Sustainable communities in Wales: developing a new governance approach to local sustainable development in Wales’s most deprived areas – Victoria Jenkins


Sustainable development is a global challenge but it will be founded upon changes in the behaviour of all actors in society, ranging from multi-national corporations to individuals at work and in their homes. Of particular significance is ensuring environmentally sustainable behaviour among the poorest people in society, who are rarely preoccupied by global environmental problems, but for whom the quality of the local environment is a key concern. In developing countries the main consideration is ensuring that the local environment can support the basic needs of its people.1 In developed societies there is also increasing recognition that measures to improve local environmental quality can contribute to greater social sustainability.2 It is also possible that building capacity among local communities to address problems within their immediate environment can engender a wider sense of environmental citizenship.3 Global–local connectivity will, therefore, be highly significant in the transition to sustainable development; and thus this is a goal which can be achieved only by adopting a multi-level governance approach.4

The framework for international action on sustainable development is provided by the Agenda 21 action plan, which supports an integrated approach to environment and development concerns.5 It also includes explicit recognition of the need to address issues of poverty in the transition to sustainable development, and states that deprivation is best addressed by empowering people to take action to change their individual circumstances by working together with others in the locality as a community.6 Historically, community regeneration work in the UK has failed to properly consider the wider agenda for environmental protection or the need for public participation.7 More recently however, the national strategy for sustainable development has been cognizant of the links between social and environmental justice; and there have been attempts to provide a more decentralized and participatory approach to community regeneration which accords with new governance thinking in the UK.8 New governance is not easily defined, but its ‘broad spirit’ recognizes

that a shift is taking place in the role of the national state, which has moved substantially away from top-down command and control regulation to a much more decentralised and consensual approach which seeks to coordinate at multiple levels, and is distinctively polycentric.9

This chapter will explore the development of such an approach in pursuing sustainability among the most deprived communities in Wales. This focuses on the participation of local communities in regeneration initiatives through the Welsh Government’s flagship programme for social justice, Communities First. The Welsh Government also, however, calls upon local government to provide leadership in coordinating this work with that of community and town councils and the voluntary sector. In developing a model of new governance for sustainable communities in Wales, as in any other context, there are four key issues to be considered: first, the need to operate within the frameworks of governance at global and national level; second, ensuring cooperation and coordination among local actors; third, accountability among non-state actors involved in the process; and, finally, providing effective mechanisms for the participation of local citizens. However, in the particular context of sustainable development, perhaps the most significant concern is how this new governance approach will reflect the integration of social and environmental considerations.

Sustainable development and community empowerment: a multi-level governance approach

Agenda 21 has been translated into national action for sustainable development through the creation of dedicated strategies. The most recent UK strategy, Securing the Future, was published by the Labour government in 2005. The priorities at this time were considered to be sustainable consumption and production, climate change, natural resource protection and sustainable communities. The focus was clearly on maintaining development within the limits of environmental resources and providing regulatory approaches to achieve this. The current coalition government has yet to publish a comprehensive strategy for sustainable development, but has provided a vision statement which mirrors these priorities, with two important differences. First, the emphasis is on valuing environmental goods and services within a model of economic growth rather than regulating to ensure development is maintained within environmental limits. Second, and of particular significance to this chapter, is a change in emphasis from providing sustainable communities to ensuring fairness and improving wellbeing.10 This has resulted in a very different approach from the previous Labour government to the issue of community empowerment for sustainable development, which, inter alia, is directed to all citizens, not just those that are less well off. In Wales, however, where there are high levels of poverty and social deprivation, the Welsh Government continues to support the previous UK Labour government’s vision of sustainable communities. 11

The Welsh Government has a statutory duty to create its own sustainable development scheme to support the priorities in the UK.12 In doing so, the current Welsh Sustainable Development Scheme One Wales: One Planet pays particular attention to the development of sustainable communities.13 The Welsh Sustainable Development Scheme describes sustainable communities as ‘safe, sustainable, attractive communities in which people live and work, have access to services and enjoy good health and can play their full roles as citizens.’14 The UK Labour government’s strategy for sustainable development emphasized the links between social and environmental justice; thus, improving local environmental quality was at the heart of its campaign for sustainable communities:

Dirty and dangerous places encourage graffiti, vandalism and anti-social behaviour, which in turn undermine public confidence in them and lead people to avoid them. An unattractive and threatening local environment encourages people to use their cars for short journeys and to move to a better area if they can. It can discourage investment and lead to abandonment and dereliction.15

This approach is reflected in the reference to ‘attractive communities’ in the Welsh definition of sustainable communities; and one of the key themes of the sustainable development scheme is to ‘support the people and communities of Wales to take responsibility for the quality of their local environment so that they can contribute towards a clean, safe and tidy Wales’.16 Improving local environmental quality is, of course, only one step in adopting an integrated approach to social and environmental issues for local communities. Indeed, environmentalists may prefer to highlight the links between greater social sustainability and environmental stewardship at both the local and global levels.17 Nevertheless, empowering communities to look after their local environment may be seen as a necessary stepping stone in this regard.

Agenda 21 highlights the significance of community in addressing the concerns of deprived peoples for sustainable development, and it advocates devolving authority, accountability and resources for combating poverty to the most appropriate level.18 The coalition government is pursuing an agenda for community empowerment for sustainable development through its flagship policy initiative, the Big Society:

Government can set a framework for sustainable development at national level, but many changes need to happen through the Big Society at a local level, ensuring our communities work more closely together, using local insight, energy and knowledge to develop solutions tailored to local circumstances … More empowered communities and a society where people are more involved in social action such as volunteering should lead to increased well-being, stronger communities and stronger social ties.19

However, the former Welsh Government ‘made it clear that they had no plans to undertake any Big Society initiatives, stating that putting people and communities at the heart of public services was already at the core of their programme for public service improvement.’20 Thus, as outlined below, few of the new legal powers associated with the initiative will apply in Wales. This has resulted in very different approaches to community empowerment for sustainable development in England and Wales.

Community and sustainable development: differing approaches to community empowerment in England and Wales

Community is undoubtedly a contested notion, but the idea of community has been ‘related to the search for belonging in the insecure conditions of modernity’.21 The search for community among the urban poor has been the holy grail of urban sociology for many years, recognizing the complexities of communities of both place and interest.22 However, the community development movement in the UK has focused on identifying spatial communities within the city, usually referred to as neighbourhoods, that may form a cohesive unit with which to engage in antipoverty measures. This is considered to be particularly difficult given that the city can be viewed as the antithesis of traditional rural communities. However, the search for community, whether in pursuit of a lost tradition or something as yet unknown, is in itself a somewhat utopian idea. Nevertheless, the place of community in society, and its significance for the relationship between society and state, has a political importance of more immediate concern. This is once again a subject fraught with complexity; but as a starting point communitarians would emphasize the community as opposed to the individual in civic life. In particular, ‘the civic tradition within communitarianism has made social capital and participation in public life central to community’.23 Conversely, a lack of participation in public life has been associated with the destruction of social cohesion.24

Civic communitarianism can be used to support very different notions of participation in society, from the empowerment of the poor to take part in decision making by local government to the wholesale devolution of power to local people to provide services previously considered to be the responsibility of the state.25 It is clear that the Big Society supports the devolution of power directly to communities. With its emphasis on well-being as well as fairness, the Big Society is also an initiative for all communities rather than focusing specifically on those that are suffering from deprivation.

The new framework of powers to support the Big Society is provided by the Localism Act 2011. Communities in England will have the right to take part in neighbourhood planning, to bid to carry out local authority services and to hold local referendums on council tax.26 In some instances, these rights are given to parish councils or existing local community organisations; but in other situations, or in the absence of such a council or established group, a number of individuals may come together to exercise these rights on behalf of the community. For example, neighbourhood-planning powers can be exercised by a neighbourhood forum whose membership includes a minimum of 21 individuals who either live or work in the neighbourhood area concerned or are elected members of a local authority whose area falls in the neighbourhood.27 This raises difficult questions about the representation and accountability of these groups given their significant powers in shaping the development and administration of local services.

Only the community right to buy will apply in Wales as well as England.28 This provides local authorities with a duty to maintain a list of land in its area that is land of community value.29 Once land is listed, its owner cannot dispose of it without notifying the local authority, which is subsequently responsible for establishing whether there are any community interest groups that have an interest in making a bid for the land.30 The notion of a community interest group in relation to these powers will be strictly under the control of the Welsh Government;31 and given the centrality of the neighbourhood approach to sustainable communities in Wales, as outlined below, it may well focus on the role of community and town councils (as the equivalent of parish councils in England) and the voluntary sector rather than a groups of individuals representing the community.

