Communities First: what lessons need to be learned?

Published 18/10/2017   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

In July the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee published its interim report into Communities First- the Welsh Government’s flagship anti-poverty programme. The interim report contained 11 recommendations for the Welsh Government. The Committee’s final report, which included greater detail on the evidence it had considered, was published in October. The Assembly will debate both reports and the Welsh Government’s response to the recommendations in plenary on Wednesday 25 October.

Main findings

The conclusions of the report were that:

  • The programme was set the near impossible task of reducing poverty, which could never be achieved through one single programme. The aims of narrowing the economic, education/skills and health gaps between the most deprived and more affluent areas, and ‘contributing to alleviating persistent poverty’ are laudable but now look overly optimistic;
  • There were problems with how the decision to end Communities First was communicated to staff and service users;
  • There is still confusion about fundamental transitional arrangements such as legacy funding, which has been confirmed for two years but with the ‘possibility’ of extension;
  • The overall Welsh Government approach to poverty reduction has changed, but there is no longer an overarching strategy to articulate how responsibility for poverty reduction is divided across departments;
  • The Welsh Government’s focus on ‘building resilient communities’ through the ‘three Es’ (employability, early years and empowerment) has the potential to leave gaps in service provision. The ‘empowerment’ element is not well understood, and it is not clear why these three areas were chosen above others;
  • The impact of Communities First still could not be clearly proven even after 16 years, and there is a danger that future Welsh Government programmes could fall into the same trap without an effective evidence base and robust performance monitoring;
  • Public service boards (PSBs) need to ensure that they engage with and understand the needs of people on low incomes, and reflect this in their well-being plans, and
  • There is a danger that valuable community centres, some of which are used by other programmes, will be lost as a result of Communities First’s closure.

Committee recommendations and Welsh Government’s response

Recommendation 1: Ensure that local authorities identify all successful Communities First work that should be delivered by statutory bodies (such as health boards or schools), and transfer responsibility to that body.

This was accepted by the Welsh Government, and it stated that “a series of workshops and meetings have been arranged between health boards and Lead Delivery Bodies to highlight current delivery in these areas and seek to mainstream successful aspects of the programme.”

Recommendation 2 & 3: Clarify how long the legacy funding will be available, which is confirmed for two years with the ‘possibility’ of extension and provide all guidance to local authorities in writing

Recommendation 2 was accepted, and the Government stated that “the legacy funding was agreed for two years from 2018”. It did not state if the money would be available beyond two years. Recommendation 3 was also accepted, and transition guidance has subsequently been published online.

Recommendation 4: The Committee recommended that the Welsh Government publish a tackling poverty strategy, including performance indicators and an effective evidence base.

This was rejected. The Government’s repose states that achieving prosperity is a key objective and would be addressed by the newly-published national strategy, Prosperity for all (PDF: 640kb). The new strategy has two mentions of the word ‘poverty’, but focuses on prosperity.

Recommendation 5: As part of its new ‘three Es’ approach, the Welsh Government should take the broadest view of ‘employability’, and make clear to local authorities that employability support should encompass all stages of the employment journey.

This was accepted, with the Government stating that the “the Employability Grant will support individuals who are in, or at risk of poverty, consistent with the obligations under the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act.” The response also commits to providing guidance to local authorities to emphasise the importance of addressing barriers to employment, developing employability skills and securing employment, and providing in-work support.

Recommendation 6: Removing barriers to families accessing support through the Flying Start programme.

This was accepted. The Government response notes that “there is already a degree of flexibility for Local Authorities to provide Flying Start support to children and their families living outside Flying Start areas”

Recommendation 7: Clarify what ‘empowerment’ means for local authorities during the Communities First transition period.

The government accepted this recommendation ‘in principle’, explaining that ‘empowerment’ means “making sure communities are engaged and empowered to have their voices heard in the decisions that affect them”.

Recommendation 8: Ensuring that performance indicators for all programmes are consistent, publicly available and broken down by local authority.

This was accepted ‘in principle’, with the government stating that the National Wellbeing Indicators (which provide a framework for measuring progress towards the seven well-being goals) include key indicators relating to poverty, communities and prosperity. The Government accepts that these indicators will not measure the performance of individual programmes, but states that where specific indicators are ‘required and appropriate to measure the performance of individual programmes’, this data will be published.

Recommendation 9 & 10: Improve the Welsh Government’s evidence base around poverty in Wales by developing a dashboard of poverty indicators and exploring the feasibility of a longitudinal study on poverty in Wales.

The recommendation relating to a dashboard of poverty indicators was rejected. The recommendation relating to the longitudinal study was accepted ‘in principle’, but the response states that there are ‘methodological challenges’ and ‘concerns that the benefits might not justify the significant cost in undertaking such as study’. But it also states that it “will undertake exploratory work to consider the feasibility of a longitudinal study, looking at costs, options, benefits and impacts of a potential study alongside other ways of improving data.”

Recommendation 11: Consider and assess the impact of the closure of Communities First on other Welsh Government programmes and make adjustments to avoid unintended consequences.

This recommendation was accepted, and the response states that “series of workshops have been arranged between Welsh Government officials, Communities First Lead Delivery Bodies and Local Health Boards where individual projects have been reviewed”

Article by Hannah Johnson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from Pixabay by vitality-m. Licensed under Creative Commons.