UK structural funds after Brexit

UK structural funds after Brexit

Mary-Helen Young reflects on the Levelling Up Fund and what it signals about the post-Brexit UK funding climate.

Applicants breathed a collective sigh of relief at 12:00 pm on 18 June – the deadline for submitting bids to the Levelling Up Fund (LUF).

I had just completed work on a case for the restoration of Madeira Terrace, a deteriorating Victorian marvel that is currently blighting Brighton’s eastern seafront. Weary colleagues were recovering from work on three other applications.

It was all a powerful signal (maybe a warning?) of what we can expect from the future UK funding climate.

We’ve given up long-established European funding programmes worth billions, including the European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Now a raft of new UK replacements will have local authorities jumping through a new set of hoops to shore up their increasingly fragile finances and deliver their most important capital projects.

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) is meant to replace the ESF and ERDF. It’s at all order for a new fund. The ESF has been running since 1957. The ERDF since1975. They have been honed and refined over decades. Experience has value.

We have witnessed this funding game from both sides of the table. We’ve worked on countless applications to Development Agencies, Local Enterprise Partnerships, national government, trusts and foundations. We’ve written bids to all the Lottery funds, evaluated applications for them, and provided strategic advice to the funds themselves. I’ve even represented Creative Europe funding in the UK.

Fund managers are always learning how to make guidance more clear and transparent. It’s a delicate balance to strike. You want make the process painless and streamlined, easy and accessible to as many applicants as possible. At the same time, you are hyper-sensitive to the fact that it’s public money you’re spending. You have a responsibility to exercise due diligence and obtain best value. It takes time, experience, lots of practice, trial-and-error to get that balance right.

Experienced funders understand the reality of the bidding process. Applicants scramble to comply with every new request and regulation. Reckless haste and hazy guidance creates waste, confusion and no small amount of chaos. Clear guidance and more support leads to stronger applications and better outcomes. The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England and Sport England are constantly refining their guidance and support services to make the process easier to navigate. At the Creative Europe Desk we held workshops throughout the application period, right up to the deadline for last-minute clarifications.

What can we glean from the Levelling Up Fund, as a precursor to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, about this government’s competence as a funder now that we’ve ‘taken back control’?

If experience matters, then the LUF comes across as someone’s first day on the job. There are large gaps in the guidance. Promised clarifications never come. There is ambiguity in some places, inconsistency in others, repetition, and redundancy everywhere. It all makes for a country full of confused applicants and frazzled consultants, gamely trying to second-guess what the assessors of an unprecedented fund might really be thinking.

Reading the House of Commons’ briefing paper of the UKSPF, it’s clear there’s a lot of work yet to do. UKSPF was meant to be based on the UK Industrial Strategy, with consultation about the design and priorities of the fund in 2018. This was never carried out and it’s not clear if or when it will be. That consultation might have raised the issue of why the Index of Multiple Deprivation ranking has been disregarded by the LUF when it is a generally accepted standard, developed over decades and used widely by local authorities.

Competitive funding programmes aren’t unusual, but they put inordinate stress on applicants. Applicants deserve fairness, precision and maybe even a bit of sympathy. The rules of engagement must be objective and transparent, communication must be prompt and clear. This ‘gamification’ of the funding process sounds good on paper, but only if the government learns how to write a fair rulebook and then abide by it.

Photo: Madeira Terrace, image by Luke Andrew Scowen

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