A short history of Communities First

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Even though Communities First came to an end in March 2018 after 16 years I still encounter people who remain uninformed, curious or mistaken about aspects of the programme, whether they be allies, critics or ambivalent of it. Other views are, of course, available, but here is a cut out-and-keep short history of Communities First.

It is simplistic to consider only a single, uniform Communities First (CF) programme. Despite its longevity and general political consensus, it is more helpful to consider the programme as a sequence of subtly tweaked and altered programmes; not Communities First perhaps but a series of Communities Firsts. Broadly speaking, Communities First can be broken down into three distinct trimesters. A more thorough discussion of this conecpt and CF can be found in this Desolation Radio episode.

First trimester, 2002-2007/8 – Communities First is characterised by a ‘big bang’ scattergun roll out across large swathes of Wales – covering approximately 19% of the Welsh population – comprising the 100 most deprived electoral wards, plus a handful of nominated communities of interest (e.g., BAME communities on Cardiff/Caerdydd and Newport/Casnewydd), imaginative proposals (e.g., young people in south Pembrokeshire; deep rural communities), and ‘pockets’ of deprivation whose disadvantage were obscured by a purely ward statistical analsysis.

A capacity bulding phase is recognised as necessary to precede a more focused action-planning phase. A small grants Trust Fund is set up to help ‘pump-prime’ the programme at community level.

A largely novice community development workforce experiences high rates of turnover and combined with the diverse range of delivery agents drawn from different sectors sees extremely uneven progress against capacity building targets and action plan development. Community involvement and participation is patchy, as is awareness of the programme locally in many areas, but nonetheless huge amount of volunteer energy is mobilised in grassroots community activity. Engagement with statutory service providers is piecemeal; monitoring and evaluation processes are inconsistent; and there is ambiguity at national level over the programme’s overall outcomes and its fundamental logic model (see Hanmer, 2017).

Moreover the programme was largely disconnected from other national Welsh strategies, including from the local authority-led community planning process (Adamson and Bromiley, 2008; Welsh Assembly Government, 2006), though there were exceptions to this, for instance in Caerphilly borough. This results in a greater emphasis being placed on ‘programme bending’ – the targeting of Communities First areas by service providers in recognition of specific needs – though this is not universally seen as a legitimate approach (e.g., the Welsh Local Government Association in National Assembly for Wales Public Accounts Committee, 2009). There is huge variation across Wales in the extent to which community organisations are engaged in decision-making, delivery or play a more passive or marginal role in Communities First.

Towards the end of this trimester within the state sector frustration and impatience at the pace of capacity building begins to emerge betraying a lack of understanding about the process, and a conception of capacity that applies to primarily residents in communities rather than other potential agents of change that affect communities: council officers, elected members, government officials.

Second trimester, 2007/8-2012 – Communities First begins to be aligned more closely with Welsh Government strategy including an increased emphasis on child poverty and early years. Programmes such as Flying Start and Families First, with a ‘team around the family’ emphasis in which professionals come together to support a family rather than signpost a family from service to service, begin to coterminously share CF boundaries. Welsh Government launches its first Tackling Poverty Action Plan that begins to emphasise cross-government responsibilities for tackling poverty in which alignment of targets and cross-programme working are increasingly encouraged. A new Welsh Government minister institutes a greater emphasis on outcomes. An Outcomes Fund is started that is designed to incentivise greater efforts to bend public programmes.

A Wales Audit Office inquiry into Communities First is published in 2009 and reveals a host of programme weaknesses and concludes Communities First is unlikely to achieve its significant aspirations to raise living standards in Wales’s most deprived areas. Such was the criticism that the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee undertakes its own inquiry (published in 2010), but between announcing this and publishing in early 2010, following a whistleblower’s accusations, auditors are called into inspect the Plas Madoc Communities First area in Wrexham/Wrecsam county borough. Criminal activity is discovered that results in a prison sentence for the programme Co-ordinator. Significantly the episode deals a crushing blow to the programme’s credibility across Wales and casts a long, dark shadow over it.

In response to the governance structure in Plas Madoc – where a limited company set-up expressly to manage Communities First independently of local government, comprising a small board of local people, and which contracted directly to Welsh Government – Welsh Government undertakes governance and assurance exercises of a raft of third sector organisations who are grant recipients and/or delivery agents for the programme; many of these are ‘community anchor’ organisations. Considered in some quarters a disproportionate and unfair singling-out of the sector – and overlooking failings in the Welsh and local government processes, scrutiny and decision-making in relation to the scandal – they reveal no failings akin to Plas Madoc in these areas, and very little remedial activity is required.

