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As Communities First embarks on its latest phase, demands on the programme and its workers have never been higher. Somehow, this relatively small programme is meant to tackle poverty, get people into work, improve people’s skills and qualifications and generally put the world, or at least the community in question, to rights. Somehow, it is meant to succeed when multiple previous government programmes have failed.
So can Communities First in its latest incarnation buck the trend and succeed when others have not?
One of the biggest challenges that community regeneration programmes like Communities First face is that they are dealing with communities that are at rock bottom. By design, Communities First deals with those places that have the very greatest disadvantages of all. Not only that, but most of these communities have multiple disadvantages – not just a lot of people out of work but people who have low educational qualifications, often poor health and inadequate local services to boot.
Communities First is like an ambulance, or rather a whole fleet of ambulances, at the scene of a terrible accident. It tries to pick up the pieces and restore people to a good state of well-being, but unless there is a wonder drug it is doomed to fail. It might rescue some people, sure, but it won’t stop the accident in the first place or completely clear the aftermath.
In other areas of policy, the futility of ‘rescue’ measures is recognised and there is much talk about the need to go ‘upstream’ to prevent problems occurring in the first place. Hence public health measures, hence initiatives to reduce packaging, hence traffic calming. Preventative measures are arguably not given enough priority and are often not as effective as they should be, but they without doubt play a huge role in improving people’s health, reducing waste and cutting traffic accidents.
If prevention rather than cure was applied to community regeneration, what might it look like?
Well, it wouldn’t exclusively focus on the very worst areas. An early warning system that tracked key indicators across Wales’s communities could identify those that are on the slide, where, say, an increase in worklessness might trigger some targeted action in those areas. It’s easier to stop things getting worse than it is to lift them up from the bottom.
Within the most disadvantaged communities, it would focus on prevention – reducing the number of young people leaving school without qualifications, increasing the number of school-leavers getting employment, providing support for people in low-waged employment (and yes, more than half the working-age population in even the most deprived areas has a job) and ensuring people have financial and other coping skills.
This is not to say that community regeneration programmes shouldn’t also attempt cure – many community organisations can tell powerful stories about the transformation of people’s lives achieved through volunteering, working or learning. But sadly there is a limit to the number of people that programmes like this can reach.
Unless the question of prevention is addressed in Wales’s regeneration programmes, it’s simply a case of reshuffling the cards in a pack. Merthyr’s Gurnos estate may well recover, but its position at the top of the deprivation table will simply be taken by disadvantaged people in another disadvantaged community. And instead of the value of intervention being recognised, it will be all too easy to write community regeneration, and the people in those communities, off altogether.
Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation