Elin Hywel from Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog outlines why the next Welsh Government needs to recognise Welsh Communities as a huge, largely untapped resource of wellbeing and resilience and key to sustaining and developing local economies in Wales.
Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog is a social enterprise based in Bro Ffestiniog, Gwynedd. We are a co-operative network of 14 independent social enterprises all based in the Ffestiniog area. Our main purpose is to create co-operations within our network that allow for effective cross-sectoral responses to opportunities for development within our community.
We identify with the concepts of the foundational economy as a way of defining our local economy. We see that wellbeing is central to community and in using the tools, drivers and levers of the foundational economy our aim is to develop a ‘viable’ community. The foundational economy consists of those sectors within the economy that provide goods and services that allow us to live day to day. They are also those goods and services that are the foundations of the wider economy such as utilities or food.
The success of the foundational economy of a specific community is directly linked to the longevity and resilience of that community, and not its wealth. As resilient, stable communities our foundational economy is also resilient, low risk and stable. Unfortunately, our foundational economy is mostly extractive. That means that the benefit and subsequent profit from that economic activity is lost from our community.
Our main foundational economy project is Dolan - which is also a collaboration between Ffestiniog, Ogwen and Nantlle. Dolan is funded by the Foundational Economy Challenge fund and the work in our first phase has been exceptional, being able to build inter-community networking on a much larger scale than expected, our collaborations have resulted in 4 main projects and 18 additional projects rather than the target of 3. More importantly a way of working has developed that is available to all communities to achieve the same successes.
We have developed community definitions of foundational sectors such as tourism and food so if projects develop in the future that follow our definitions, they can also work to achieve our objectives of generating community benefit from the foundational economy.
We look to develop projects that mean we can ensure that our communities are places where we can live, work and enjoy life. The most effective way to achieve this must therefore be to undertake projects which also develop community ownership of the foundational economy.
We understand the importance of enabling our communities to be in control of the idea of what our community is so that our people can engage with that idea as they respond to life’s challenges. To do this we work to develop a voice for our community through broadcasting and creative projects hand in hand with social and economic projects. Our flagship project – BroCast, is a community broadcasting project that uses podcasting, vlogging, blogging and social media to allow us to tell our story primarily, but not only, to each other. This means that the ‘idea’ of what our ‘Bro’ is remains under the influence of the people of our community. In controlling this ‘idea’ we take ownership of our community. We are more confident when taking back ownership of the tangible embodiments of community, such as the spaces where we are active together. Spaces which are integral to the cohesion of our community. It becomes obvious then that we need control over the aspects of our economy which should be in service of our community.
There are other benefits too – community cohesiveness developed through a co-produced response was integral to our responses to the covid pandemic. Our research shows that people recognise that they have benefited from being part of this community over the past 18 months.
As we approach the end of another cycle in the life of our Senedd and face an election in unprecedented times for our communities many of us are thinking what will this new Welsh Government look like, what will their priorities be and how will they act upon them? Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog is working in the community to create change for the benefit of that community. More important to us than priorities are weaknesses or gaps in existing strategy or understanding of what communities are and how they work. As community lead organisations we bear the brunt when things don’t go according to plan, and as community organisations we hold none of the privilege of government to be able to start again tomorrow or put a different plan in place and try again. We deal with people and their lives. We know if we get it wrong our people are going to be harder to reach next time. So, yes, we want communities to be on the new government’s priority list, but we also want to know how they intend to make that work.
Building Communities Trust (BCT) states in their Strong Welsh Communities manifesto for the 2021 Senedd Elections that they ‘want improved collaboration between public bodies and community-led organisations, and recognition of the knowledge, experience and strengths of local groups.’ This is integral to our way of working at Cwmni Bro. We want improved collaboration, but we need Government to take a lead in supporting and developing this. Communities should not face a long corridor of locked doors when putting every effort in to improve our circumstances. As community lead organisations we are the bridge between community and government. To a certain extent we exist within the system imposed on us by government and the least we expect is that those who can, do make that system as open and supportive of our work as possible. As BCT notes:
“If Welsh Government makes it a priority to listen to, trust and support communities, it would do much to secure a healthier, happier and more sustainable future for the people of Wales.”
Our challenge to our new Government is the beautiful turn of phrase – use it or lose it. Communities are a huge, largely untapped resource of stability, resilience and wellbeing for the people of Wales. In the past few years we’ve been developing ways of working and cooperation that give us the tools to respond to our community’s needs whilst at the same time developing our local economies. On a national level that means that we are able to respond to the minutia of hyper localised issues in a comprehensive way – ensuring the strongest foundations to a sustainable national economy, all in service of maintaining healthy, happy, resilient communities. This is why we expect nothing less than every effort by government to enable us to enable communities to make life work better for us all. What could be more purposeful for a new government’s first term than this?