Welsh Government considers changes to Communities First via a consultation – called Communities Next – which proposes in addition to a rebranding:

  • Larger geographical units called ‘clusters’
  • An increased focus on employment and employability
  • A revised outcomes framework
  • Several rural Communities First areas being removed from the programme
  • Doing away with communities of interest
  • ‘Reduced complexity’ via fewer delivery agents

This final element was widely interpreted as a lack of trust in anchor organisations being sole recipient bodies for Communities First as part of a broader reduction in appetite for risk on the part of Welsh Government.

Third trimester, 2012-2018 – Communities First significantly rationalises into fewer, larger cluster units; fewer managers; and more specialist staff e.g., health workers, employment advisors, and fewer generic development workers.

Local authority control of clusters becomes much stronger, with little prescription for third sector or community organisation management, suggesting the notion of ‘reduced complexity’ was indeed a smokescreen to marginalise direct community delivery; it might be simpler for civil servants to contract local authorities to deliver Communities First, but it arguably perpetuates the marginalisation of community voice in decisions that affect them. To compensate for this a greater prescribed approach to ‘community involvement’ was brought in, but with no programme-wide performance indicators to measure it.

Where there is greater control by anchors it is at local authority discretion (e.g., in Cardiff, Ynys Môn, Merthyr Tydfil) or as a legacy of the early days of the programme where the local authority had not engaged with Communities First (e.g., Blaenau Gwent, Denbighshire, Pembrokeshire). Non-employment/employability determinants of poverty begin to be diluted in significance and relevance, as the employability focus of the programme intensifies. This is partly in response to the impact welfare reform is beginning to have in areas of disadvantage (see Beatty and Fothergill, 2016), but also because Welsh Government’s revised Tackling Poverty Action Plan remains predicated on the belief employment remains the best route out of, and insultation from, poverty; reflecting a labourist bias that elevates paid work, of whatever nature, over other forms of labour such as caring (Standing, 2016).

However, despite falling unemployment in-work poverty continues to rise in Wales, reflecting broader UK trends (JRF, 2016; 2018). Poverty begins to fall out of Welsh Government’s lexicon and a commitment to the long-term future of Communities First is missing from the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto. The writing is clearly on the wall for the programme and it becomes abundantly clear that it is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’, “doomed” Communities First is to be wound up (Bevan Foundation, 2016).

In October 2016, then Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant announces he is “minded” to phase out Communities First as “it’s time for a new approach to build resilient communities”. A largely cosmetic public consultation was subsequently conducted on the future of Communities First and the new approach to resilient communities that centred on ‘Three Es’ – Employment, Early Years and Empowerment. To little surprise, the consultation persuaded the Cabinet Secretary to end Communities First.

Two of the E’s – Employment and Early Years – re-state existing policy trajectories in place with employability programmes centred mainly on intensive coaching and mentoring of individuals into work (such as Lift, Communities for Work); and early years intervention and family support to ensure child development targets are met more promptly (Flying Start, Families First). Detail on the third E – Empowerment – is lacking.

Communities First ends on 31st March 2018, with only legacy monies to a limited number of organisations and projects being allocated to a number of programmes. This money runs out

References

Adamson, D, Bromiley, R (2008) Community empowerment in practice: lessons from Communities First, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Beatty, C, Fothrgill, S (2016) The Uneven Impact of Welfare Reform: The financial losses to places and people, Jospeh Rowntree Foundation, Oxfam and Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research Sheffield Hallam University.

Bevan Foundation (2016) Goodbye Communities First?.

Hanmer, O (2017) The Rise and Fall of Communities First, MSc thesis, Cardiff Univeristy.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2016) In-work poverty hits record high as the housing crisis fuels insecurity, JRF.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2018) Working families still locked in poverty – time to right the wrong of in-work poverty, JRF.

National Assembly for Wales Public Accounts Committee, WLGA paper on Communities First, 5 November 2009.

National Assembly for Wales Public Accounts Committee (2010) Communities First, National Assembly for Wales.

Standing, G (2016) The precariat dilemma, in Y. Cooper (ed.) Changing Work: Progressive ideas for the modern world of work, Fabian Society.

Welsh Assembly Government (2006) Interim Evaluation of Communities First, WAG.

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