Shadow Communities Secretary Mark Isherwood AM has this week slammed the Welsh Government for failing to listen to and act on warnings regarding its tackling poverty programme, Communities First, which is to be phased out by March next year.
Speaking in the Debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s Report, ‘Communities First – Lessons Learnt’, Mr Isherwood highlighted the programmes many flaws and criticised the Welsh Government for failing to take action when they were repeatedly flagged up.
“Like many, I gave my support to the programme when it was launched because we were told it was about genuine community empowerment and ownership. My initial concerns were raised when evidence-based allegations were brought to me of Welsh Government gerrymandering, manipulating Communities First boundaries for political advantage in rural north Flintshire. This concern was added to by growing evidence that the programme wasn’t delivering improved outcomes for people in the Communities First areas, with high inactivity and benefit dependency and low prosperity levels persisting.
“But, whenever we challenged the Welsh Government over this during the second and third Assemblies, they told us that Communities First was instead about 'programme bending', conveniently ignoring that the purpose of programme bending was supposed to be delivering improved outcomes.”
“We have heard that the programme, between 2001 and 2017, involved spending of nearly £0.5 billion.
“As a member of the Audit Committee in the second Assembly, I successfully called for an inquiry into Communities First to be included in the Wales Audit Office Forward Work Programme. The resulting Wales Audit Office report, published in July 2009, found significant Welsh Government failure, stating that serious weaknesses in financial planning and the processes of funding the programme led to widespread variation in funding with no clear rationale into funding decisions, that there was an absence of basic human resource and financial planning, that monitoring was weak, and that there was no evidence that anything was done with the feedback.
“The Plas Madoc Communities First whistle-blower asked for my help after she had properly reported her concerns to the Welsh Government, only to then suffer false allegations against herself rather than see action taken against the guilty parties. It was only after I referred this to the Wales Audit Office, supported by a Plaid Cymru Member and a Liberal Democrat Member, and after the Wales Audit Office then produced a report confirming ‘a fundamental lack of financial control and governance’, that action was taken which led to the conviction of the Communities First co-ordinator.
“In February, the Cabinet Secretary Carl Sargent revealed that Communities First will be phased out by March 2018 and, in June, he told the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee that the programme would not be replaced, that the record of its work in Wales’s most deprived areas had been mixed and that the figures aren’t moving. What an admission of failure. And all because the ‘Little Napoleons’ failed to understand that as well as having needs and problems, our most marginalised communities also have social, cultural and material assets, that identifying and mobilising these can help them overcome the challenges they face and that citizens and communities should be seen as the co-producers of health and well-being rather than simply the recipients of services.”