Coalfields Special 1: Punching above its weight in the Valleys

John Osmond says the Coalfields Regeneration Trust has an opportunity to take a lead in community regeneration across Wales

In all the debates about the health and future of the Welsh economy one element is constant – the continuing inherited problems of the Valleys coalfield area. Places like Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot remain stubbornly near the top of every dismal economic league table you like to mention – whether it’s unemployment, young people not in employment, education or training, poor health, economic inactivity, or high benefit claimants. As one of Britain’s leading experts on regeneration and poverty, Professor Steve Fothergill, of Sheffield Hallam University, wrote in the IWA’s Futures for the Heads of the Valleys:

“The area will be variously be described as the ‘lost cause’ of the Welsh economy, or as the cradle of the word’s Industrial Revolution. But it perhaps takes an outsider to see the real truth, unencumbered by vested interest or personal attachment. Unfortunately, the truth is not very appealing: the Heads of the Valleys have the most intractable development problems of any older industrial area in the whole of Britain.”

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Wales

Three early evening seminars to debate the work of the Trust and the future of community regeneration in Wales are being organised by the IWA in Merthyr, Neath and Wrexham on Monday 14th, Tuesday 15th, and Wednesday 16th November. For more information about the seminars and to register to attend, which is free, click here. The IWA’s Review of the work of the Trust can be found here.

Tomorrow: we profile a social enterprise supported by the Trust, Cleanstream Carpets in the Rhondda.

These words were written back in 2008, and three years on very little has changed. So it’ s extraordinary that not only has one of the organisations that has had most success in dealing with the problems of the coalfield had its budget slashed by the Welsh Government this year, but its future beyond next March remains in the balance.

I’m talking about the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Wales. Since it was founded in 1999 the Trust has awarded grants totalling £14.7 million from its Welsh base in Pontypridd to more than 667 projects across the Welsh coalfields. These have levered an additional £10 million from other funders.

In the last decade the CRT has been more involved with social enterprise development in the Welsh coalfields than any other funder. In total it has created 56 social enterprises and been involved in supporting 390 others. A major initiative, launched in 2007, has been Game ON, aimed at re-establishing football in the lives of hard to reach youngsters in the coalfield region. Over the past three years some 600 14 to 19-year-olds have been involved in training and participating in a league structure of 12 teams.

A Review of the Trust’s operation undertaken by the IWA in the past few months, which will be debated at three public seminars in mid November (see panel) uncovered a good deal of evidence of its effectiveness. For example, we conducted an online survey of 131 of the 200 or so organisations that have been supported by the Trust over the past three years. In total 61 returned our questionnaire, a 47 per cent response rate, which is excellent for surveys of this kind.

Our respondents thought the Trust was punching well above its weight. Despite operating with a small Wales-based team, the Trust compared favourably with other funders in terms of user-friendliness. Over 90 per cent of the respondents felt the Trust’s intervention had played a “crucial” or “very important” role, with 80 per cent able to cite specific changes within their organisation. A training provider we quoted from the survey stated:

“After 16 years of working in the sector I am clear that the CRT are the most effective and efficient grant distributing organisation. They need to be recognised as such and their role, influence and investment power must be increased if the sector is to grow. Other organisations such as the CVCs and WCVA and Lottery are nowhere near as effective even taking into account their financial resources. You need an organisation that understands the sector and Coalfields Regeneration Trust do.”

It is noteworthy, too, that when asked to give their perspectives on the Trust’s weaknesses, by far the greatest concern was devoted to the limited funding available to the CRT. This points to a need for more funding to flow through the Trust rather than less. Yet in the current financial year the £1.42 million the Trust had been expecting from the Welsh Government to fund its activities was cut by 35 per cent – that is by £490,000 – leaving it with a funding package of just £930,000. And there is doubt about the Trust’s funding package beyond next March.

In recent years a complex range of organisations, some old and some new, have emerged that give support of one kind or another to the kind of organisations that the Coalfields Regeneration Trust has typically supported. It can be argued that this presents a great opportunity for the Trust in an era of public spending constraints. The Welsh Government is constantly emphasising the need for organisations to collaborate and operate across boundaries in order to create new synergies and save money. The Trust has an opportunity to take a lead in this respect in the coming years in relation to community regeneration. But this will only be the case if the Welsh Government can be persuaded to continue its support. It should be encouraged to do so for, after all, it would be investing in proven success.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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