Over more than three decades, our area has received many millions of pounds (or euros!) to help our us to adjust to the major structural changes in our local economy, especially in relation to the decline in the coal industry and the changes in the global economy and in technology which so impacted our steel and engineering industries. The European funding element in the current programme alone has been worth £207m for the Sheffield City Region.
Existing resources have been used to support a wide range of initiatives to enable and support economic regeneration – for example in new transport, apprenticeship training, investment in 21st century research and innovation programmes, town centre regeneration schemes – and social programmes delivered through a number of voluntary organisations, as well as local businesses and authorities, which have supported some of the most vulnerable people locally.
There is, of course, some irony in the fact that, whereas we have been receiving additional resources from the EU in recognition of our economic, social and environmental need, since 2010, the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat Coalition and the successive Conservative governments have been busily moving resources from the most economically disadvantaged areas in England to those with the most prosperous and dynamic economies.
Recent research reports suggest that UK regions would have received €13 billion under the future EU cohesion programme. This would have seen an increase from €117 per head to more than €500 per head in South Yorkshire, reflecting the growing gap between the most and least prosperous areas in the country.
In the light of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, even this Conservative government has recognised that there will need to be a programme and resources to replace European regional funding after 2020 and, from 2021, to replace funds available through the local growth fund programme.
Local Labour MPs have been arguing very strongly that any future shared prosperity fund needs to replace the funds on the basis of what would have been received from EU funding after 2020.
The government has been making a lot of warm statements about devolution, of both powers and resources. Unfortunately, the positive initiatives to date have been far outweighed by the continuing redistribution of resources nationally, which has seen northern, urban local authorities the hardest hit.
We have been arguing strongly that the government should use this opportunity to take some bold decisions to devolve not just the decision-making but also the powers and the resources to back up those decisions.
Any new programme will have to be up and running soon to enable programmes to be developed and delivered by 2020. Like many other policy areas, the government is dithering and delaying about its proposals and consultations on future funding.
Ministers keep saying that “work is ongoing”, that “there will be announcements in due course” and it will be a central part of the Chancellor’s spending review. That’s all very well, except that the spending review and key decisions are being deferred because of the government’s incompetent and shambolic handling of Brexit.
Our Sheffield City Region Mayor, Dan Jarvis MP, initiated a parliamentary debate1 this week about the future resources and arrangements. It became clear that these concerns were shared across the political spectrum and throughout the affected areas, from Redcar to Redruth.
In the absence of any government initiative, Dan Jarvis proposed that any future arrangements for 2020 onwards should follow four principles:
First, the annual budget for the UK’s shared prosperity fund should be no less in real terms than both the EU and local growth funding streams it replaces. It must guarantee that regions will not be worse off because of Brexit, in the funding available for regional development beyond 2020. Moreover, that should be a baseline rather than a cap.
Secondly, there should be no competitive bidding element. Instead, an open and transparent process must be put in place that strikes a balance between targeting areas of need and rebalancing our economy and supporting economies that have the greatest potential to grow.
Thirdly, the fund must be fully devolved to those areas that have in place robust, democratically accountable governance models, including devolved Administrations, combined authorities and mayoralties. It must be up to local areas how best to invest this money, be it on skills, helping the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, infrastructure investment, employment or support and education.
Fourthly, the funding must be stretched over multiple years, beyond the vagaries of spending reviews and parliamentary cycles.
That seems to me a very helpful starting point.
It’s time that the government got the consultation underway.