It is clear that the Welsh Government has rejected the model of civic communitarianism exemplified by the Big Society initiative in England and, as a devolved government, has been free to develop a distinctive approach. It will nevertheless need to provide some means of participation of local communities and organizations and ensure accountability in the process. In fact, the Welsh Government supports a local community/neighbourhood approach to sustainable communities, in which local people will be represented by Communities First Partnerships, voluntary/third sector organizations, community and town councils, and local government operations.32

The major actors in the new governance framework for sustainable communities in Wales: representation, participation and accountability

Since 2001, the agenda for social justice in Wales has been furthered by the Welsh Government’s Communities First programme as the focus for community regeneration work. However, Wales also has a strong voluntary sector, whose role has gained increasing recognition in tandem with wider developments in the UK under the Labour government. Furthermore, more recently the role of community and town councils has been highlighted as significant in providing services to, and working with, local communities. Finally, local government may also be involved in specific measures to work with local communities in regeneration. These actors provide very different means of ensuring community empowerment for sustainable development.

Communities First33

Communities First is the Welsh Government’s flagship programme ‘to improve the living conditions and prospects of people in the most disadvantaged communities across Wales.’34 The programme is most well known for the geographically defined areas that are supported, but also provides for thematic communities of interest.35 A key principle of the programme is that local people should be involved in the process, which is delivered through Communities First Partnerships (CFPs). Partnership working has long been advocated as a means of ensuring a participatory approach to local governance, but not without criticism of the way that these often operate in practice.36 In an attempt to address these concerns the Welsh Government has adopted the unique approach of ensuring that all partnerships operate on a ‘three-thirds’ basis, with equal representation of the local community, statutory and voluntary/business sectors.37 There is evidence that the CFPs have indeed been successful in engaging local people in developing priorities for action, but these partnerships are not however, responsible for the activity and funding that will ultimately achieve the necessary change in their area and must ensure that their work influences that of other public bodies.38 Significantly, therefore, there is also evidence that these partnerships have struggled to influence the activities of key policy actors.39

At first sight, the Communities First initiative would appear to have little to do with environmental issues. However, despite its clear emphasis on social justice, there has been some attempt to widen the aims of the programme through the Communities First Vision Framework.40 The guidance on this framework includes, for example, a number of headings on environment such as, addressing climate change and distinctive biodiversity. Indeed, in 2009, the Wales Audit Office reported more outcomes in terms of environment than jobs and business, community safety or child poverty.41 This raised concerns, however, about the breadth of the programme and its success in contributing to the alleviation of core issues associated with social deprivation in Wales, particularly child poverty.42 As a result, the Welsh Government has stated that, from April 2012, the Communities First programme will have a much clearer emphasis on tackling poverty, replacing the vision framework with three strategic outcomes based on economic prosperity, education/skills and health; and, although work on environmental issues may take place, it will need to show how it impacts on these.43 This outcomes-driven approach will not, however, take account of the significance of an integrated approach to social and environmental concerns or the more intangible benefits of improving local environmental quality.

One example might help to illuminate this point at this juncture. One of the Community First areas that has been identified in South West Wales is Graig Felen, a community central to the Clydach area in the Swansea Valley. As part of a wider initiative supported by Objective 1 funding from the European Union, a new Community Centre for Clydach was created in close proximity to Graig Felen, which clearly provides, in no small measure, social support for this area. The siting of the centre is also, however, entirely significant. Clydach, like many other areas in Wales, is paradoxically a deprived area according to statistics of deprivation, but one that benefits from a geographical location rich in natural beauty.44 In this context, the Community Centre at issue is placed alongside the river, where the water falls literally through the geographical heart of the community. The siting of the centre has therefore been significant in bringing the people closer to, and making them more appreciative of, their natural environment. The extent of this cannot be measured by an objective indicator but is nevertheless grasped by the community – even if unknowingly.45

The voluntary sector

The voluntary sector has long supported the work of government in the UK, and can be considered to have the potential to provide for community empowerment if and where government itself fails.46 On coming to power in 1997, the Labour government was keen to highlight the significance of the voluntary sector in the UK, and hastened to create a compact outlining the parameters of the voluntary–statutory relationship.47 Subsequently, in Wales, the initial agreement for devolution in the Government of Wales Act 1998 included a specific duty for the Welsh Assembly to promote this sector.48 Thus the Welsh Government must create a scheme which recognizes the independence of the sector whilst also promoting their shared values, including sustainable development.49 Furthermore, County Voluntary Councils (CVCs) operate at local authority level to provide advice and information to local voluntary and community groups.50

There are over 31,000 voluntary, community and not-for-profit organizations in Wales, the vast majority of which are local organizations, involved largely in social issues such as sports, health, youth or arts.51 However, there are also some notable organizations in the environmental field, such as Groundwork.52 The voluntary sector may thus have a significant role to play in the governance of sustainable communities; but historically there is some evidence that local authorities in Wales have failed to recognize the work of voluntary organizations in contributing to local sustainability.53 The voluntary sector is often referred to as a homogenous entity but in reality voluntary organizations take many different forms. It can include any of the following:

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue