Warwickshire County Council (WCC) received 14 bids for the CRF (Community Renewal Fund) programme, submitted seven to government, and three of the bids were successful. The successful portfolio of three projects is worth a total of £2.7m. This is particularly notable as Warwickshire was not listed among the government’s 100 “priority places”. WCC submitted a wide range of projects across three of the four CRF themes, however, all three of the successful bids centre on supporting people into employment. Warwickshire County Council worked jointly with partners including the district and borough councils, and were supported by Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) to support, assess, and approve applications for submission.
Bidding under the Community Renewal Fund
The council decided early on that there needed to be a separation of duty in the bidding process in order to manage any conflicts of interest. As a result, the Corporate Strategic Finance team managed the application process and led on the assessment of CRF bids, allowing the Economy & Skills team and other services to concentrate on applying for priority projects through the fund.
Building on the experience of European programme management, the council promoted the opportunities on their website, through various newsletters and networks, and presented at various meetings with local partners and stakeholders. The programme generated a lot of interest, in large part due to the fund size, and the council worked to ensure applicants understood what the government was looking for. CWLEP was asked to support the initial enquiry stage of the process, and WCC encouraged applicants interested in bidding to contact the LEP on a helpline for advice about the CRF process.
This pre-engagement stage resulted in an initial sifting-out of around 40 per cent of potential applications. This was a positive step which helped reduce time spent on projects which did not fit the fund criteria.
A team of assessors was pulled together from across the county council and key partners, and applications were assessed by two staff individually who then came together for a moderation process. This was followed by a second stage in which the projects were reviewed again to check against the criteria.
This assessment then allowed Warwickshire County Council to produce a recommended shortlist of projects that went to a Strategic Board, which was set up for this purpose and chaired by the Assistant Director - Finance. The county council also invited district and borough colleagues to be part of the decision-making process, inviting them to comment on local fit. The Leader of the Council signed off the final portfolio before submission to government.
Lessons learned from the process
Through the process, Warwickshire County Council sought to balance both the local need, whilst also looking to select projects that were feasible for delivery within the timescales.
Due to limited timescales, Warwickshire County Council felt somewhat limited in their ability to do much more than assess projects based on the legal and financial due diligence. An extended timescale would have enabled them to work with partners to develop the strategic fit and further explore how projects could complement existing activities as well as fully assess deliverability and the realism of project outputs & results. Nonetheless the projects submitted were considered to have a strong strategic fit and to deliver against council recovery and growth strategies. To submit within the timescale, projects were assessed primarily on eligibility and their broad strategic fit rather than the project’s ability to compliment or add value to specific, existing projects or programmes.
The CRF process has also encouraged Warwickshire County Council to look at gaps in the support landscape and their own pipeline of projects and investment opportunities where existing activity is coming to an end. By looking ahead, they hope to identify emerging gaps in the market or opportunities that can be put forward for other funding opportunities.
Delivering under the Community Renewal Fund
The three projects under Warwickshire County Council’s portfolio focused on unemployment and, in particular, youth employment as a result of the high levels of unemployment expected as a result of the pandemic. However, the delay in project announcements meant the local economy was in a different position once the projects were approved. The issues the council and the projects were addressing 8-months later related to deep unemployment as opposed to short-term unemployment which the projects were initially aiming to tackle, demonstrating that the CRF did not provide the flexibility needed for local areas to focus on changing priorities.
The council decided to manage the projects from its Business & Economy team, as they had the experience with European and other external funding that was similar to the way CRF projects were expected to be managed. The council also decided to separate the team into one team performing the lead authority role and another team delivering an internal project to ensure an ethical wall. The team has maintained a strict level of project management and used their experience from EU projects to minimise risks.
The council has encouraged the three project partners to work closely together. This has supported some of the challenges faced around activity to support the employment needs of young people. The council is also considering individual and collective benefits as part of their overall evaluation.
Lessons learned from the process
The monitoring and evaluation process implemented by Warwickshire County Council, based on the grant funding agreement with Government, has followed European Structural Fund standards. This has, however, meant that the overall cost of project management is likely to exceed the 2 per cent available for management & administration at a cost to the council. Ideally in future programmes such as UKSPF, this could be a consideration built in by the funder.
Aside from the labour market shifting from the time of planning the projects to the time of delivery, another challenge has been that two of the successful projects target the same group of 16 to 25-year-old people not in employment, education, or training (NEETs). This has meant more work has been required to ensure each project has a distinct pipeline of clients. An unanticipated benefit of the CRF funding, however, has been the developing of partnerships between agencies in support of unemployed people. This has led to testing different ways of working with people who have deep rooted employment and skills challenges.
- The council’s strategic role, and bringing together of partners, ensured that the portfolio of projects met local need and demand, although there were other suitable projects which were not selected through the government’s selection process.
- The three successfully awarded projects in Warwickshire focus on supporting people into employment and share broad similarities meaning there are some delivery challenges to overcome. This is a particular issue given the strength of Warwickshire’s labour market at the moment and that the high levels of unemployment expected when the CRF projects were developed (particularly among young people) have not materialised.
- The council’s ability to convene both bidding partnerships, and groups of officers from the different tiers of local government and other partners to participate in the assessment process, demonstrates its strategic leadership role.
- Warwickshire County Council recognises the need for, and benefits of, the CRF funding but would like to see more consistent communication and a steady stream of advice to assist in the development of their own processes and procedures.