Resilient and Empowered Communities

Russell Todd sets out thoughts from a recent discussion paper by WCVA and Talwrn.

Ahead of the National Eisteddfod in Ynys Môn Wales Council for Voluntary Action, in collaboration with Talwrn, published a discussion paper Resilient and Empowered Communities.

Following Welsh Government’s announcement to phase out Communities First by the end of the current financial year, WCVA and Talwrn hope the paper will complement the debate about how greater community wellbeing and prosperity can be brought about and place at its heart the third sector’s unique perspective on the matters. A range of bilingual engagement activities are underway including a panel debate held at the Eisteddfod, podcasts and an opportunity to comment on the discussion paper.

In his announcement in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children recognised that although Communities First had been successful for many individuals “it has not had an impact on overall poverty levels in these communities, which remain stubbornly high”. He announced that Welsh Government would take forward “a cross-government, all-Wales approach focused on helping people into work, giving children the best start in life, and ensuring people’s voices are heard in the design of local services”. Or, in shorthand, the 3 E’s: Employment, Early Years and Empowerment

The trajectory of the first two E’s has long been set.

‘Employment’ has included  Communities First’s focus on employability, the Lift pilot which supported individuals from workless households into work, Communities for Work and the proposed Employability Grant (starting in April 2018). While ‘Early Years’ comprises amongst other things Welsh Government’s commitment to Flying Start and Families First, a preventative focus on adverse childhood experiences – those experiences during childhood that can affect health throughout the life course – its pilot childcare offer and Children First ‘children zones’.

However, Empowerment is the E that WCVA and Talwrn feel requires the most unpacking. The term ‘resilience’ too must be carefully defined in order for the Cabinet Secretary’s desired “new approach to building resilient communities” to not repeat the mistakes of the early days of the Communities First era when it was unclear what the programme was supposed to be achieving.

The discussion paper begins by querying what resilience means, with already two distinct definitions being used in government lexicon across the devolution divide.

The UK government defines resilience as a community’s ability to harness “local resources and expertise to help themselves in an emergency”. The ability to cope with community shock or trauma might well be an indicator of resilience but appears to suggest ‘just about coping’ or, to borrow that hackneyed sporting phrase, a community’s ‘bouncebackability’.

Whereas in Wales, a ‘Resilient’ Wales is one of the seven goals of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales and is defined as:

A nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example climate change)

Our discussion paper posits that neither definition of resilience is robust enough to fully capture the need for a more long-term sustainable future that sees Welsh communities not just cope with isolated traumatic incidents but have the capacity to fundamentally reverse the corrosive effect of deep-seated problems like poor employment or health inequalities.

Welsh Government’s announcements related to Communities First during the last financial year suggested a cooling of attitudes towards spatial approaches to addressing disadvantage. Yet the Children First pioneer areas retain a targeted spatial approach so it appears to have not been kicked into the long grass just yet.

So what future do place-based approaches have? The first iteration of Communities First recognised the need for different conceptions of community: there were Partnerships that represented black and ethnic minorities in Newport and Cardiff; ‘deep-rural’ areas including Pen Llyn and Bro Ddyfi; and one for domestic violence.

If resilience is characterised by strong social networks then decision-makers and authorities need to recognise that these networks might spatially follow ethnic, linguistic, gender and cultural lines in the messy (for authorities and services) ways that communities do. But equally they will also transect them at a locality or neighbourhood level that services can have a tendency to pigeon-hole or compartmentalise.

If communities are to do more to help themselves and each other, does a new approach need to recognise that scale needs to be ‘malleable’? People might have connections with and affection for local places but co-production with service providers will need to take place at different spatial levels: town or city wide, regional or sub-national.

The discussion paper posits that there are ‘norms’ which can inhibit resilience or actually disempower. For instance, the norm in some communities of low educational attainment; or the way in which services are traditionally configured to treat recurrent issues rather than prevent them.

In the early days of Communities First local people were supported to engage with decision-making processes, take collective action against issues, and use participative democratic techniques to complement traditional representative forms of democracy. New community groups were set-up, supported to grow and collaborate. There is evidence that this had an empowering effect in places. But in its more recent iteration there are examples of groups being disempowered as they follow the programme’s focus on employability and shifting from their core purpose or expertise, or by becoming overly-reliant on Communities First income.

Communities First for many years was criticised for not being able to demonstrate its impact. Use of public money demands evidence of value for money. However an empowered community might conceivably be one which is entitled to articulate what it thinks is a successfully empowered community; the indicators it chooses might not be the same as government. The discussion paper invites suggestions as to what success can look like.

We hope this paper will be useful to stimulate discussion, whether you agree or disagree. WCVA and Talwrn would love to hear your views, insights and examples of ways that communities in Wales are taking control. Please send any comments in English or Welsh to: [email protected] or [email protected].


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Russell Todd manages the Communities First Support Service at WCVA, which is presently supporting the phasing-out of Communities First at cluster level and supporting third sector organisations plan for a post-Communities First era.

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