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Communities First: the most important questions to ask

June 13th 2017

Victoria Winckler outlines the key questions to ask about winding up Communities First.

 

Last week, I was privileged to give oral evidence to the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee‘s inquiry into Communities First. It was, as always, good to be at the heart of the scrutiny of Welsh Government decisions.

Quite rightly, AMs focused on the transition arrangements being put in place as Communities First winds down. They asked about coping with substantial cuts in budgets and changes in management arrangements.  They asked about the shift in priorities towards the so-called ‘three E’s’ – employability, early years and empowerment – that the Cabinet Secretary has announced. And they considered the possible impact of winding down Communities First on other community programmes such as Flying Start, Lift and Communities for Work (generally thought to be ‘not good’ incidentally).

All the points raised by the Committee were excellent – the Cabinet Secretary can look forward to a bit of a grilling when he appears before them shortly.

But the scrutiny needs to go further.

I can understand that the Committee wants to focus on the decision to scrap Communities First – it’s one of the few programmes that has ever been wound up by Welsh Government, and it affects some of the most disadvantaged people and communities in Wales.

It’s something of a contradiction for a government that wants to increase prosperity for all and a bit of problem for the many AMs who support and appreciate what Communities First does in their area.

But in asking about the mechanics of change, the Committee risks missing the point.

The underlying question is “what is the Welsh Government doing for people in deprived communities”?

The Committee – and indeed AMs throughout the Assembly – needs to be asking what is the Welsh Government doing for people in deprived communities.  They should have been asking this long before Communities First fell out of favour, and they definitely should be asking it now.

There are some important questions are about the reach and impact of mainstream policies and programmes on people and places in deprived areas. So the challenges are:

  • what is the Cabinet Secretary for Education doing to improve attainment in schools in deprived areas?
  • what is the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy doing to create decent jobs within 5 miles of deprived areas?
  • what is the Cabinet Secretary for Health doing to reduce the burden of illness in deprived communities and improve access to good quality healthcare?
  • what are local authorities doing to improve the local environment in deprived areas?

And so on. It’s not unreasonable to go through each Cabinet Secretary’s or Minister’s portfolio and ask ‘so what are you doing for people in North Merthyr / Rhyl / Pembrokeshire or where ever.

This really matters.

This really matters because improving the outcomes of mainstream public services in deprived areas is far, far more likely to achieve lasting change in people’s lives than any number of small-scale, special programmes.

Indeed when I hear about some Communities First interventions, I wonder why the school, the health board or the local authority can’t just deliver these services in the community anyway.

Resilience is not the answer

The debate about Communities First will rumble on for some time. I am sorry to say that I doubt the replacement offer – resilient communities – will fare any better than its predecessor. This is because it continues with the flawed focus on changing individuals’ behaviour and the impossible task of delivering through small, supplementary services.

Only when we have an economy and labour market, education and health service, housing allocation system and public transport that deliver for the least well-off as well as the rest of the population will we eradicate poverty and deprivation.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. Read our written evidence to the Committee here.  

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