I cannot find any reference in this report on key lessons learnt from Communities First to key issues such as programme bending, grant-recipient bodies, the damning Wales Audit Office reports and the rejected proposals to take Communities First forward from 2012. 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.
Well, we’ve heard that the programme, between 2001 and 2017, involved spending of nearly £0.5 billion. Well, the 2006 interim evaluation of Communities First found
‘little evidence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation’
and that‘Communities First is still a long way away from producing the regeneration outcomes that…are its main aim.’
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 2008 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, ‘Community empowerment in practice: lessons from Communities First’ found a general failure to exert community influence over statutory members of Communities First partnerships and
‘no evidence of significant mainstream “programme bending” where statutory agencies prioritised actions and expenditure in the Communities First partnership area.’
The Plas Madoc Communities First whistleblower asked for my help as she’d properly reported her concerns to the Welsh Government only to then suffer false allegations against her rather than see action 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 that led to the conviction of the Communities First co-ordinator.
False allegations of a similar nature were then made against the Higher Shotton Communities First co-ordinator after she whistleblew against Flintshire Council, then one of the few local authority Communities First grant recipient bodies in Wales, stating that they were wrongly taking control of the programmes and diverting funding outside the Communities First area. Another Communities First co-ordinator in Flintshire had resigned under similar pressure.
The joint paper published in 2011 by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales and Community Development Cymru, ‘Communities First—A Way Forward’, found that the original design of the programme was flawed and that the missing link in achieving community ownership was the lack of a longer term vision in the Communities First programme that, quote, ‘would move beyond programme and Government dependency and provide the community-owned dimension which is often sought but seldom achieved in creating a better Wales.’
The Minister then and Cabinet Secretary now rejected this, instead rolling out the 2012 cluster model and ignoring the lessons from Flintshire and made most local authorities the Communities First grant recipient bodies, enabling too many to encroach on programme delivery and emasculate the communities themselves.
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 and that identifying and mobilising these can help them overcome the challenge 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.