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European funding fears should spark greater participatory politics

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

As we count down to 29 March 2019 anxieties are intensifying about what awaits Britain when it exits the European Union.

Whether it is apprehension about the impact on community cohesion or the effect it will have on an increasingly under pressure workforce, there is a lot for councils to be concerned about.

None more so than the future of what will replace the funding councils currently get from Europe.

It is an issue that keeps recurring and today the Commons work and pensions committee warned that a failure to replace the European Social Fund (ESF) would be “potentially disastrous” for communities and the people who rely on the services that money helps to provide.

Those who benefit from such funding include people with disabilities, the long-term unemployed and those with multiple barriers to work – some of the most vulnerable.

While the government has made commitments to fund ESF programmes scheduled to finish after the UK leaves the European Union, what happens beyond then is not known.

A UK shared prosperity fund will be introduced but a public consultation on the finer details about how it will work, and how much is in the pot, has not yet been published. However, if the proposed sense of direction that was coming from Europe before Britain voted to leave the EU is anything to go by it will only add to anxieties.

At a European Congress of Local Governments in April 2016, the general thinking then was that major changes were afoot. In total €454bn funding has been made available to the EU’s member states between 2014 and 2020 – of which almost €11bn has been allocated to the UK, with England’s local enterprise partnerships getting access to about €6.5bn of that – with varying degrees of success. Two years ago there was a general feeling that there will be less money available to areas in the next decade, and it will be even harder for places to access.

While this government’s commitment to the austerity agenda is abating somewhat, it is hard to imagine that the penny-pinching principles will not permeate into the UK shared prosperity fund especially when the country’s economy is likely to endure a rocky period post-Brexit.

And yet it is this sort of funding which, if used wisely, could help buffer the country against the worst of Brexit’s impact.

There are undoubtedly examples, not just around the country but across Europe, where funds have been spent on projects which have had a limited positive impact on their communities. Such wastage can cause distrust among communities.

The UK shared prosperity fund provides an opportunity to spend money in a better way, with a bigger impact, and engage communities.

Writing for LGC today, RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor outlines the current “problem” councils have with engaging their residents.

“While citizens’ sense of trust and influence have often been low, they have reached rock-bottom,” he said.

Mr Taylor has urged councils to enter into more participatory politics, involving residents much more in the difficult decision-making processes they have to go through.

It is something the government would do well to adopt too – and the UK shared prosperity fund might be a good place to start.

After all, as local government guru Tony Travers, director of LSE London, recently said in a column for LGC, “all politics is local, including the consequences of the UK leaving the EU.”

By David Paine, acting news editor

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