Goodbye Communities First?

ViewsSeptember 26th, 2016

Victoria Winckler asks if the time has come to end Communities First, the Welsh Government’s once-flagship programme.

It seems inevitable that Communities First will not survive into 2017/18. It was conspicuously absent in both the Labour Manifesto and the Programme for Government; the First Minister refused to be drawn on its future in a recent interview; and there’s no mention of it in the Cabinet Secretary for Children and Communities’ recent statement on his priorities. Not a lot of doubt there really.

In many ways Communities First was doomed from the start.

As a programme targeted on the 100 most disadvantaged small areas in Wales, Communities First was never going to have much impact on the headline rates of poverty.  It covered only a small proportion of people on poverty-level incomes in Wales, it lacked the resources to have more than a marginal difference and it simply could not swim against the tide of major economic and social forces. Welfare reform and zero hours contracts were terms that had not even been coined when Communities First was established, yet we can be sure that they have had more effect on household incomes than any local initiatives, no matter how good.

Add to this the problems with the boundaries of some areas, difficulties recruiting skilled community workers in the early days, some headline fraud cases and many more rumours of misuse of funds, competition between Communities First and existing local organisations and it is astonishing it has lasted as long as it has.

If the plug is indeed pulled on Communities First, should we worry? Well, no and yes.

In many ways, we shouldn’t worry because the time to end Communities First has come.  Poverty exists across Wales, in all kinds of communities and the solutions need a pan-Wales refocussing of policies to end social and economic injustice. A model based on individual behaviour change – whether it’s reading to their child, eating five portions of fruit and veg or managing their budget better (all performance measures used) – may well be good for people. But it doesn’t address the underlying problems, whether they are the lack of shops selling fruit and veg nearby or not having enough money to afford them, to too few jobs, jobs that are badly paid and insecure, and inadequate benefits. Small-scale, individually-focused, local initiatives simply cannot counter the big changes in the economy and society – even the most heroic of efforts at ‘programme bending’ will not halt the decline of manufacturing jobs, for example.

Yet, scrapping Communities First would also be a big loss. There are many excellent schemes run by Communities First, some of which have taken years to develop, and closing them down would be a further blow to communities that are already reeling from cuts to public services. It’s unlikely that large-scale, government schemes that offer similar services will have the reach or trust of people in deprived areas. The Bevan Foundation’s research on the impact of the Job Club run in Brynmawr by Communities First found participants rated it much more highly than other providers, not least because they felt respected and supported. Indeed, for people whose ability to travel outside their community is often constrained by poor public transport and high fares, the relocation of services to the nearest town means they may as well be located in Timbuktu.

 What next?

It remains to be seen what the future holds for Communities First. Ministers face some tough decisions, and will face criticism whatever they do. But here’s some suggestions:

  • First, make sure that there is a strong anti-poverty theme in all Welsh Government strategies.
  • Second, direct public service boards to include explicit action to reduce poverty as part of their duties under the Well-being of Future Generations Act, and hold them to account for progress.
  • Third, keep the most successful Communities First activities and transfer them to community ownership – a sort of social asset transfer – providing three year funding.
  • Fourth, step up investment in credible social enterprises to create local jobs, boost skills and cut costs in deprived areas.

Watch this space.

There will be more recommendations in the action plan to reduce poverty in Wales, to be published with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in November.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundations. If you enjoyed this post, help us to generate more like this by making a donation

One Response

  1. Paul Allchurch says:

    I am very saddened to have read and seen of the Community First Programme, it has had been key to of addressing the problem of poverty in Wales. Allthough I do agree that a new “fresh” look is needed it will have an effect on the Communities which have original had been deprived and lacked opportunities.

    What now to addressing the problem of poverty a more local authority approach? , by making it part of the service of it s business not an stand alone. And also there is the issue of the importance of jobs directly and through the supply chain

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