Sue Denman
Trustee, Solva Care and Together for Change Programme Lead

The following text is a blog post by Sue Denman for the St Davids Festival of Ideas website on 28 December 2020.

This is a very personal perspective on why a small local charity, Solva Care, decided to obtain grant funding to lead a county wide initiative. Solva Care is working with Pembrokeshire Association of Voluntary Services (PAVS) and PLANED on a strategic project to build real partnership working with the public sector to support and sustain grassroots community groups.

When I was in my 40s and busy with a demanding job and personal commitments a much older friend said to me that most people don’t really get interested or involved in politics until they have retired. The implication was that on retirement you have more time to look closely at policies and the decisions on which they are based and, importantly, consider how they affect one’s life.

There is some truth in that observation, and I have had good reason to reflect on that comment since my own retirement from full time employment and getting involved in voluntary work. My first experience locally was joining the action group to save our cherished primary school, widely regarded as the ‘heart’ of the community. The school was to be a part of the reorganisation of education on the St Davids Peninsula with just a few classes moving to another school. There was a strong suspicion locally, however, that the real motive of the Council was to close the school. Consultations were seen by many as hiding decisions already made and founded on numbers that simply didn’t add up. Fast forward some five years and a once thriving school, with a full roll, is now virtually empty as children are bussed down the road to attend schools that are a good distance away from their community.

Somewhere around that time I was involved in setting up Solva Care which helps older people to stay living in their homes and lead connected lives in the community. Solva Care supports older people, thereby keeping them out of hospital or enabling them to be discharged in a timely way. It provides respite for unpaid carers and helps to reduce demand on health and social services.

Yet despite these cost saving benefits, Solva Care has been trapped in a relentless cycle of grant applications and until recently has experienced some degree of uncertainty about its future. Although admired and praised by the public sector, there was little opportunity to influence the strategic agenda on wellbeing. Solva Care was always confined to the periphery of decision making processes.

Indulge me a little longer. You may have heard of the debacle of the sale, by Pembrokeshire County Council, of the tenant farm Trecadwgan. A community group was formed to purchase the Farm to continue its rich tradition in agriculture and create a community enterprise that would benefit this corner of the County. Forced by the Council to compete with private buyers in open auction, the community’s finances fell just short of the final purchase price and a genuine jewel in the crown of farming in Pembrokeshire was lost to a wealthy private buyer, possibly forever.

Not all experiences have been negative but those mentioned above have made me reflect on the role of public services, our relationship with them and, more specifically, on how too often our democratic processes fail us. How can a central tenet of Welsh Government highlight the importance and inclusion of communities in decision making, yet the experience at grassroots level be so different?

On a positive note, I am optimistic that real change is coming. It has to. Years of austerity have been a catalyst for change but it is COVID19 that has speeded up the process, making it imperative that we work together. Community-led groups and organisations have demonstrated just how resourceful and adaptable they can be at a time of crisis. Unencumbered by bureaucracy, public and third sector intermediary organisations have also shown just how swiftly they can respond. A ‘can do attitude’ has prevailed as everyone has pulled together to protect lives.

The pandemic has undoubtedly forced us to take a fresh look at how we lead our lives and brought to the fore the importance of the social and green models of wellbeing. The importance of building resourceful and resilient communities is taking centre stage: the engagement of citizens in decision-making; the strengthening of our local democratic processes; the ownership and use made of our local assets; better integration of services; our economic model; our supply chains and so on.

It is this ‘new reality’ that has brought communities, the third sector and the public sector together, in the partnership called Together for Change to deliver a radical programme that promotes engagement, shared learning, mentoring and support for the development of community led action to improve the wellbeing of everyone within communities. The partnership will help deliver a coordinated approach to strategy and action to support the work of existing partnerships in Pembrokeshire.

‘We have worked well together in a time of crisis. So, we either need to create a permanent state of crisis or preferably find something positive we can get behind – creating active, connected and resourceful communities and a strong local well-being economy for Pembrokeshire.’  Sue Leonard, Chief Officer of PAVS, in her presentation at one of our first meetings, held on 18th June 2020.