The Local Government Association commissioned Shared Intelligence to deliver a series of case studies drawing on lessons learnt from the Community Renewal Fund (CRF). These case studies were developed through a set of two interviews with responsible officers across lead authorities and project delivery partners in councils and other sectors. The case study interviews were conducted in such a way as to extract the lessons learnt from the experience of the fund, focusing on the benefits of the fund and the challenges that were overcome.
The first set of interviews explored the lessons learnt throughout the bidding and allocation process, from the launch of the fund, the development of a shortlist of projects at a local level and to the publication of government’s awards. The second set of interviews explored the experience of lead authorities moving from award into contract and delivery stage, up to the point of submitting their mid-project reviews.
Although the fund is still active and projects are still being delivered at the point of this report being published, lessons have been extracted to support wider recovery and growth funding. This report draws together emerging themes and lessons for future funding opportunities including the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) and Levelling Up Fund Round 2.
The rest of the report covers:
- the wider context in which the Community Renewal Fund sits
- lessons from councils and their partners from fund announcement to award
- lessons from councils and their partners from contract to (mid-project) completion
- a summary of the core messages for future funding opportunities.
There is also a full set of case studies from the following partners:
- Blackpool Council
- Devon County Council
- Greater London Authority / Launch It: Youth Enterprise Hub
- Greater Manchester Combined Authority
- Leicester City Council
- Norfolk County Council
- North Somerset Council
- Portsmouth City Council
- Suffolk County Council
- Warwickshire County Council
- Wyre Forest District Council
The Community Renewal Fund was launched in May 2021 as a new programme from which to explore innovative delivery of programmes in advance of the launch of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement for European funding. The fund was open to public, private and third sector organisations across three core themes. The fund itself targeted outcomes including “building skills, supporting local businesses, supporting communities and places or providing employment support – to build communities where people want to live, work and visit” (UK Community Renewal Fund: prospectus 2021-22 - GOV.UK).
CRF across the country is now delivering approximately £125m of funding towards helping places deliver local outcomes. Primarily a revenue fund (90 per cent revenue, 10 per cent capital), it seeks to level up the opportunities for individuals, communities, and businesses. The fund offers an opportunity to explore projects which would support economic recovery post-pandemic and support the overall aims of the levelling up agenda.
Combined authorities, county and unitary councils were given lead authority status which involved being responsible for developing a shortlist of potential projects and managing the portfolio of ultimately successful projects. These councils, along with district councils and other organisations, were also able to bid for project funding through this competitive process.
On 3 November 2021, 225 successful projects were announced in England across 52 councils, worth £125m. The successful projects range significantly in size from a £13k project through Blackpool Council to a £2.5m project through Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Each of the cases studies in this report identifies the types of projects that were funded, demonstrating the imagination of partners. This includes a range of projects with, for example, a focus on green skills development across the manufacturing sector in Liverpool City Region, work to support agri-tech in Devon, and a project focusing on equality, diversity, and inclusion in Leicester.
This work has been conducted at a pivotal point in time; the economy is beginning to recover from the pandemic, government has released its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper and new challenges and priorities are emerging for each council in the country. The impending economic consequence of the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis is also set to disrupt our economy going forward. CRF provided an opportunity for councils to address some of their own local issues and promote working collaboratively to deliver outcomes for their local communities.
The opportunity ahead with the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is one of a three-year programme, based on an allocation of non-competitive funding. This time round, combined authorities, unitary and district councils will take responsibility for developing an “investment plan” to set out where local priorities lie and how any locality funding could be spent. This will not however include projects to further advance the needs of local communities from a skills perspective, with this funding at the current time only being available from year three of the fund (2024). This is expected to impact communities and businesses at a time when skills mismatches are at a peak in the economy as the funding gap between legacy employment and skills elements of EU funds complete in 2023 but the UKSPF equivalent is not due to start until April 2024.
However, the learning from this report should still be relevant and valid for experiences irrespective of type of council or type of fund as should recent work from the Local Government Association on:
- A vision for urban growth and recovery (2021)
- Devolution deal to delivery (2021)
- Build back local: Building back better (2021 annual conference paper)
Lessons from CRF Announcement to Award
The Community Renewal Fund created a significant opportunity as well as challenges for councils and their partners up and down the country. Through the development of the case studies identified above, there were lessons learnt at each stage of the process. This section focuses on the point at which government launched the guidance and opened the fund (May 2021) with a submission date for assessed portfolios not long after (18 June 2021).
