Norfolk County Council was awarded 14 Community Renewal Fund (CRF) projects, the joint greatest number of successful applications across lead authorities in England. Norfolk County Council received a high number of initial applications, 46 in total, largely due to their four priority places as listed by government. These priority places were Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, North Norfolk, and Norwich.
Of the 46 applications received, 26 of them worth a total of £14m, were submitted to government and the 14 successful projects were awarded a total of £6.2m. Norfolk County Council set up an internal team to deliver the CRF process and worked closely with partners throughout the process. The wider, 40-strong Programmes & Skills team has significant experience of bidding for and managing large projects including a business rates pool pilot and a £9m LEADER programme as well as a range of ESF and ERDF projects.
Bidding under the Community Renewal Fund
In the initial stages of the CRF process, Norfolk County Council ran two online information sessions, posted information about the CRF process, criteria and requirements online. In their communications, the council reached out directly to partners who could potentially deliver a project across the themes prioritised in the CRF prospectus.
Norfolk County Council then began a robust appraisal process, assembling a team of eight staff members from within their Growth & Development unit, including two appraisal officers, two members from the strategy and policy team, and two members from the economic programmes team. Each project had an appraisal and a moderator, which created consistency across the 46 applications. They used the government scoring mechanism to assess applications and supplemented this with greater definition of what a score of “1” meant compared to a score of “5” so that appraisers could maintain consistency.
A moderation panel was convened in order to ensure that the strongest projects could go forward. The feedback from this panel was used to advise applicants on ways to strengthen their bids. The projects then returned for a second round of appraisals and moderation.
The final selection process involved three lists. One list included projects selected, one list included projects not selected, and one list of ineligible projects. This list was then taken to the three existing Towns Board and an equivalent North Norfolk board for comments on the overall fit with locality needs. The boards gave valuable advice in relation to what works in the local area which was fed back to the decision-making panel. The final list of projects was compiled into one document and submitted to government three days before the deadline to relieve concerns that if all lead authorities submitted at the same time, there could have been systems issues preventing or delaying submission.
In common with some other Lead Authorities, Norfolk County Council had a particular challenge when the CRF launched as the timeframes for promoting and publishing information coincided with local elections. With such a short application period for the programme already, there was a limit to the nature and amount of information that could be shared in the public domain, and this also reduced the time left for applicants to apply.
Lessons learned from the process
The process set up by Norfolk County Council enabled innovative projects from partners who had not worked with the local authority before. One partner, for example, was a local organisation with a great idea but only required a small amount of funding for a small project. The council advised them to deliver the project at a larger scale in order to better meet the fund aims.
Norfolk has also continued to work on the projects that were not submitted or shortlisted, as they anticipate alternative funding being available in the future. This effort helped the council to develop and improve relationships with organisations who had not previously worked collaboratively with them, such as housing associations and the Norwich University of the Arts, for future bidding opportunities.
As reflected in the number of successfully awarded projects, this rigorous approach in terms of supporting and facilitating project applications paid off. The scoring mechanism provided by government, although without detailed explanation, was a relatively light touch as an assessment tool – easy to interpret and simple to apply which helped the process given the time constraints.
Delivering under the Community Renewal Fund
Norfolk County Council has had both a project delivery role and a contract management role with the CRF. In the early stage of contracting projects, the council engaged with the Local Government Association and the Chief Economic Development Officers Society (CEDOS) to explore the CRF contractual terms and conditions.
Once a contract manager from DLUHC was appointed, the council was reassured the monitoring would be more light touch than expected with monitoring done on a sample basis. This was particularly helpful from a Norfolk County Council perspective due to their significant portfolio of 14 projects. A challenge the council faced was having a different contract manager for the projects being delivered across Norfolk and Suffolk and the variation in approach.
Most of the projects delivered under or by Norfolk County Council have gone into delivery without issues or challenges and having overcome initial delays. However, in some cases, projects missed key milestone dates such as optimal apprenticeship recruitment points in the year (September) and this is expected to impact the overall outcomes delivered. In another case, a project wishing to take on a retail unit lost the prime opportunity owing to delays.
While some of the projects have struggled to recruit participants in priority places and have therefore expanded their geography, the delivery is considered to have strengthened relationships between the council and the partners of projects. This has been the result of weekly calls between an appraisal officer and partners, the council hosting workshops to go through forms, mid-term claim workshops, as well as working closely with the projects generally.
Lessons learned from the process
To ensure appropriate monitoring and evaluation, Norfolk County Council has separated the monitoring and reporting line of the projects it is delivering internally to ensure appropriate auditing and accountability. Some projects asked for money up-front despite normally paying in arrears, and the council has permitted project funding up front to support smaller partners. In order to manage this risk, the council has placed additional conditions on regular monitoring in between, which was an agreement made outside of the funding agreement.
The council has also continued to work with projects who were unsuccessful to identify other potential sources of funding.
- Information flow from government to local authorities was limited in the early stage of the CRF process. Resource was therefore spent to further clarify and develop processes – perhaps at each lead authority level.
- Timescales for delivery did not permit applicants to align projects to other funding streams.
- Not requiring match funding was welcome, in particular for smaller organisations who may otherwise have been excluded from the fund.
- Norfolk did not find the CRF process as complicated as the Levelling Up Fund process, which required additional resource and complex geography.
- Norfolk County Council believes future funding processes would benefit from a more expansive FAQ log. This could include taking questions at information events and publishing the questions and answers relating to these sessions, and potentially having a ‘live’ Q&A document where all questions are published and answered on an ongoing basis on a forum that all relevant parties can access.
- As the UKSPF process is being delivered through district councils, Norfolk County Council has offered their support for framework development, especially around later outcomes of skills and employment.