Portsmouth City Council was awarded three Community Renewal Fund (CRF) projects, which were:
- Decarbonising skills support scheme
- Enabling XR Enterprise (eXRe): Creating skills, boosting Communities, and benefitting Visitor and Cultural Economy
- Portsmouth Start and Grow
The council took an early decision, after consulting members and local stakeholders, to compete for funding to support local residents and businesses despite not being one of the government’s 100 priority places. This meant that while they did not have an allocated budget to manage CRF, the Economic Growth Manager was the lead officer supported by the Bidding team in Strategic Developments, working with internal and external partners effectively to win a portfolio of three projects worth over £1.5m. The council used its Economic Development and Regeneration Strategy as the basis for demonstrating local need which focuses on the “twin problems of low employment growth and slowing GVA per capita growth”.
Bidding under the Community Renewal Fund
Once the CRF was launched, Portsmouth City Council connected bidders with other partners and joined them up in a way which might strengthen projects and applications. Engagement with bidders had to be done virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions. The council talked through the process with the partners, finding out whether they were eligible and if their project fit the criteria. From this point onwards they managed the communications, offering advice, help and support through the process, to eventually complete and submit the bid. As a “non-priority” place, the council looked for innovative projects but knew that within the timescales, the ability to do this was limited. The council did however take innovate approaches into consideration when assessing bids.
Some bidders didn’t engage with the council directly but submitted bids at the end of the process. In these cases, the bids were not deemed to be as strong as those receiving support as they did not reflect local priorities and meet the overall fund criteria. While many of these bids were not successful, the council has used this as an opportunity to engage with new partners and entrants into the market. This will provide a further set of partners for future opportunities and the council is ensuring that they can maintain dialogue with them.
The council quickly set up a great internal structure with knowledgeable colleagues to assist with applications and help partners interpret the bidding information from government. This team was put together to check eligibility of bids, make sure relevant information fit the criteria, and they received support from experts across finance, economy, skills, sustainability and legal teams. This ensured that each bid submitted was reviewed and assessed fairly. The process that was put in place was rigorous and structured but still flexible, using local priorities to identify the projects which met local need in a way that would support outcomes from local strategies. It also used the experience of the council in delivering other funding programmes to ensure that the process was robust.
Lessons learned from the process
The bidding process strengthened the relationship between the council and its partners and has identified some future potential projects for UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF). The partners were appreciative of how the council made itself available for advice and support. Portsmouth City Council collaborated with Hampshire County Council and partook in a monthly forum facilitated by CEDOS with local authority members and non-members to share experiences and best practice around the development and delivery of the CRF. Delays to the announcement by government did pose a risk to this relationship, as project staff and beneficiaries in some cases witnessed a gap in employment and provision. Once the successful projects were announced, the council swiftly contacted those successful to ensure grant funding agreements were sent out and returned as soon as possible. Portsmouth City Council managed this risk by maintaining constant communication with the partners, talking to them on the phone, engaging openly and transparently with them about the delay, and regularly keeping them informed on the process.
The timescales available to develop bids also partly meant that although some bids were very good and contained worthy projects, they were not as innovative as they could have been. The CRF programme sought new and innovative projects from non-priority places, but because of the timescale it was a challenge to produce such projects.
Those with successful bids tended to have a pre-existing relationship with Portsmouth City Council and in many cases had experience of bidding for funds such as European Regional Development Funding (ERDF). Thus, those that successfully won the funding were experienced, which may indicate that future funding opportunities may require a longer lead in time – to build capacity among new and inexperienced entrants, grass root community organisations and consortia.
- Portsmouth City Council demonstrated they were capable of managing the process and assisting partners to submit bids for the fund, but were somewhat hampered by the capacity available in the timescale given.
- Although the Economic Growth Manager had wide ranging experience of managing EU structural funds the overall team did not so this proved a gap, hence the team may not have managed the process so well or may not have been able to successfully interpret the guidance to secure more projects.
- Since the successful bids were announced, the council has been allocated a Cities and Local Growth Unit CRF manager for questions. On reflection, this would also have been equally valuable at the application stage.