Monday, 17 October 2016

Saving the best bits of the curate’s egg? : The Legacy of Communities First

I feel compelled to write this blog after the semi surprise announcement last week by the minister Carl Sargeant that the Welsh Government’s flagship talking poverty programme Communities First (CF) is to be “rethought”.  At the time of writing what is actually meant by this term is far from clear and therein lies one of the problems to the community development / tackling poverty agenda in Wales. Although CF is fifteen years old, which in community regeneration project years is positively ancient, in recent years it has been beset by uncertainty as to it future and it has been a creaking gate of a programme which has not been conducive to its robustness.

During its fifteen years it has undergone various incarnations and at its most basic it moved from its original model and ethos of being a community led initiative that recognised the complexity of what community development means at a grass roots level to being, particularly in the past few years, a more traditional community focussed initiative pursuing distinct targets often under the direction of the local authority.

As someone who has been involved in CF in some shape or form since its inception I am of the opinion that not all these developments in the last few years of the initiative have been for the best.  The innovative approach of Communities First when it was first formulated is that it recognised that often it is the people who live in poor communities who have a unique insight into formulation solutions to the problems they face. As CF “evolved” however it increasingly moved from this innovative approach to one more dominated by local authorities and a traditional model dominated and led by professionals.  That said considering this change of focus CF has continued to deliver, at times, innovative and effective initiatives and projects that really made a difference to people’s lives in some of our poorest communities.

Particularly of late staff have had to work with a high degree of uncertainty in relation to the future and form of the CF programme.  In the past year all staff have been on a one year contract due to come to an end on the 31st march 2017. This uncertainty is something that has dogged the programme since its inception. CF workers have become used to uncertainty as to the future of their contracts and last minute announcements as to the future and changes in the programme.  All these factors have not been conducive to the programme achieving its full potential.

Communities First has also had to endure being a favourite political football for the Welsh political class. The programme has always been a flagship project of Labour and as such and due to the budget directed toward it it has always been a prime focus of criticism from the Conservatives and to a lesser extent Plaid Cymru.  Interestingly though although CF has been a focus for this criticism from the opposing political parties they have neither offered or suggested any real innovative alternatives. 

No one can say that CF has been a runaway success.  Understandably as it has been trying to tackle poverty in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Western Europe that have had a very long history of trying to survive on the outer periphery  on the industrialised areas of the UK.  There have been various evaluations of the programme over the year some good some not so good but in the general consensus is that the programme is a bit of a curate’s egg, good in parts.

The recent announcement by the Welsh Minister as to the rethinking of the programme has led to some very poor reporting in the Welsh media (no surprise there then) and some less than informed statements from our elected representatives. In this report from BBC Wales the use of the word “dropped” gives the impression that all the work of the programme is to simply cease.  Rather than mention the many success of the programme the report chooses to focus on an instance of fraud in one CF area. The most glaring example of a misinformed analysis of the programme’s impact comes from Mark Isherwood the Welsh Conservative’s spokesman who argues that as the CF areas are still suffering poverty then obviously the programme is not “fit for purpose”   Considering the programme has spend approximately £30 Million a year for the whole of Wales it is a bit much to expect that that relatively small amount of funding can be expected to tackle the deep and most fundamental repercussions of global economic forces. Additionally that this statement was to come from a representative of the Conservative party who have been responsible for subjecting the area and local residents to negative forces that have compounded the areas poverty such as the bedroom tax and the so called benefit reforms which again has reduced the amount of money which is coming in to the area. So although the years of Coalition and Conservative party rule have not improved the levels of poverty in the area this spokesperson chooses to blame the CF programme.
So Communities First is to be no more, so be it, nothing lasts for ever.  As I said earlier while CF has achieved some really great things at the same time it has been a bit of a curate’s egg of a programme often because of factors that are beyond the control of those who work on, plan and instigate the programme. What is crucial as we move forward though is that the achievements are built on and not lost. During this upcoming period of consultation and reflection as put forward by the minister it is essential we identify what those achievements are.  To my mind one resource we should recognise is the CF workforce and infrastructure.  We have fifteen years development of a workforce who know their communities intimately and knows what works and what doesn’t.  Empowerment has been key word in the minister’s statement in relation to the future of Communities First I would suggest a powerful method of achieving that empowerment at community level is to use that resources of the CF workforce who know what empowerment really means. As a first step what that workforce needs to achieve those aims is some certainty and a clear plan over a significant period of time so they can make these plans a reality. This uncertainty has hamstrung the programme in the past and let us ensure that the same mistakes are not made in the future.

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