All our interviewees have identified significant benefits from the process. Most of them reflected on the positives of a lighter touch application process when compared to other funding streams including its European counterpart through European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Officers in lead councils acted as translators of the guidance into a local context using this experience. They were also able to propose creative solutions without restrictions of prescriptive outcome targets. This, combined for the most part, with the good relationships between the different parts of local government – county and district councils, combined authorities and constituent councils – enabled the development of a strong England-wide portfolio of projects. These relationships are built over a long period of time and require constant attention.
The programme has not however, been without challenges. Developing a local portfolio or fundable projects caused some significant resource implications for small teams, teams without access to commissioning budgets and teams which received large numbers of projects (76 in the case of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and 75 in the case of Devon County Council). The speed with which partners prepared project bids and councils assessed them compromised an element of quality and ability to situate within the challenges to each locality. However, on balance, our interviewees consider that the final set of projects constitute a good range of innovative pilots.
Throughout the case studies, a set of core themes has emerged across the lessons. These themes have direct transferability to the development of other funding proposals, irrespective of the different tiers of local government able to access them.
From our analysis of the case studies, we have identified four themes we have concluded capture lessons for the development and delivery of future funding streams across local government. Those themes, which we explore in the following paragraphs are: governance, strategy, process and relationships.
Councils demonstrated their leadership role in bringing together processes and governance mechanisms along with technical expertise in assessment, legal, financial and project management. They also published as much information as they could develop in the timeframes possible to ensure clarity of process as well as transparency. This also extended to establishing ethical walls in situations where lead authorities also wished to bid for projects to ensure there was no bias or advantage given while the same authority assessed those bids. While these challenges were met by local government, the ultimate decision on which projects received funding was a centralised decision creating an extra, and many have said duplicate, element of governance.
Soon after the launch of the fund, managing authorities began to position the governance required to submit a portfolio of local projects. In many examples, councils were able to draw on pre-existing groups and boards: in Blackpool and Norfolk, for example, the Towns Deal Board were used. Others were able to quickly establish a form of governance which would separate out bid writers and bid assessors as well as involving district, LEP and wider business and education stakeholders.
In Suffolk, the county council established an internal decision-making panel with senior officers. The ability to convene this group at short notice demonstrates the ability of local government to drive decisions whilst maintaining accountability. This panel included the chief executive and deputy chief executive, head of skills, head of economic development, head of policy, public health, highways and infrastructure, and children and young people teams. Even after the bids were submitted, this group has continued to meet in order to capture lessons from the process and inform future opportunities.
In North Somerset, which also lacked pre-existing decision-making structure for this type of funding, the council established an assessment panel to ensure transparency. This panel comprised representatives with backgrounds in employment, business and skills as well as cross cutting knowledge of greening the economy. By bringing these skills and knowledge together, the council was able to deliver a robust and objective assessment of the overall portfolio.
Where possible, councils used existing local strategies to direct project applicants towards the types of outcomes they wished to see funded to support local places and people. This complemented government criteria which allowed flexibility with an indication of outputs and outcomes.
In the example of Portsmouth City Council, the council used its Economic Development and Regeneration Strategy as the basis from which to identify need, focusing on “twin problems of low employment growth and slowing GVA per capita growth”. Where applicants did not link projects under CRF with local priorities, their projects were less likely to be successful. The council does, however, continue to work with those partners to identify future opportunities.
One of the challenges faced by councils and their partners was the ability to streamline activity and funding to reduce the level of fragmentation across projects. In the case of Wyre Forest District Council, (an applicant council not a lead authority) the council considered how the fund could support their pipeline of existing activity to deliver more local outcomes and transformation on the ground. The council aimed to focus their CRF funding with the creative hub in Kidderminster to make a greater impact and explore the potential to locate their flagship BetaDen there. Their Bootcamp project now serves as a pipeline of support to local companies using digital technologies to advance the decarbonisation agenda. While the choreography of project timing hasn’t enabled this, they believe there is an opportunity to develop greater synergy between each individual initiative, so organisations are better supported to deliver a legacy within communities.
Blackpool Council attributed their varied portfolio of projects to clear strategic documents and strong pre-existing relationships with local partners. The projects coming forward ranged from a feasibility study for the role of digital museums in culture-led regeneration, to a pilot for place-based innovation catalysts and a youth hub. The council continues to work with bidders to ensure that prior planning work can be used for pipeline development for future opportunities such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
Many of the lead authorities had existing and detailed experience of managing European Union Structural Investment Funds (ESIF) such as European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). This experience enabled them to design effective processes and tools to assess the bids in the first instance (and subsequently manage them).
At the beginning of the process, the Liverpool City Region held internal meetings to share the assessment framework with all colleagues involved as well as give credibility and confidence to partner organisations. With this experience, the combined authority brought together an unbiased, coherent package of projects and offer insight in regard to other potential funding opportunities.
