The emergence of a community hub and the benefits of external support

My day job (at least for the next couple of weeks) involves providing and commissioning support to community-based organisations undertaking anti-poverty activities and capacity building (whatever Welsh Government says!).

At a sobering time for so-called community hub organisations in south Wales with two prominent and established Development Trusts (DT) in Gwent facing financial problems (here and here) it was encouraging to read in a report by a social enterprise consultant who has been helping a recently established DT describe its development as a board and organisation as:

little short of spectacular in the time I have been with them. I initially found a board whose members did not know what [the DT] was for or what their job was, and who are now making the running on many issues and taking a serious hand in governance.”

Two years ago the board did not even know which legal structure to adopt, if any at all. That process of discussing the relative merits of different structures was also externally supported, and the recent development support built on this episode seamlessly.

Recent milestones that point to the DT’s rapid progress include:

  • securing formal approval to host the Communities First staff team (one of the few voluntary sector bodies in Wales to achieve this)
  • securing charitable status this month
  • a £114,000 Lottery grant for a Community Voice project. This will provide the DT a strong income stream and governance role separate from Communities First which will be absolutely crucial in the process of developing a sustainable existence to maintain development and regeneration work beyond the life of CF
  • professional guidance secured on contract for legal affairs
  • new financial monitoring and reporting arrangements adopted and in place
  • outline business plan nearing completion

Importantly, two residents with no prior experience of such board roles chair and vice chair the organisation. This local presence at board level will greatly help the DT gain acceptance, integrity and credibility among the wider community. But it ought to be attractive to service providers too. Under increasing pressure and scrutiny to involve citizens in the delivery of their services, community hubs offer locally accountable bodies via which they can develop the consultation, design and co-production procedures that will improve their services’ effectiveness. None of this replaces traditional representative forms of democracy but complements them.

In the consultant’s own words:

Some of these steps I have helped with directly, and others I have provided advice and support which has assisted their sense direction and general policy-making.

But my perception is that this is one of those relatively rare new organisations which…listens to advice and then gains both in competence and in confidence [own emphasis], so that it is able to start achieving its objectives.”

For some time a legacy of Communities First appeared to be a number of such hubs. But the recession, contraction in public funding, some governance failures and changes to the Communities First programme have seen some fold or drastically downsize their operations. Both the private sector, as small as it is in some disadvantaged communities, and increasingly the public sector are shrinking their operational budgets which will have a particularly pernicious effect in such communities. So Wales needs more community hubs to contribute to and collaborate over the resilience-building effort to insulate them against the effects of austerity. So, it would appear from this DT’s experience, does it also need to continue the support programmes that can help incubate and propagate them.

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