In west Belfast, community groups and residents associations have helped foster a cohesion and civic spirit which held people together when government agencies and statutory bodies ignored appeals for help. This blog is very proud to be part of this community and I am a big fan of those who serve it in the voluntary and community sector.
As October 20th approaches and the details of the British government’s Comprehensive Spending Review are announced many community organisations are understandably worried about future funding, including those involved in community development work in the poorest areas. Often these groups are providing services which offer a safety net to the most vulnerable.
Sinn Féin worked tirelessly with others to persuade the European Commission to help the areas in greatest need through the Peace Programme in the mid 90’s. MEP Bairbre de Bruin led the lobby for the current Peace 3 programme.
However, even as this money was secured, the British government was misusing the funding as substitute for, rather than in addition to, funding for community groups.
This blog has consistently advocated that the community sector deserves to be provided with long-term, mainstream funding to permit groups to plan and sustain programmes of work and to achieve meaningful outcomes.
Six years ago, during a period of British Direct Rule the Department of Social Development commissioned a report into ‘Future funding for the Community and Voluntary sector’ proposed a series of recommendations for resourcing the sector. This included a figure of £25 million per year to support community development. It also recommended the mainstream funding of community development work. These recommendations still haven’t been implemented.
Instead, again under Direct Rule the Department of Social Development introduced a new programme called Neighbourhood Renewal. DSD also started promoting the merger and integration of community groups, and the transfer of services and funding to voluntary organisations.
Last year, £10m was invested in community services in the whole of Belfast through DSD’s Neighbourhood Renewal programme. The same investment will be required next year just to sustain the existing level of services provided.
This blog believes that future funding for community services needs to be stabilised and sustained as recommended six years ago. Funding through Neighbourhood Renewal needs to continue. So far, the Minister responsible has declined to give any such assurances.
When Neighbourhood Renewal was first introduced, the Committee for the Administration of Justice warned DSD that it should emulate, not compete with, home-grown initiatives :
“The Neighbourhood Renewal strategy must therefore examine how the work of initiatives such as the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Taskforce can be built upon and complemented.”
The West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force included a package of recommendations aimed together with a series of flagship projects intended to build community confidence in the process and help to transform the social and economic fortunes of people in the most deprived parts of this city.
Even though the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force was endorsed by local Ministers, the system has tried every trick in the book to slow it down, trip it up and stamp it out. Stock-takes, appraisals, reviews and even proposals to wind the Task Force up have all been tried and failed. The result is that whilst important aspects of the Task Force have begun to be implemented, most of it remains outstanding.
This is intolerable. The levels of poverty and deprivation which continue to adversely impact on the quality of life of people in west Belfast and Shankill need to be reversed. The best way to do that is for the government, led by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to work with the local community to renew and reinvest in the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force. With local citizens and local Ministers combining forces, we can create the conditions for all citizens to enjoy prosperity.
Unfortunately, there are some politicians and civil servants who support the Tory policy of ‘slash and cut. They claim that everyone has to share in the cuts. If they have their way it will be the working people, medium and small businesses and disadvantaged citizens, who will carry the greatest burden. According to recent reports by the trade unions, the poorest will be hit 10 times harder than the wealthy
Today, patterns of poverty remain the same as ever. For as long as records have existed, concentrations of inequality and deprivation have been ingrained in west Belfast. This is the result of systemic and structured discrimination. To correct this, we must safeguard existing services for the poorest people and guarantee that extra public and private investment is directed to those areas in greatest objective need.
So political leaders and parties have to stand up for peoples rights and in opposition to cuts. There is an alternative to the slash and cut strategy of the British government.
This involves the promotion of strategies that will foster equality and prosperity for all. That means building and supporting the community and voluntary sector.