In the case of the Greater Manchester, the combined authority used its significant experience of delivering programmes and bidding processes to streamline the overall process. With the use of an online procurement portal – The Chest – the combined authority used the tools available to assist bidders, store frequently asked questions and simplifying the bidding process.
Warwickshire County Council also developed a strong process for working with applications to ensure a solid pipeline of projects. The development of a “pre-engagement” stage resulted in around 40 per cent of applications not progressing to full bid stage. This reduced the number of overall assessments required at the shortlisting stage as these projects were not considered to meet the funding criteria well. The county council also used a team of assessors from across the council as well as partners in a multi-staged process, iteratively assessing, improving and moderating bids to produce a final shortlist of seven projects. Three of their projects were successful.
Our interviewees referred to and emphasised the importance of the way in which they constantly communicated with partners, talking to them on the phone, engaging openly and transparently about the process and translating government guidance to a local context. This contact was highly valued throughout by both sides and enabled councils to inform bidders of delays and other opportunities arising.
The involvement of district councils in the process also contributed to the quality of the submitted projects. Councils frequently called on local business representative organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Chambers of Commerce as well as the voluntary and community sector. In the case of Devon County Council, the council worked closely with such organisations to promote the scheme, encourage applications, understand local priorities and match projects to existing activity. The “Team Devon” approach enabled the county council to work closely with district councils to understand the local context and priorities for funding. This in turn enabled the development of a stronger portfolio of projects from digital to green skills programmes.
In Leicester, the City Council worked closely with the Local Enterprise Partnership Skills Partnership, community organisations, the Chamber of Commerce and local universities to ensure dissemination of opportunities through the CRF. The council delivered virtual workshops (and uploaded them for those unable to attend), worked with local partners and encouraged bids from existing and new partners. This resulted in bids from organisations new to the council as well as significant partnership activity. In one case, a successful project which came forward was a collaboration between 10 different partners working together for the first time.
The CRF did not provide the flexibility needed for projects to be delivered at different levels. For example, Norfolk County Council and Suffolk County Council had partners who applied to both lead authorities to deliver similar projects. In the case of Norfolk, the county council had four priority places (including Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, North Norfolk and Norwich) which gave greater weighting to those bids. The councils worked closely together to share and compare information, but the timescales did not align well as Norfolk was in the midst of local elections so had to delay their promotional launches. The cross-boundary consequence of this was two county councils working separately with one partner across four contracts. The overall CRF process did not enable the flexibility needed to deliver both at the micro local to the regional levels through enabling cross boundary cooperation and restricted projects to administrative boundaries which businesses and community boundaries.
Lessons from Contract to Delivery
The delivery experience and lessons learnt from lead authorities and their delivery partners were remarkably aligned across the case study areas. Prior experience of ESIF programmes has helped to overcome the short-term challenges of delivery, monitoring, and evaluation.
Another point raised by a large number of case study areas was around the need to standardise processes and procedures. Given the short timeframe for delivery, a more streamlined process would have been welcomed as each area having to create its own process caused a lot of extra work and resource time for managing teams.
Many councils have set up regular meetings with project delivery partners to share experience and work through project challenges. This has taken the form of webinars, weekly meetings and in Leicester’s case, an awayday to extract lessons learnt for the future. This leadership shown by councils is beginning to encourage best practice for future funding.
There has also been positive engagement with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which has been interested in the initial outcomes of projects.
Leicester City Council’s approach which is working particularly well draws on their strength of convening and coordinating partners. Through the processes that they have established including combined project meetings and peer to peer learning sessions, the team and project visits to confirm delivery is running efficiently and targets are being met. This has enabled the council to capture key lessons and overcome challenges owing to short delivery timescales. These meetings have provided Leicester City Council with an opportunity to continue to capture learning internally, whilst sharing best practice. To encourage further collaboration, an awayday is being organised with representatives from all of the projects where they can identify commonalities, discuss outcomes and the evaluation. Leicester City Council also participates in a regional group with other local authorities which has been established by the councils involved. This group shares examples of best practice and clarifications received to individual questions from DHLUC.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s approach to monitoring and project delivery has also benefited from coordinating and combining project partners together. Four of the projects being delivered under the GMCA are being delivered specifically within the Manchester area, so the GMCA decided to host group sessions for those projects to link their partners together and encourage shared working and learning. These sessions have involved members of policy staff from the council to help with delivery and to help with monitoring. The group sessions have been well received by the partners and helped to strengthen the relationship between them and the council.
