European Union funds worth £2.8m aimed at supporting “social and economic development of the most deprived areas of Hastings and Bexhill” remain in the pipeline four years after being applied for. Allocation of the major part of this sum moved closer last week when the combined local government and community team which is administering the scheme under the acronym of CHART – “Connecting Hastings And Rother Together” – closed a “second call for expressions of interest” from private and community organisations bidding to set up fundable programmes. But CHART has still not at this stage identified publicly any of the bidders from the “first call” back in June last year. These will be unveiled only after formal contracts have been signed. 

The money comes from a funding stream called “European Structural and Investment Funds 2014 to 2020”, sums having been  negotiated on a national basis as far back as 2013. The Department of Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, acting in tandem, then made regional allocations to areas perceived as “disadvantaged”. (In the south-east, Tilbury and Folkestone are other towns in receipt). The areas targeted within Hastings and Bexhill are those identified as most in need: central parts of Hastings, St Leonards and Bexhill plus Ore and North East Hastings, Hollington and Sidley.

The overall project is termed as “Community-led Local Development”. Its stated purposes are to (i) “help disadvantaged people find and keep work locally and/or to start a business and/or to set up as self-employed; (ii) to stimulate the local economy to create jobs for local people”. Any “legally constituted body with strong links with the community”, i.e. not individuals, may put forward a proposal, and CHART has been offering workshops, “facilitated sessions” and “support sessions” to assist the development of programmes which fit the criteria.

CHART indicated from the outset of its administration in 2017 that it was looking for “large impactful programmes”, rather than a multiplicity of smaller ones: the first call would “prioritise” applications which required a total investment of £1 million or more. 

Match funding

There was also a condition, imposed from the start by the EU, that any provision from their funds has to be 50% match-funded from other sources which are neither EU-derived nor from the private sector. In other words, if a community project is costed at £1m, £500,000 of that has to be ventured from some other public sector source before CHART will provide an equal tranche. In Hastings and Rother that’s not going to be from local government, whether at district or county council level. There’s no cash of that sort available. So the search has been on for other potential partners at national or regional level that can deliver locally. It seems difficult to square these conditions with the idea that the development is to be “community-led”.

CHART admits that the hoped-for £1m-plus programmes have not materialised. Its first call elicited around 20 proposals, which
over the succeeding 12 months have been reduced (in some
cases by amalgamation) into five prospective investment packages – none amounting to £1m individually but together worth around £3.7m, of which the EU fund will provide up to 50%. 

Packages in the pipeline 

In a press release issued back in March this year these packages were described as

• two business incubator centres (applying for £350,000 and £250,000 respectively) “which are very modern and exciting”;

• one business support programme (applying for £274,000);

• one project that supports people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness into stable employment and accommodation (applying for £290,000);

• a guaranteed interview project matching employer vacancies with suitable unemployed people who will be given the skills and experience necessary to take on the vacant roles – an example given was of needing to first have the experience of being a barista before applying to be one (applying for £362,000).

It was emphasised at that stage that not all of these projects would necessarily be approved or, if they are, receive awards in the full amounts sought.  

That process has left a little short of £1m still available for the second call, now just closed, which is targeted at smaller projects, preferably in the range of £100,000-250,000. There may yet be a further call in September this year. However, if the pace of approving the first call programmes is repeated for second or further calls – and the EU imposes a rigorous administrative burden on CHART, passed on to recipient organisations, to demonstrate compliance on many levels before such approval – time will be very tight. The terms of the fund require all money to be spent by March 2022.

Funds guaranteed?

It seems that all the funds are currently still in the possession and control of the EU administrators in Brussels, or wherever else they deposit it pending release. CHART insists that release is contractually guaranteed, and will be in no way dependent upon any deal (including none) that a Brexiting UK government may leave on later this year. However in circumstances where a certain Mr Johnson speaks of the £39bn “divorce settlement” with Britain being withheld, one has to wonder whether financial flows in the opposite direction might also be at risk.

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