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.

7 thoughts on “Coalfields Special 1: Punching above its weight in the Valleys

  1. I have no idea how effective the CRT is, or how effective any of its individual programmes are. It could well be as successful as Mr Osmond says it is. But I’m not sure that evidence from a survey of organisations who receive money from the Trust saying that it is a good thing is particularly objective, regardless of how good the rate-of-return on the survey. Likewise, it is hardly suprising that those who recieve money from the trust would be concerned that there would be less of it around in the next few years.

    I hope the Review undertaken by the IWA will have a better analysis, with a look at how individual programmes have imporved economic activity or public health (or whatever) in their area, compared to the areas around them. And I hope it will aggregate the effectiveness of these scores to work out, on balance, if the CRT is providing money to the right projects. That would be a proper, objective audit.

    Otherwise, we will end up with another Communities First-style programme, where the programmes keep on getting funded despite there being widespread concern about their effectiveness.

  2. Gethin,

    I suggest you look at the full account contained in the IWA’s Review of the work of the Coalfield Regeneration trust in Wales, available here. It’s a long document so it may take a while to download, depending on your broadband speed. You’ll see there that in our survey of the Trust’s grant recipients we heard overwhelmingly positive responses and comments. The wider investigation carried out by the Review, which included interviews with independent commentators and practitioners in the regeneration field in Wales also produced a largely positive result in relation to the effectiveness of the Trust. This is not to say that it doesn’t face significant challenges and difficult decisions about it’s strategic direction in the coming few years – largely the result of reducing budgets which are impacting on the whole of the pubic sector. My argument would be that when you have a reducing budget its is more important than ever to protect distribution to those areas which are most in need, which certainly includes the former coalfield districts.

  3. John,

    When I read Gethin’s comments yesterday, I have to admit that they made complete sense to me. However, there is a wider (perhaps complementary) picture here which is about connecting ‘need and opportunity’. Therefore, I was pleased to see the announcement yesterday that the Minister for Business intends to set up a city-region task force – – in my view not before time.

    Mark Barry’s Valleys Metro is a key element of a city region approach but it must not be seen as just a transport project but as a strategic region wide vision for economic regeneration which embraces connectivity with housing, employment land and sub-regional organisations such as the Coalfields Trust.

  4. John – I will of course read the report (it is quite long, so it may take me a few days to find the time). I will make sure I add to my original comment afterwards. My point was meant in a spirit of constructive advice, honestly!

  5. To my knowledge the Coalfields Regeneration Trust is the only organisation that is focussed totally on helping to regenerate the Valleys and has done a great job with modest resources over the years. They are excellent in bringing agencies and people together to achieve real results as I have direct experience of in my project in the Cynon Valley. They genuinely listen to people at grassroots level. They should bottle the way they work and sell it to other regeneration programmes.

  6. CRT is a main funder in Wales and has provided support consistently to Credit Unions over the years, and other organisations including helping to regenerate the Valleys.

  7. I have read this report, indeed I am featured in it, so those of you who have read it will already know of my admiration for this organisation. To keep things to the point to my mind this is one of very few support agencies in Wales which claim to support the development of social enterprise in Wales who knows what it takes to be successful. The Welsh team are experienced and knowledgeable, understanding and supportive and accessible and responsive. Other support agencies, and we all know who they are, simply muscle in with the aim of their own corporate growth, competing with their members for contracts and run to the hills once contracts are withdrawn – they preach sustainability to those they support but are immune from it themselves. It might be that the Welsh Government would like to see only one support agency in Wales focused on social enterprise growth (which in my mind would be a big mistake) but for sure the Coalfields Regeneration Trust must either be it or be part of it. If you want to destroy the progress being made in the sector the a good starting point would be to stop supporting this organisation

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