What should we learn from Communities First

It won’t have escaped your attention that the Welsh Government is soon to end its flagship programme for tackling poverty in Wales, Communities First.

In many ways the subject of the closure of the programme has come to over-dominate the discussion around reducing poverty levels in Wales, with other key aspects of the debate receiving little air time.

That is not to say, however, that the ending of the programme is not a serious matter for discussion.  Indeed, in some cases the ending of Communities First may well lead to the loss of some public services – no small matter for the communities impacted.  When just under one-in-four  Welsh residents live in relative poverty (compared to one-in-five across the UK), these issues need to be debated.

Yesterday [Tuesday 25 July] the Equalities, Local Government and Communities (ELGC) Committee of the National Assembly published a report into the lessons learnt from Communities First, having taken oral and written evidence.

There are some important points.  Grabbing the headlines was the notion that Communities First had an “impossible task”. This should not be misinterpreted.  It is not to say that tackling poverty itself is impossible, but that Communities First had become all things to all people, starting off as a community development scheme and morphing into something else.  It developed a target driven culture, which meant the focus was often on the wrong things. “How many people can we send on a training course?” even if training wasn’t the most helpful
intervention, or the course didn’t increase the likelihood of getting a job.

This feature is common in ‘deficit’ focussed models of tackling poverty, focussing on what people don’t have.  Instead, Oxfam favours an ‘assets’ based approach, helping people build on what they do have to build a more sustainable route out of poverty.  Importantly, this needs to come with a flexible funding pot, so that delivery bodies can fund the most useful intervention to help someone. That could be a training course, it might also just be a suit so they can present at
an interview.

The report also highlights some challenges over political leadership.  There is no longer a Tackling Poverty Action Plan, and there is no member of government solely responsible for tackling poverty as there has been previously.  To take the latter, it is right to say that all areas of government policy have a role to play in reducing poverty levels: transport, health, the economy, education – there isn’t an exemption.  However, many in the sector, including Oxfam, expressed some concern that this might lead to no-one taking ownership of the issue, rather than
everyone.  Thirteen months in to this new government and those concerns still exist.  We have seen scrutiny committees where Ministers ‘pass the buck’ between each other.  Surely true collective ownership would mean all Ministers could feel able to answer key questions in the Assembly?

This links to the absence of a plan.  The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government (Taking Wales Forward) focused on inclusive growth and shared prosperity as the keys to reducing poverty levels.  Laudable aims and an important part of tackling poverty.  Yet we still don’t have an Economic Strategy or an Employability Plan, both promised.  They are now due in the autumn, and both need to show clear links to the tackling poverty agenda, otherwise questions will be asked.

Part of that puzzle is around the increased likelihood of women to be in poverty.  Oxfam is set to publish some further thoughts on this theme in the near future, but suffice to say if neither of these plans has a clear focus on responding to additional barriers facing women in society, then they will provide an incomplete response.