive support than mainstream agencies traditionally deliver. ‘For example, development workers arranged for a local young person to work as an apprentice in a local garage. (Initially…) the development workers would wake him up, help him prepare for work and ensure he attended the workplace on time.’ The simplicity belies the significance. This is cultural change in action. This is vertical integration in practice. Communities First has captured opportunities available through ‘top-down’ programmes and applied ‘bottom-up’ process to optimise the benefits locally. Yes, eternally there will be disputes over attribution, who gets the brownie points or claims the tick for their box, but Communities First has facilitated an arena or interface where links are made, social capital increases and, ultimately, individuals, families, communities and society as a whole benefits.

Thus the Wales Audit Office presents an honest and balanced assessment of the Communities First programme to date. Individual and community case studies demonstrate success. Lives have been transformed. Numerous community ventures, across the key themes addressing health, learning, community safety, environment, jobs business and income generation, and child poverty, have alleviated disadvantage and delivered improvements. In spite of this, however, a disappointment and frustration persists, which is experienced by designated communities, supporters, scrutinisers and critics alike. Much has been achieved yet much more is expected.

And for hope ….

Once again there is hope. Communities First has entered a new phase, the report documents, characterised by greater capacity and understanding within the Communities Directorate and a shift from soft outcomes, (wrestling to define capacity building and evaluating how it worked in terms of value for money), to hard outcomes (more visible, tangible, SMART goals with more easily-evidenced advances). Alongside this, the new Outcomes Fund intending to shift power balances and improve programme bending, (with applications from Communities First Partnerships utilising match-funding from mainstream partners), plus a more joined-up approach to Communities First across Assembly Directorates and Assembly Government Sponsored Bodies. Could this be new wine in new wineskins, a mechanism by which a national programme can channel resources through refreshed, more responsive systems within public sector agencies to meet diverse needs within disparate communities at a highly localised level?

One such community finds great resonance between the Wales Audit Office findings and its own experience and aspirations. Penywaun, population of almost 4,000 in 1,200 homes, is situated within the Cynon Valley in Rhondda Cynon Taf, just north of Aberdare, skirting the A465 Heads of the Valleys trunk road. The Penywaun chapter in the story of Communities First so far demonstrates the importance of a community-based presence to anchor benefits from mainstream programmes. One example amongst many is Dapper FM, now a volunteer led community radio station (www.dapperfm.co.uk), addressing WAG’s Digital Inclusion priorities in collaboration with Wales Co-Operative Centre’s European Regional Development funded Communities 2.0 programme and supported by Gr8 Radio. Without grassroots engagement, however, the successful outcomes of this project would not have been realised to the same extent. Whilst open to criticism of being ‘apple-pie’ because of its informal and encouraging approach, the value of community development work in its development of people and communities should not be underestimated. As readers of this article may, upon reflection, acknowledge how they have benefited individually from the input of community and voluntary activity at some point in life, so seasoned community development practitioners testify to its worth in building self-esteem, facilitating social cohesion, tempering social extremes, correcting anti-social behaviours, practicing participative democracy, and promoting active citizenship. The solemn irony is that, so long as community development practice succeeds, its true value will never be realised. Without it, the costs to the public purse in terms of social services intervention, increased health treatments, demands upon the police and legal justice system, as well as loss of revenue from people not supported into work would soon show. Furthermore, until there is greater professional mutuality between the worlds of reactive community development and retrospective public auditing, a disproportionate amount of time and money will be spent resolving petty queries arising from contrasting definitions of justifiable activity and eligible spend. The challenge is to not demote community development, but to develop satisfactory monitoring and evaluation processes that will properly assess return on investment and more fully inform political and public scrutiny.

The beef in the apple pie

Having said that, the apple pie needs beefing up. Since the onset of Communities First, Penywaun has lost its Health Clinic, its Community Education Centre, and its Youth Club. There are also great fears about the sustainability of its Children’s Services. When any community suffers the loss of such infrastructure, it is difficult to counter a pervasive sense of decline. When that community is near the top of the multiple deprivation index, disaffection and disillusionment persist, and the praises of Communities First as a flagship programme are understandably muted. The local Primary School has recently been awarded funding for improvements, though this was quite separate from any involvement with the Communities First process that included the local Partnership. Meanwhile, negotiations directly between community and Communities First representatives and public sector officials at senior levels to date show no sign whatsoever of addressing the lack of community-based health facilities or replacement services for local youth, nor assurances of addressing complex child poverty issues beyond March 2010. Community Development alone cannot regenerate Penywaun or similarly disadvantaged communities in Wales.

Beefing up the apple pie requires external agencies to meet genuine bottom-up attempts for sustainable solutions at least half way. For Penywaun, this means negotiating community based health facilities. It means enabling the building of a Community Hub, attracting private and public sector tenancy agreements that will sustain the facility and subsidise space for services currently not accessible to local residents. It means making procurement more politically potent, considering the place of organisations like Build Wales, a Community Enterprise Company Limited by Shares, of which PEP, (The Penywaun Enterprise Partnership – Lead Body for Communities First in Penywaun), is one amongst a number of community organisations signed up as corporate Director. Build Wales is already delivering quality construction and landscaping projects whilst creating jobs and training for local people. It wishes to explore further involvement with more Wales-based Registered Social Landlords, to broaden its benefit, (enhanced physical environment, job creation and places for local trainees), and generate profit to re-invest in the business and to channel back into charitable activity in Penywaun and other disadvantaged communities. Such initiatives epitomise a perspective of the Communities First process as a springboard for recovery, rather than a shelter from reality, reflecting the shift in emphasis as Communities First enters its new phase.

Will Communities First achieve further reform based upon the Wales Audit Office recommendations? Will such reform help lift Penywaun from poverty to prosperity? The story continues……

Gary Foreman BD MSt (Cantab), is Communities First Co-Ordinator, Penywaun, [email protected]


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