Suffolk County Council was awarded funding for two CRF projects, both led by New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (NALEP), which included:
- ‘Enabling Self-Employment in Suffolk’
- ‘The Suffolk Road to Net Zero Business Support Programme’
As none of the government’s 100 priority places were in Suffolk, an initial dilemma ensued as to whether to dedicate resource and effort into submitting bids which would compete with the rest of the country. After internal discussions, the decision was taken, and the External Funding team was charged with leading the process. 10 applications were put forward by organisations to Suffolk County Council, and the council also submitted two themselves, so 12 applications were made in total. One of the applications didn’t pass the gateway review, so 11 were submitted to government, two of which were successful. The funding received for the portfolio of two projects by Suffolk County Council amounted to £945,974.
Bidding under the Community Renewal Fund
The application process was led by the External Funding team and drew on team members’ experience as well as their pre-existing relationships with partners and organisations across the county. The team, with the assistance of members of the Council’s senior management team, delivered a proactive and targeted approach, reaching out to external partners whom they believed may be potentially suited to the requirements of the CRF criteria and able to deliver their projects within the timeframe. They approached such partners through different channels of communication, giving an overview of the fund and gateway criteria. The funding was also advertised on the Council’s website. The council ran a two-staged process which included an eligibility check against criteria, then the External Funding team assessed the applications in closer detail according to the government guidance. At this stage any changes or additions to the application were requested. Projects were then appraised by the External Funding team and other members of the Council’s senior management team using a process based on the programme's objectives, scoring each project.
Suffolk County Council also arranged an internal decision-making panel to further review the applications. This internal panel brought together a number of senior individuals from different departments within the council, including the chief executive and deputy chief executive, director of highways and infrastructure, head of skills, head of economic development, head of policy, head of communities, and others from across public health, highways and infrastructure, and children and young people teams. The ability to convene this group at short notice demonstrates the value added by local government. This group is still active, with a recent meeting to draw on lessons from the CRF and what this may mean for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF).
A large proportion of the bids were county wide covering multiple districts rather than being place focused, as Suffolk was not a CRF priority place as listed by government. This also meant there were not a high number of applications but nonetheless the applications submitted met local need well. The two successful applications are from the same organisation, NALEP, who also have successful projects over the administrative border in Norfolk. The cross-boundary consequence of this is that the two county councils will have four contracts with the same organisation for two projects.
The bid submitted by Suffolk County Council themselves was a proposal to deliver and meet the combined outcomes of their shortlisted projects. This decision was taken in order to try and ease the project management burden going forward. However, it was not successful, and the council is now managing two separate projects.
Lessons learned from the process
The CRF process provided various lessons for Suffolk County Council regarding the bidding process and project assessment. The application procedure produced important learning internally for Suffolk County Council on decision making in both what to shortlist and what to submit, as well as encouraging the council to be proactive and strategic in prioritising projects that aim to meet local need. After having taken part in the CRF process, Suffolk is proposing to create an investment framework in preparation for future funding. This will identify local priorities, outcomes, a pipeline of current projects which prioritises place-based projects.
Furthermore, the CRF process led Suffolk to put together an internal panel set up specifically for assessment of CRF bids, but also to discuss UKSPF. Depending on future funding opportunities, this panel may continue to meet to discuss opportunities.
The CRF process has also caused Suffolk County Council to consider how their own areas of high deprivation can benefit from funding in the future. This is in reference to the parallel experience in Norfolk which had several priority places with similar socio-economic demographics.
Delivering under the Community Renewal Fund
Suffolk County Council worked closely with Norfolk County Council on monitoring arrangements and contractual matters given the two councils shared a delivery partner. This encouraged close collaboration through joint monitoring meetings, shared monitoring forms, and shared learning which encouraged close collaboration. As a result, the projects have benefitted and learnt from the joint management process as they have undergone extra focus from both Councils reviewing their information.
At the time of writing, Suffolk County Council’s portfolio of projects has had a range of successes. Their self-employment project has yet to reach peak levels of recruitment and the “Road to Net Zero” project has had to limit the number of businesses getting involved as it was so popular. This is in part due to pre-existing activity in the county with businesses on the net zero agenda and the delay permitted BEIS training to Growth Hub advisors before the project started.
Lessons learned from the process
Initially, Suffolk County Council found the monitoring and contract guidance difficult to interpret, yet the DLUHC manager was responsive on clarifying this issue. The contract manager was contacted with several issues and a dialogue ensured those issues were resolved swiftly.
Suffolk also contacted the Chief Economic Development Officers Society and other county councils to share thoughts and collate questions for future engagement with the DLUHC contract manager. However, Suffolk feels it would have benefitted from longer lead-in timescales and less delay, to allow more time to review and consider what was required ahead of time, as well as ensuring that projects’ supply chains fully understood contract terms.
Delays along the way also meant that more resource was used than necessary. For instance, Suffolk created monitoring forms for the delivery partners, but these had to be amended when DLUHC produced new monitoring forms which requested slightly different information.
- One of the key reflections made by Suffolk County Council relates to cross-border working and sub-regional working, as both successful projects awarded and led by NALEP were submitted to both Suffolk and Norfolk. The bidding process did not permit lead authorities working together in a flexible way to run cross-border projects. This meant that four bids were submitted for two projects, appraised and contracted separately by both councils, and each with a different approach from the councils. This also means NALEP are having to feedback information on the projects in two separate formats to each council, and the councils are having to each do extra work to administer the projects. As a result, the projects had to be divided up and attempts have been made to work with Norfolk council on this, but it has been difficult in terms of timing and capacity as contracts are at different stages. Upon reflection, this CRF process issue risks duplication of project and delays with project implementation, and ultimately doesn’t promote cross-border working.
- The council would consider including external partners to their investment panel for future opportunities to ensure engagement with businesses and the community.
- Balancing resource effectively within the team to deliver bids within the timeframes. In this instance, the CRF process has provided a useful opportunity as a test case for the council to learn from for the UKSPF and other funding going forward. There remains a concern around what to do to bridge the funding gap to ensure skill development programmes can still be delivered.
- The experience that Suffolk County Council’s external funding team and the LEP had in dealing with previous EU funding applications and MHCLG grants benefitted the process in terms of interpreting the contracts, managing and ensuring quality audits.
- Suffolk County Council found the CRF process to be more agile and fluid in terms of project delivery compared to EU funded programmes. Minor changes were passed quickly and did not require the level of paperwork that was required previously under EU funded programmes.
- Suffolk County Council believes it was beneficial for the CRF process to move away from the EU process in terms of monitoring, as the tight EU regulations would have put projects at greater risk, whereas the CRF process has allowed for a proactive route to solving issues.