North Somerset Council, in partnership with local organisations, has received more than £2.8m of government funding under the Community Renewal Fund (CRF) to support local communities in need. This sum is divided between their four successful projects:
- Enabling Thriving Places
- North Somerset Community Hubs
- North Somerset Works Together
- Accelerate – Supporting Business
These four projects were funded from an overall pool of eight applications of which the council put forward six to the government. The team managed the bidding process internally with contributions from a wider network of other public and non-public partners such as West of England Combined Authority (WECA), the Federation of Small Business (FSB), a housing association (Alliance Housing), and other parts of the council. There was a strong focus on outreach to ensure partners were aware of the opportunity.
Bidding under the Community Renewal Fund
At the launch of the fund, the council worked closely with Weston College to hold a webinar, engaging with a wide range of organisations including several already engaged partners and some new organisations including Culture Weston, Voluntary Action North Somerset, the Stable, and the Food and Drink Forum. During the webinar the council presented their own local priorities overlayed with the government’s set priorities. The council found the initial guidance clear and also modified the handbook by applying this guidance to their local situation.
As North Somerset was not identified as a priority area, it did not have additional capacity funding with which to hire external consultants to support capacity needs. Despite not having an allocated budget and limited time to develop bids, the council was extremely motivated to encourage a healthy list of applications.
The council also submitted their own bids through the process with a separation of roles across bidding and assessing. Their own bids focused on innovative aspects of delivery and aimed to address gaps in existing provision through a collaborative multi-partnership delivery approach. A key consideration in preparing a bid was the ability to convene grassroot organisations to collaborate to offer a more multi-layered approach however, the timeframes did not allow this approach.
In hindsight, a more consultative process would have created more effective relationships with bidders. The CRF process provided a useful learning opportunity for future funding opportunities going forward. The main process was led by an officer team that had experience with other funding schemes. The process provided important learning internally and emphasised the need for transparency in the form of an assessment panel. This panel was made up of representatives with backgrounds in employment, business, and skills. It also required knowledge of the green agenda as many bids coming forward had a focus on green jobs and skills. Acquiring these different views and inputs to the assessment stage was invaluable to ensure robust assessment and objectivity.
Lessons learned from the process
The Community Renewal Fund has provided various lessons for the council regarding the process. North Somerset Council welcomed the fact that the CRF permitted a certain percentage of the projects budget to be spent across management fees and evaluation costs. This is seen as a positive step in recognising the true costs of delivering short-term projects.
One thing that could be improved is the clarity surrounding the outcomes guidance as many of the specified outputs were somewhat unrealistic for such short-term projects such as businesses created. Such specific outcomes may distract from the key message of community renewal and unintentionally encourage projects to alter objectives to fit the tight criteria instead of having a bottom-up approach. Some of the positive outreach activities being carried out by delivery partners do not directly exactly match the outcomes listed by the government surrounding life skills. They are supporting the development of soft skills to equip individuals with the expertise required for further training and longer-term employment. However, there is a specific emphasis on supporting economically inactive people or people who have been unemployed for over 18 months.
An important lesson to take from the process is one of feedback. While the council was able to give feedback to applicants which did not pass the local assessment process, others did not receive feedback from government on the final selection. Where possible, the council has worked with unsuccessful applicants to identify future opportunities.
Delivering under the Community Renewal Fund
North Somerset Council used their prior experience of establishing and managing contract through other funding sources to deliver a quick set-up process for CRF. The team demonstrated added value through the process by fulfilling a translation role, using this experience to ensure an appropriate audit trail. This involved checking back on the information provided to give robust responses to queries and giving confidence to projects about how to demonstrate outcomes.
To date, the council has been impressed by the flexibility of partners in delivering their projects, particularly as COVID-19 continues to present challenges in delivering face to face courses. The council and partners have used their judgement to ensure that where online provision can take place, this is prioritised to enable future outcomes to be delivered.
Lessons learned from the process
The team at North Somerset Council would have appreciated more time between signing the funding agreements and beginning to report outcomes as the set-up phase takes time to embed. This is a particular challenge of short-term projects; however, it does also provide a focus for delivering outcomes.
Partnership working has also been positive across the council and delivery partners. This could be strengthened in the future by designing future programmes with some capacity to convene and learn from each other over a longer period of time. This would also help to capture the cross fertilisation of ideas and best practice.
Some of the challenges include receiving the monitoring information at a late stage in the process and trying to establish a common customer relationship management system (CRM). On the former, additional work has been created for projects in relation to breakdowns of support categories by investment priority and the completion of interim monitoring form. In relation to the ambition to have a single CRM system, this hasn’t been possible due to data sharing protocols. As a result, the council is anticipating the need to conduct a de-duplication process towards the end of the project.
- North Somerset reflected on the community renewal focus of the programme but was not able to build capacity and facilitate community-based projects as there was insufficient time and resource. The timeframe did not enable the development of new relationships to deliver innovative projects.
- Overall, it is considered that some projects would be more successful if they were delivered against a longer timescale of around 2-3 years. This would have a more sustainable impact for example across deprived communities and young entrepreneurs. Looking forward to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), the council hopes that there will be a longer lead in time which would enable smaller community groups familiar with grassroots work and their local community needs to participate in the process.
- The application process could have benefitted from a tighter, more focused set of questions which would allow for easier assessment and more consistent quality. This would help multi-partner projects to explain the benefits and outcomes.
- One overarching concern is the way the government assesses areas of deprivation. There are pockets of high deprivation such as Weston-Super-Mare and some rural areas within their county which are often masked in the statistics. Identifying deprivation at a hyper-local level would better illustrate disparities.
- Despite the delayed start, the process seems to have worked well for North Somerset. Much of this is due to the team being led by an officer with strong programme management and comparable experience.
- The ability to build capacity of delivery partner organisations has not been made possible to the extent of previous EU programmes. Short timeframes for delivery create a more competitive dimension where client groups overlap.
- Online reporting has enabled a quick and more efficient process as projects can automatically complete audit requirements.