Sue Leonard – Chief Officer of the County Voluntary Council in Pembrokeshire and Chair of CVCs Cymru, the network of CVCs that provide support for voluntary and community groups, social enterprises, and volunteers across the whole of Wales.

I was delighted to be asked to open the first ABCD Jamboree hosted in Wales. How often do you get asked to open a Jamboree? – definition: a celebration or party, typically a lavish and boisterous one. The programme was definitely lavish, packed with presentations, performance and discussion.

The event brought together those with a shared interest in asset-based community development. To reflect this topic, I shared some of my own experiences, frustrations and aspirations.

My first experience of asset-based community development was with PLANED in Pembrokeshire where I took the lead on a local economy programme called Plugging the Leaks, working with the New Economics Foundation, and under the watchful eye of the redoubtable Joan Asby.

During the time I was there, we worked with 15 clusters of communities across the County, creating plans for community-led action to strengthen the local economy by mobilising local assets – and I’m going back 20 years or more.

In 2004 I moved to PAVS as Senior Training Officer. I became aware very quickly that working in a third sector infrastructure organisation meant having to deliver ambitious Welsh Government strategies. My first experience of this was when Welsh Government published its strategy for all-age learning which was entitled – Lifelong Learning & Beyond. Many other strategies have followed since then – I am sure you will agree that we are not short of strategies – getting them delivered is another issue. Still, I will count them as assets for now – as they do set out a direction of travel, and it is always much better to be ambitious than complacent.

In 2008 I became Chief Officer of PAVS. I am going to fast forward several years to 2016 when the Pembrokeshire Preventions Programme Board was established. This Board brought together people from the Health Board, Public Health, Local Authority and third sector as equal partners and together we developed a vision for preventions – to create active & connected communities.

The first thing we did as a partnership was to think about our assets, rather than our problems. We ended up with quite a long list of assets but here are some of the highlights:

60 elected members, 77 town, community and City Councils, 1,100 voluntary and community groups, 1000s of volunteers, a fantastic natural environment including a coastal national park, 65 community venues, a huge number of heritage and cultural assets – and 124,000 people with a wide range of skills, experience, knowledge, talent and good ideas.  Once we acknowledged the assets that could be mobilised, the problems didn’t seem quite so insurmountable.

Fast forward almost 6 years, and the preventions programme board still meets.  We have broadened its membership and rebadged it as a Community Co-ordination Recovery Group in the wake of COVID.  Our vision has also expanded to creating active, resourceful, connected, sustainable and kind communities where people can live interdependently, healthily and happily.

The partnership is now focused on setting up a Community Hub, expanding the community connector team to take on social prescribing, rolling out the Connect Pembrokeshire platform to encourage person-to-person timebanking, investing more funding in communities through our Supporting Community Action Fund, supporting community volunteering, participatory budgeting, and digital inclusion, creating/supporting social enterprises and micro enterprises delivering care, support and wellbeing services, encouraging the take-up of direct payments, co-producing the transformation of day opportunities, supporting community asset transfer, community shares, community land trusts – the list goes on.  The next thing on the agenda is to set up a Pembrokeshire Community Fund so that we can draw in more funding to invest in communities, as well as working more directly with town & community councils.

I also touched on frustrations and aspirations. Here are my frustrations – and I stress these are my personal views rather than those of PAVS:

A recognition through the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act that we need to take a long-term approach to wellbeing, yet funding continues to come through on a short-term basis – we used to complain that it was year by year, increasingly we are now being expected to spend money within a few months – we have to find a way to change or bend the financial regulations so that we can carry funding forward across financial years so that we can invest it wisely for the future.

The need to measure everything to the nth degree to prove that what we are doing works, which often results in two things.  Key performance indicators and metrics that don’t really tell you anything, but we collect them anyway because we have to measure something and spend all our time collecting and recording data. Or we only do what we can measure, rather than what is needed.  That is why I am pleased to be working with Sue, Jessie and Amy at Solva Care and Iwan at PLANED in the Together for Change partnership, looking at different ways of measuring things that matter, using narrative and causal mapping techniques.

Repeatedly trotting out barriers to collaboration and co-production such as GDPR, safeguarding, health & safety, information systems that are not integrated without sitting down, thinking them through, and finding ways to make things happen rather than simply putting up barriers to stopping them. We need to think about risk differently – what is the risk of not sharing information or not helping an individual.  The days of not being able to stand on a stool to change a light bulb or clean a window to help an elderly person living on their own must be put behind us.  We have to turn can’t and won’t into can and will.

Unnecessary bureaucracy. Wales only has a population of 3 million people with the potential of being a small, agile country with a clear line of sight between people in communities and government but what we have is a cluttered landscape of bureaucratic structures that create confusion, suck up resources and disempower communities.  Despite the rhetoric of community, we see more and more funding going into regional structures and more power being centred in these structures – and to make it worse each policy area operates over a different footprint. Why not invest in communities and PSBs, and encourage collaboration where it makes sense, rather than imposing it from the top through regional structures?

Another frustration is the apparent obsession with consistency, which often results in one-size fits no-one delivery models imposed from the top. I completely recognise that everyone should have the same access to achieving the same outcomes, but the way of getting there will be different, depending on what assets you start with. It is the difference between having a barren landscape (which is consistent) or a wildflower meadow, with a 1000 different flowers blooming.  I would definitely advocate for national frameworks, which provide a set of agreed and co-produced outcomes, and then let the creativity of communities and individuals do the rest.

Finally, asset based community development is NOT solely in the domain of health and social care, yet that is where much of the focus is at the moment. Active, resourceful, connected, sustainable and kind communities form the foundation for all areas of policy and all areas should invest in them.