In the case of Warwickshire County Council, their three projects focused on youth employment to address high levels of unemployment resulting from the pandemic. The portfolio of projects submitted to government also included a range of target beneficiaries but the successful shortlist back from government focused all three projects on youth. This reflects the role central government played in reviewing the value of individual projects rather than how portfolios fit within local place-making priorities. This caused some delivery challenges as delivery partners then found themselves competing in a smaller pool. The delay in project announcements also meant the local economy was in a different position and did not provide the flexibility needed to pivot resources to need. The issues the council was addressing 8-months later related to deep unemployment as opposed to short-term unemployment which the project was initially aiming to challenge. A lack of flexibility in delivering an overall basket of outcomes has caused more work. An unanticipated benefit of the CRF funding, however, has been the developing partnerships between agencies in support of young people. This has led to testing different ways of working with young people who have deep rooted employment and skills challenges.
This was similar in the case of Blackpool Council. Indicative of the impact that delays can have, when they submitted their bid, youth unemployment figures were double the current numbers. At around 2,000 18-24-year-olds claiming Universal Credits at the time of writing the bid compared to 1,000 now, the pool of potential beneficiaries has much reduced. The project initially expected referrals to come from DWP but COVID-19 has meant less direct interaction between claimants and DWP, so the team have had to look at other referral opportunities. The council is working closely with providers to ensure that the support offer is relevant for the types of challenges faced with a smaller, and more complex group.
Wyre Forest District Council has started to think about outcomes for future funding opportunities which meet their local place priorities. Ideally, the council would have flexibility across a range of funding including Levelling Up funds, Future High Street funds, Towns Fund and UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This would support working on a larger geographical footing across the three Worcestershire authorities linking projects such as the digital manufacturing and innovation centre. Most of these projects require capital funding but will need a revenue stream to deliver successfully.
At the second interview, Norfolk County Council advised that most of their projects had gone into delivery without issues or challenges and having overcome initial delays in the announcement of the successful CRF projects by government. However, in some cases, projects missed key milestone dates such as optimal apprenticeship recruitment points in the year (September). This is expected to impact the overall outcomes delivered. In another project, the delivery partner lost the retail unit they wished to deliver the project from as the delay to getting a centralised decision meant they lost to opportunity.
Devon County Council reflected that projects that are related to business support and people-centred skills projects have been more straightforward to deliver due to prior experience with ESF and ERDF. This has included aligning skills-related projects including youth support to deliver greater outcomes. Match funding is coming from local funds and VCS projects are using local authority COVID-19 recovery funding to lever in additional resource. However, it has not been possible to align more opportunities with national funds due to the pace of delivery which is a key consideration for future projects.
North Somerset Council has been impressed by the flexibility of partners in delivering their projects, particularly as COVID-19 continues to dampen enthusiasm for face-to-face activity. The council and partners have used their judgement to ensure that where online provision can take place and maintained collective flexibility to ensure the delivery of outcomes. Partnership working could be further strengthened 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.
Overall, Suffolk County Council found the CRF process to be more agile and fluid by comparison to EU funded programmes. During the contract management process, the council worked closely with Norfolk County Council as well as the Chief Economic Development Officers Society (CEDOS) to share experiences on monitoring arrangements and contractual matters. As there was a common funded partner across Suffolk and Norfolk, the team established close collaboration vis the development of joint monitoring meetings, shared monitoring forms, and shared learning which demonstrated the shift from lead authority role to a collaborative and encouraging one. Projects have benefitted and learnt more due to the extra scrutiny of both councils understanding information.
Leicester City Council’s approach involves convening regular project meetings with funded projects. These meetings have been useful to successfully manage on such short projects, capture learning internally and share best practice. The council took a strong lead in ensuring the success of projects by creating their own output and outcome forms, payment forms and conducting regular project visits. They are also planning an awayday to support the overall evaluation process. This adds a collaborative style to their portfolio and ensures smooth and efficient delivery of outcomes. The city council has also been working to build on other programmes such as Leicester Textiles Renewal project, also funded by the city council and the Textile Academy.
Conclusions and future recommendations
The Community Renewal Fund was launched last year to generate a set of pilot projects and test the new and innovative ways to deliver outcomes. The CRF application process was considered less onerous than its EU predecessor and many lead authorities already had suitable decision-making governance in place. Its ambitions also addressed many of the built-up demands for revenue funding, limited opportunities to deliver business support and supported COVID-19 economic recovery ambitions. Prior relationships, prior planning and clarity of strategic documents, all played a key part in the development of projects for funding opportunities.
The fund did not however come without some significant challenges. Time and capacity to prepare, promote, assess, and work with partners to strengthen project bids was limited and a lack of consistency in approach made the early stages difficult.
Different approaches are being taken across projects and lead authorities in terms of project management as a result of delays and inconsistencies of information. Some councils are sampling evidence, while others have implemented a more structured “EU-style” approach to monitoring, reviewing and auditing information from projects. This could be resolved in future programmes by sharing copies of funding agreements, guidance and monitoring forms in advance of launching funding. This would allow councils to develop an early understanding of audit requirements. This should also include the use of clear definitions and a framework or listed instructions for the data collection needed for monitoring, leaving as little as possible up for interpretation. It would also be more beneficial for lead authorities to receive the information in advance of projects so they can digest and consider what it means for their local portfolio of projects. This is a clear consideration for UKSPF in reducing risk and promoting consistency.
Each area interviewed as part of this project had individual challenges relating to place. The CRF programme on the face of it allowed flexibility in delivering outcomes at the beginning of the process but an overly prescriptive monitoring and evaluation process negated any earlier flexibilities. Councils and combined authorities attempted to use the CRF as a way to try and streamline activity across projects, to ensure that the existing projects achieve more local outcomes, but this was hampered by delays in project timing. Key learning is that project timing is crucial for streamlining activity.
We have heard that in Warwickshire that the government agreed portfolio of projects all fell within the same beneficiary group despite their overall submission demonstrating a broader set of outcomes. This has meant that other local priorities are not being funded. We also heard that Leicester City Council kept their portfolio submission to the guidance limit of £3m despite a healthy pipeline and other areas receiving far in excess of that figure. This has also meant that good projects were not put forward beyond that upper funding limit.
The delays to the programme caused some practical challenges to the project delivery. In many cases, portfolios of projects were built on data available across a programme of outcomes. What was finally approved by government did not however match this carefully balanced portfolio and delays caused a shift in need. This can be illustrated best in the case of Blackpool, where there were 2,000 young people aged 18-24 years old on Universal Credits at the time of submitting their bids but by the time the successful projects had been announced, this figure had reduced by half. Blackpool Council has been selected within the Levelling Up White Paper as an employment and skills pathfinder. While there is limited detail about the pathfinder programme, if it were to allow flexibilities, Blackpool may have the opportunity to address strategic and operational challenges through one process. It may also be an opportunity to achieve policy coordination and better overall place outcomes.
The future funding opportunities ahead are in a position to learn from the experiences gained by councils through the Community Renewal Fund. Despite county councils having a different role in delivering 3-year investment plans, the learning from the CRF process will be valuable for all. Strong local collaboration and planning up to the submission deadline of 1 August will be essential to ensure the funded outcomes are achieved successfully.
In relation to future growth funding, there are several recommendations that have emerged from the development of the case studies. For years, local government has been continually competing for funding through different funds and processes. In many cases, this drives innovation and encourages collaboration with partners but in all cases, it involves investing time and resource which not all councils have in equal measure.
This list of key recommendations seeks to encourage a consistent way of delivering future growth funding. It draws on the experience of the Community Renewal Fund process and highlights where action can be taken to streamline the process.
- It is clear that local government knows its local priorities and ambitions. This is demonstrated through their development and delivery of strategic plans, local policies, and place visions. This should give confidence that non-competitive funding processes, which cause a waste of time, financial and human resource, are not necessary. Where local government does not have visions or strategies in place, support those places by exception.
- In an effort to achieve consistency, a centralised process can inadvertently take away local government’s ability to deliver against local priorities. Through CRF, we saw councils submitting a balanced portfolio of outcomes based on local need. In many cases, after central government’s own assessment process, many places found funded portfolios focused on one priority only (i.e., young people). Trust localities to get it right with as little bureaucracy through the process from the centre as possible.
- Flexibility in budgets should be built into future programmes. The costs incurred in managing the application process were not built in (to non-100 priority places) which in many cases caused capacity or budgetary issues. From a delivery perspective, costs to manage the projects has also not been fully covered and in some cases have far exceeded costs permitted due to the complexity of projects. This recommendation is to allow greater flexibility so local government can focus more on delivering core outcomes.
- Geographical borders based on administrative boundaries should be dealt with in a pragmatic way to better serve local need. There needs to be a greater recognition of the need for flexible geographies reflecting the local economy and relationships.
- Relationships don’t happen overnight. Decisions made out of the control of councils make relationships harder to manage. This was evident through the CRF assessment process where unsuccessful organisations did not receive feedback despite being recommended locally.
With the information available to date, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund demonstrates many of these recommendations. An allocation of funding instead of a competitive process, more flexibility in the budget to recover early planning costs and greater flexibility in working across geographical boundaries are all welcome.