Pioneering partnership rises to pandemic challenge in rural Wales

A pioneering community enterprise has been praised for its work during the pandemic by Plaid Cymru’s North Wales MS Llyr Gruffydd.

The South Denbighshire Community Partnership, based in Corwen, has mobilised staff and 40 volunteers throughout the Vale of Llangollen area to ensure those who are isolated aren’t left behind.

Prior to the pandemic the Partnership was organising transport for the elderly, many in rural areas, to Corwen and providing meals for 40 people.

The Partnership’s chief officer, Margaret Sutherland, said the pandemic had forced them to scale back on provision in some cases: “Before the pandemic, we were feeding 40 through our lunch club and bringing three quarters of them in with our minibus. That’s gone down to 15 in a rota system because of the need to socially distance and stay safe. 

Margaret Sutherland, Roger Hayward, Llyr Gruffydd MS

“We’ve recently expanded to cover Llangollen and we’re delivering about 50-60 food parcels with surplus food redistributed from supermarkets including Aldi, the Coop and Tesco.

“We’re really grateful to Morrisons, which has donated a van to distribute the food that has built-in ovens and fridges to assist with temperature control.”

The Partnership is also expanding services because of the often hidden poverty in rural areas. 

Margaret Sutherland added: “From working in the area for 10 years, the Partnership understands that fuel and food poverty are critical areas to tackle. Some people on Universal Credit have had no food or money for heating for weeks. 

“That’s why we’re grateful for the support we’ve had from the Corwen Hydro renewable energy cooperative, which has given us £2,000 to help with our services.”

The Partnership is also working to buy electricity through Octopus at a cheaper rate for local communities. 

Llyr Gruffydd, who is also Plaid Cymru’s shadow environment, energy and rural affairs minister, said: “The community work being done by the Partnership is impressive and I’m particularly interested in their pioneering work they’re carrying out with community renewable energy.

“They see the bigger picture and the potential to develop community energy and the skills needed to scale this up across Wales and the world. Wouldn’t it be great to see young people getting the chance to become experts in this field and enable them to stay in their communities because there are jobs and opportunities?”

Mr Gruffydd said the Partnership was an effective umbrella to harness those skills and possible opportunities that could transform rural communities such as Corwen.

He added: “There is huge potential for renewable energy to have an impact on rural communities such as this, where fuel poverty is a real issue. By developing research and development capacity as well as mapping out the energy potential across Wales, we could increase the wealth of these communities and the whole of Wales.

“Energy produced for the community would mean cheaper bills but also ensure that any surplus was paid into a sovereign wealth fund to benefit everyone in Wales, rather than shareholders in some offshore tax haven.”

The Partnership buildings in Corwen also plays host to a Citizens Advice service two days a week. In just 30 months, the service has ensured that local people received a total of £1 million on unclaimed benefits.

Margaret Sutherland said: “We estimate that 70% of that extra money is spent locally and that’s just for the Corwen area. It’s a huge boost for local businesses as well as the individuals concerned.”

Despite the range of services on offer in the centre, which also hosts services for mental health and substance misuse that previously meant a tricky journey to the north of the county, the organisation still faces challenges.

Roger Hayward, a volunteer who chairs the Partnership’s transport committee, said: “Our Dial-a-ride service has enabled 361 journeys in just three months. We’ve delivered 762 prescriptions, shopping and parcels as well as 1400 meals.

“None of this would have happened without South Denbighshire Community Partnership. It’s a trusted service locally and we’re able to adapt to every crisis or opportunity in a heartbeat. If you take this organisation out of the community, just measure the size of the hole it would leave.”

Transport in rural areas remains a challenge – bus services have been decimated and Welsh Government grants are static at best. The Partnership is investing in minibuses and community cars as well as 14 electric bikes that would allow young people to get to college or work opportunities.

Mr Gruffydd added: “It’s quite remarkable what a range of services are being provided from a fairly non-descript building in Corwen. The staff and volunteers are doing an amazing job and it’s a model for other similar areas to aspire to.”

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