Communities First – Will Clusters Work?

February 18th 2013

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On February 1st of this year, the Welsh Government funded Communities First programme in Swansea started to work across a new set of re-designed boundaries, comprising of 5 “cluster” programmes. The creation of these new clusters is aimed at addressing one of the biggest problems with the old system (where a smaller team worked across a smaller geographical area); this being that good practice rarely travelled significantly beyond the boundaries of each individual programme.

 In August last year, I wrote an article for the Bevan Foundation where I described some of the most successful Communities First projects taking place in my constituency to help fulfil the aims of the programme; these being creating “healthy communities, prosperous communities and learning communities”. The examples I referred to included:

 

  • A project in the Penlan area of Swansea that promoted the benefits of joining a local credit union and replacing high cost loans;
  • A project that helped people find employment, also in Penlan;
  • A project that looked to help people through reducing utility bill outgoings in Port Tennant (enabling local people to make more of their household budget);
  • A clothing shop project in Blaenymaes which recycled unwanted clothes (selling them on at a much reduced rate in the community);
  • A fruit and vegetable co-operative in the Clase area which supplied local people with affordable fresh produce;
  • A project that encouraged the take up of the smoke free homes initiative in Bonymaen;
  • The development of a cycling project in Morriston.

 We know that some of the major causes of ill health are smoking, obesity, a lack of exercise and a poor diet. From the positive work done by some of the Swansea-based Communities First programmes, we potentially have the initiatives and ideas to deal with these key issues and improve health in the Communities First areas.

One of the difficulties of making communities more prosperous is that when individuals increase their personal prosperity, there is a tendency for them to move out of the area. Simple initiatives such as changing a utility supplier or replacing expensive loans (either from doorstep lenders or from other high interest loan companies) with credit union loans can make a major difference.

 I believe it’s essential that Communities First works with not just their colleagues in the Flying Start programme to ensure that every young child has a good start in life, but also with further education providers to ensure that a “second chance” becomes available to those who did not thrive in school. We know that good educational attainment and skills will make it much easier for those who find themselves unemployed to find a well paid job and succeed in life.

 Expecting Communities First to achieve healthy, prosperous and learning communities by the programme alone is unrealistic; it will need the support of a range of public, voluntary and private sector agencies.

 What must not happen is that each Cluster Manager is left to “fend for themselves” with no central support. Each cluster is organised by a lead delivery body and it’s vital that the three core aims of Communities First are seen as crucial targets for the Council, as well as the programme being a key and central part of the council service, and not just an ‘add on’.

Under the old system, too many co-ordinators were left to “get on with it” with little supervision and even less support from the Council as a whole. It is very encouraging to see that Swansea Council has set the “reduction of poverty” as its main aim for this council term, which of course feeds into the achieving the three core aims.

 Whilst the Cluster Managers cannot achieve all of the aims on their own, it is important that the individuals appointed to these roles are able to co-ordinate the programme, work with other agencies and crucially work with the people the programmes are set up to benefit – the local residents. In order for the programme to really succeed, it’s vital that communities and local residents are involved in the programme and feel that Communities First belongs to them.

It’s important that this phase of Communities First succeeds more than ever in the battle of combating poverty and giving individuals and families a better and more equal start in life. We need to ensure that Communities First works to achieve its stated goals within the communities it is serving. The people living there deserve nothing less.

Mike Hedges AM, Assembly Member for Swansea East 

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