Cultural Apartheid Blocks Renewal in the Valleys

John Osmond is persuaded that we need a new approach to community development in the most impoverished parts of Wales

In an impassioned address last night Duncan Forbes, Chief Executive of the Bryn Afon Community Housing Association in Torfaen, said we needed to completely rethink our approach to improving our most impoverished housing estates across Wales. Speaking at Cardiff University’s Regeneration Institute he said most of the agencies trying to bring about change operated within a ‘command and control’ mindset, but this only resulted in a complete failure to connect with the people they were trying to help. “What we need is distributed leadership, where power is shared with the people who don’t currently have it,” he said. However, this wasn’t the present approach of the public sector and it wasn’t clear that puboic sector leaders had the necessary skills. “The result is that public sector leaders are unable togenerate trust within the community they serve,” said Forbes.

Duncan Forbes is worth listening to for at least three reasons. He has had more than 30 years of experience at the sharp end of regeneration endeavours from inner-city London to the Welsh Valleys. Secondly, he is right to say that whatever we’re doing with regeneration policy in Wales it is not working. Only last week the Assembly’s cross-party Public Accounts Committee published a scathing report on the Welsh Government’s flagship Communities First programme, condemning a “chronic and long-lasting failure” to provide leadership and value for money. It followed a report from the Wales Audit Office that of the £214m spent on the programme between 2001 and 2009, £140 million had gone on partnerships, mainly to employ staff and run projects.

The third reason why Duncan Forbes is worth listening to is that at a time of pending pubic spending cuts his prescription for change would not entail any extra spending. What is needed he says is a shift in focus and attitude on the part of those engaged in policies and programmes directed at the least well-off in society, especially families on sink estates who for generations have been without work, living on benefits, and often with children living in severe poverty. In Wales we have the worst statistics under these headings than anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Speaking to a mixed audience of practitioners, civil servants and academics last night Forbes argued that we need to devise approaches which were geared to persuading people to change their behaviour, whether it be lifestyles or attitudes to education and work. He said this could not be achieved by the traditional way of relying on public services to “cure” problems. “The people we’re trying to reach must be treated with respect and seen as equal partners in delivering improvement,” he said.

He argued that this would involve as big a culture shift amongst those working to deliver regeneration policies as among the supposed beneficiaries. As things stood there was a ‘cultural apartheid’ separating the two groups. There was a widespread view, for instance, that tenants on were dangerous. But middle-class people living comfortable lives simply had no idea of the circumstances and financial pressures facing the less well off.

“At Bryn Afon we don’t talk about empowerment of the communities we’re engaging with and trying to help,” he said. “That would be a step too far. We talk about community engagement. If and when we are able to devolve decisions to small groups of tenants to run their own estates that might be empowerment. But we’re not there yet.”

Over 30 years Forbes said he had been involved in scheme after scheme – Priority Estates Investment; Estates Challenge Renewal Fund; Housing Action Areas; Estates Action Programme; City Challenge; Housing Renewal Areas; New Deal for Communities; and now Communities First. All had failed to get to the root of the issue he was describing, which was about changing the balance of power relationships in community regeneration. It was time to think about a radically different approach.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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