Looking from the outside, the admin burden to secure funding on English Local Authorities seems immense and many place managers have in effect become fund administrators and bid managers. Frustratingly for Local Authorities, their stakeholders and service providers, a lot of place initiatives also seem to be in a holding pattern dependent on some funding application or another. There is simply not enough capacity to manage the processing of these applications alongside the day job.
I have yet to speak to a Local Authority who has been thrilled by the allocation they received from the £2.6bn Shared Prosperity Fund – a key pillar of Levelling Up and domestic replacement for European monies. Most seem to have taken a reduction. Unlike Levelling Up funding, which is competitive, these funds are pre-allocated based on a range of social and economic measures but their release to Local Authorities is contingent on submission of a comprehensive Investment plan which naturally needs to meet a range of criteria. And this is more than a box ticking exercise, especially as it is mandated the Investment plans must be developed in conjunction with a broad range of local stakeholders.
I’m all for bottom-up planning and place partnerships but there are fundamental issues with this approach – in the main related to timing.
Firstly, the Investment plans have a 1-month window for submission albeit it has been on the agenda of Local Authorities since Spring. Plans can be submitted between 30th June and 1st August or July as most of us call that timeframe. These plans must be delivered in conjunction with partners. I’ve worked on much less complex projects with well-formed place partnerships and never managed to deliver a sensible output in less than a 3 month window.
There’s the practicalities of logistics, summer months and actually getting stuff done in large fora with stakeholders who may well be committed to the common goal but decision making is elongated. And then there’s the unmissable fact that detailed plans are very difficult to develop at this particular juncture – as least without the support of a crystal ball. There are so many variables at play and a sense of shifting sands rather than a stable foundation upon which to build and prosper for communities. The risk of course is that the actions identified now may not address the key challenges or could lead to sub optimal outcomes.
The ambitious timing aligns to the optimism of the policy wonk who changed the name of these funding streams from abstract acronyms to the battle cry itself– Levelling Up, Shared Prosperity, Community Ownership. Securing the funds is only half the battle though. Local Authorities need autonomy to pivot and direct these monies as the priorities of their communities change and actually implement activities.
Time of course is of the essence but being so economic with time right now feels like a false economy.