Chris Johnes, Chief Executive of the Building Communities Trust outlines why UK and Welsh Government need to prioritise long-term investment led by local people to transform their communities
Just before Christmas, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined his spending priorities against a dreadful economic backdrop mostly due to COVID 19. He pledged to continue emergency COVID support for businesses and employees affected by the virus and significantly increased capital investment.
Missing from the priorities, at least so far, despite recognition of their importance within his speech, were concrete plans to invest in communities and especially in organisations run by local communities.
And this stands out in a year when community groups the length and breadth of the country have done herculean work keeping their neighbours safe, fed and connected. And in many parts of Wales that support had already been in evidence in the dreadful winter floods that preceded Covid.
That support was possible because in so many Welsh communities there were already strong organisations and groups of people offering mutual support. In more ‘normal’ times this support ranges from running key local organisations – such as pubs, community centres and parks – to starting new community hubs, shops and tourism attractions to boost the local economy. It also includes social groups for isolated older people and young parents, a wide range of mental and physical wellbeing activities and projects to enhance or preserve the local environment.
The value of their work has been amplified during the pandemic: well established organisations enjoyed the benefits of having not only the physical resources – kitchens, vans, computers and more – but they enjoyed widespread trust in their areas and knew which people were most likely to need help.
In some cases, these community run facilities and organisations have been developed and funded by local people, in others with substantial external grants or loans. Some have been brand new developments, while others are the result of asset transfers from public bodies. In some areas this has been with support from the local authority; in others, local protest and even legal action has kept open buildings and facilities that councils wanted to close, then effort and skills from the community have kept them going.
However, funding remains challenging for many organisations and in the poorest communities it is a particular problem – and this is one of the reasons why sustainable community run organisations are less common in some places which need them most.
In particular funds for basic running costs, building maintenance, utilities and staff or volunteer costs can be really hard to get hold of.
And this is made worse because this type of community infrastructure doesn’t fit well with normal public sector funding rounds which look for clear outcomes in 2 or 3 years, rather than the development of long term community capacity.
And this is why many people’s eyes were on the Chancellor during the autumn statement, including a UK wide group of over 340, mostly civil society organisations, calling for the establishment of a long term Community Wealth Fund for local areas that most need it.
For the Treasury are now looking at the release of funding from an expanded Dormant Assets Scheme. This is money coming from various unclaimed stocks, shares and pensions and that legally has to be spent on “good causes” - not mainstream public funding like schools and hospitals. It is estimated there could by as much as £2bn worth of funding emerging from new dormant assets (potentially around £100m for Wales)
The last round of dormant assets in 2011 distributed over £360m to good causes across the UK. In Wales this amounted to approximately £14m for youth employment and climate change issues.
The new and potentially far larger round of dormant assets offers the opportunity to establish a new endowment fund for Wales which could provide, on our estimation, £3m per year in perpetuity for community-based work across the country.
Historically Wales is very poorly served by endowed charities compared to both Scotland and England and this offers the chance for a permanent Welsh fund, focused on supporting activities which most need the flexibility that endowment funds enable.
And just because the Treasury haven’t made announcements yet on the release of these new dormant assets doesn’t mean it’s not happening – but the sooner the Government move the sooner vital community-based action can access the support it needs.