Looking to the future as the UK funding landscape moves on from EU funds.
The term ‘levelling up’ has featured heavily in reference to the EU replacement funds. First used by Boris Johnson in his initial address, it was later included in the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto and again in the Queen’s speech earlier this year.
What does ‘levelling up’ mean?
Although UK Government has continued to be vague on defining what it means by Levelling Up, we hope a White paper due in autumn will give us more clarity. We interpret Levelling Up as relating to areas characterised by broad economic underperformance. Health and wellbeing in these areas is usually relatively poor and, in some cases, this could be a legacy of deindustrialisation or long-term unemployment and socio-economic issues.
Plan for Growth
In March the Treasury published its Plan for Growth. It contains a number of areas through which the Government intends to deliver its levelling up agenda – including the regeneration of struggling communities through the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Community Renewal Fund, the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Ownership Fund.
UK Government has consulted very little on the replacement funds. WCVA, along with other representatives from across the voluntary sector, has been included in various discussions with multiple UK Government departments (including the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Work and Pensions) – although requests for us and others to attend engagement sessions, submit feedback and evidence has increased in recent months, as launch deadlines have loomed (and sometimes passed).
From an outsider’s perspective, co-ordination between departments has seemed variable, with different UK departments leading on different areas within the funds – each with their own priorities, agendas and motivation to engage.
The transition from EU to UK centralised funding has also exposed a pressing need for the voluntary sector in Wales and UK Government to strengthen its relationship. Over the last 20 years, many of our points of influence have centred around Welsh Government and the EU Commission. Through the Partnership Principle, the voluntary sector has been an active, equal partner in the design, delivery and management of the European Structural Funds in Wales. The financial assistance powers within the UK Internal Market Bill will have a significant impact on the sector and, in many ways, it has transported us back to pre-devolution days – meaning, as a sector, we need to rebuild and refocus our engagement and influencing to ensure our voices are heard.
UK Government recently formed a Cities and Local Growth Unit in Wales to support the delivery of the replacement programmes. It’s a joint unit between the MHCLG and the DBEIS and we hope this will, to some degree, repair the disconnect and aide the sector’s relationship with UK Government. We invited the Unit’s Deputy Director to speak at a recent event on the levelling up agenda. He spoke positively about the sector and its place within the programmes.
We also recognise the need to work differently within our sector, that’s more inclusive of the other devolved administrations. We’re working closely with our sister councils to better engage and influence UK Government and to ensure the devolved perspective is understood.
The replacement funds
Some of our concerns have been realised across the launched funds – short application and delivery timescales, little guidance and engagement, disappointing disregard for volunteer time as a match funding contribution and a preference for larger scale initiatives. But there is still time and scope to influence, and we hope that future funding rounds and programmes will be much more accessible.
The voluntary sector replacement funding group
To support this influencing, WCVA has formed a replacement funding group. Over 100 people signed up to attend the first meeting – illustrating the interest and importance attached to these funds in Wales. Through this network, we want to form a unified, Welsh voluntary sector voice. The sector is a diverse mix of organisations, operating in multiple fields, but there are a number of key principles the majority want reflected in any future fund, including:
- the Partnership Principle
- multi-annual funding cycles
- support for the voluntary sector to ensure equitable access through the use of technical assistance and intermediaries
- flexible payment models
- equitable, proportional and consistent rules
- significant devolved and voluntary sector involvement in the preparation, management and implementation of the funds
- a reduction in match funding requirements for the voluntary sector, with volunteer time an eligible contribution
These principles will form the basis of a statement we intend to send, with our sister councils, to relevant Ministerial departments within UK Government with responsibility for reviewing successive rounds of the launched replacement funds and the Shared Prosperity Fund.
To receive information about this group and updates about the replacement funds, please sign up to the WCVA newsletter here.