Wales politics

Communities First anti-poverty scheme shake-up concerns

Plas Madoc, Wrexham
Image caption Wrexham council plans to cluster Plas Madoc Communities First with other village projects

Concerns have been raised about the impact of changes to the Welsh government's flagship anti-poverty scheme.

About 150 Communities First projects are being reduced to 50 "cluster" areas while a dozen partnerships will cease.

The action is being taken after reports criticised the effectiveness of the project's spending.

The Welsh government said the changes followed a consultation and community involvement would remain central to it.

Some people are concerned the changes will impact on those it is meant to help most.

The Communities First programme was set up in 2001 to help people living in some of the most deprived areas of Wales.

Over the past 10 years more than £300m has been spent by the partnerships trying to improve the health, education and quality of life of people in concentrated areas such as community wards and housing estates.

£40m annual spend

Around 20% of the Welsh population are said to live in Communities First areas, but it varies greatly with 24 partnerships in Rhondda Cynon Taf and one each in Monmouthshire and Denbighshire.

Now, the programme is undergoing a major shake-up between October and January following a series of critical reports in 2010 and 2011 which will cut the annual spending by £5m to £40m.

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Media captionAfter a series of critical reports the programme is undergoing a major shake-up

But there are concerns the changes will mean the partnerships will not be able to connect with local communities in the same way if they are based elsewhere and cover a wider area.

"Some of the communities we met were extremely concerned that they wouldn't have a resident worker with them and they felt they would be lucky to get one for one day a week," said Shan Aston.

She is director of a community development programme at Bangor University and has been studying Communities First areas as part of her work.

"In the restructuring process, I think the danger is that they will have lost what is best about Communities First - that element of working from the bottom up and people becoming empowered to make a change in their own lives," she said.

The Welsh government insisted local people were a central focus of the changes.

"We want to see more local people becoming actively involved in Communities First and so each cluster will develop a community involvement plan to ensure that this happens," said a spokesperson.

One of the most damning reports about the programme came from the assembly's public accounts committee in 2010 which said the programme had failed to deliver value for money.

The most recent assessment found around two-thirds of partnerships were performing well but there were "significant concerns" about several.

Despite the criticisms, Christine Thomas, who was chair of Wrexham's Caia Park Communities First executive board for a decade, said it had helped the housing estate.

'Big businesses'

"There's still lots and lots of things to do and I'm not going to tell you that if you come and live in Caia Park, you'll be living in Utopia, you're not," she said.

"Some communities, particularly the mining communities in south Wales, as well as urban communities like us, have been in areas of deprivation for a long time.

"You are not going to come out of that in a few years with a few hundred thousand pounds spent on you - it's takes investment in people and the communities itself. "

She said she feared that perhaps there would not be the same resident involvement under the new programme.

Helen Cocks, chair of the Gibbonsdown and Court Communities Partnership Board in Barry, is backing the changes, saying trying to get employers to mentor young people was "virtually impossible" with no big businesses in her immediate area.

Dave Adamson, chief executive of the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales which was part of the team which helped set up in Communities First in 2001, said the programme was only one part of the strategy to tackle poverty.

"It should never have been conceived of as a cure all programme," he said.

"By definition it's an utter impossibility to do that.

"I think a realistic reappraisal suggests it does need to work in partnership with the overall strategy against poverty, has to work with the health agenda critically, has to work with the education and skills agenda.

"And when Communities First really gets to grips with that, that's when we'll see the best results."

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