Community development and breaking the cycle of always doing what you’ve always done

As usual, I awoke recently to the daily morning show on Radio Wales and an interview with a fire officer whose recent shifts had comprised exclusively of fighting deliberately-set hill fires at various locations around the south Wales valleys during the first extended warm spell of the spring.

It was not so much his straight-from-the-textbook condemnation aimed at the unknown perpetrators, or his very obvious frustration that struck me. Rather it was the weary, resigned expectation of a man, and service, that faces the same challenges year in, year out.

The interviewer enquired as to what preventative and engagement work takes place with young people (though the perpetrators are hardly ever caught, they are nonetheless assumed to be young….) and he spoke of “going into schools” and having done so for several years, following an established curriculum of outlining the risks, consequences and costs, both financial and potentially human.

The article caused me to recall visiting a community in the north of Abergavenny/Y Fenni in 2010 and on arrival noticing a large smiley face mowed into the hillside  that looms over that community, the Deri (see Ted Pearsell’s Flickr account for the image). A Community Development Worker (CDW) mentioned that the face had become the talk of the community of late, its creator(s) unknown and that whereas the hillside had in previous years been the location for malicious grass fires, during that summer none had been started because, the CDW felt, the smiley face had been adopted by the community. The community development sector will frequently refer to the importance of ownership by communities, and often it is ownership in an emotional sense rather in any material, legal or financial sense. At a, presumably, modest cost the smiley face had become the means by which the surrounding landscape had become of more value to the community. And even if this was not shared by everyone in that community, the sense of ownership and enhanced value might well have been sufficiently palpable to the perpetrators of previous hill fires that they were disinclined to repeat the arson.

In its adoption of Results Based Accountability* (RBA) (Friedman, 2005) Wales’s Communities First programme requires of local plans to consider seven Performance Accountability questions.


(Friedman, 2005, page 83)

Abergavenny/Y Fenni‘s smiley face strikes me as the perfect example of a low-cost idea that brings about an improvement in a social ill. It is not, however, enough to replicate it in every community where hill fires are problem. RBA requires of us to question ‘What works?’ and to examine apparent solutions for the underlying reasons why.


(Friedman, 2005, page 82)

Back in Abergavenny/Y Fenni‘ it would be interesting to know whether the statistical cliff off which hill fire incidences fell that summer was acknowledged by the local fire service. Even if they did it is to the CDW’s credit that he had sought to tune-in to the community’s wavelength on the matter, and without necessarily being conscious of it was informally recording information as part of a research agenda.

This is not to say that the educational approach is without merit but doing it because it is what we’ve done previously is an insufficiently evidence-based justification. And seems odd given the example of an alternative solution on the Fire Service’s doorstep.


*The references and extracts related to Results Based Accountability are drawn from Mark Friedman’s book Trying Hard Is Not Enough (2005). 

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