Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting Llanelli in Carmarthenshire to catch up with an old acquaintance and left so enthused at how community development is supporting grassroots collective action. Community Development practice slowly leached out of the Communities First programme that I used to work on in Wales. There remain CD ‘oases’ but it all too often is under the radar or dare not speak its name.
Several wards in Llanelli are in Communities First and the town bears the same post-industrial scars as many other towns and cities; in Llanelli’s case, the closure or contraction of the town’s steel, tin plate and copper works. Earlier this year the town gained an unwanted infamy due to sensationalist language from a judge about substance misuse in the town’s Station Road area.
Interestingly, the retreat over recent years of Communities First from efforts to stimulate and facilitate collective action to a narrow focus on employability has arguably created the opportunity to revive community development activity, with the town council, in particular, picking up the baton.
A community partnership, supported by the town council, provides for a forum for the generation and sharing of ideas and activities and for the traditional vehicle of participative forms of democracy. Hearing about the plethora of local initiatives – many emerging from the Llanelli We Want / Y Llanelli A Garem consultations as part of the wider Wales We Want / Y Cymru A Garem citizen engagement process that preceded the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (WFGA) – was giddying:
- A community choir providing solidarity, support and hope for cancer sufferers and survivors
- A community hub for grassroots community groups to share space
- Establishing Wales’s biggest dementia-friendly town and the UK’s first certified dementia-friendly indoor market
- asset transfer
- engaging young people from among Llanelli’s most disadvantaged areas to appreciate its “unloved heritage“
- helping set up a Men’s Shed at Ail Gyfle
- a Christmas gift-wrapping service geared towards not just providing a helpful, seasonal service but tackling loneliness and isolation through one of the most powerful tools that community development has: conversation
Businesses, faith groups and local and regional charities are engaged but among the hive of activity, inhabiting the spaces between all the partners is community development practice. Social capital is being generated in spades and the feelgood factor was intoxicating but there remains significant deprivation in Llanelli and it was heartening to hear that its manifestations – arson, racial tensions, illegal access in derelict buildings, poor school attendance, homelessness – were being confronted.
In the early years of Communities First, a pioneering community-police liaison forum serving the town’s Glanymor and Tyisha areas, facilitated by the local Communities First team, was encouraged to share its learning with other areas. Community safety was a key theme of the programme in those days and eventually was designed out of the programme. Things are coming full circle in that a community development team is being the agent for change, in accordance with Couros’s five characteristics, and underpinning multi-agency responses to some of the anti-social and criminal activity taking place.
Finally, it was illuminating to hear that the WFGA was providing the strategic framework to demonstrate impact of Llanelli’s community development activity. Much of the activity mentioned here was being undertaken in the 2000s by Communities First but political inquiries routinely cast doubt on the effectiveness of it. Almost a decade on, by grounding its community development activities in the WFGA’s five ways of working and by being ‘plugged-in’ to the local Public Service Board Llanelli can demonstrate how community development is helping to localise national strategy.