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May 3, 2022

Thoughts on shared prosperity

For many years, and long before Brexit had even been thought of, European funds played an absolutely crucial role in the financial underpinning of the Third Sector. Often difficult to manage and always complicated to report on, despite the hassles it had become an essential feature of the funding landscape. When Brexit became an unexpected fact of life, slightly vague promises were made that no one would lose out when European Social Funds disappeared. Finally, the prospectus for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund has been published. SCVO’s Anna Fowlie shares some useful thoughts on what it might mean for the sector. 

Anna Fowlie, SCVO

Ahead of a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the impact of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund on Scotland, SCVO chief executive Anna Fowlie looks at what we can expect…

Last week, the UK Government launched its long-awaited UK Shared Prosperity Fund prospectus. With the inevitable accompanying fanfare and grumbles. But what does it mean for us in Scotland’s voluntary sector? 

What I was hoping for: 

  • At least as much funding as was allocated to Scotland through European Structural Funds. 
  • A much better fund management system than the one used for ESF at the moment.  
  • Parity of esteem for the sector at national and local levels in both strategic design and delivery.  
  • Respect for the devolution settlement and alignment with relevant Scottish Government strategies/funding streams.  

Does it deliver on any of those? Let’s start at the bottom and work our way back.  

When the Internal Market Act became law, it was evident that devolution had been blurred, some would say undermined. For the first time since 1999, Westminster had taken powers to act on devolved matters. That shift is explicitly referred to in the UKSPF prospectus. The fact it comes with £s attached makes it hard to argue with, but it feels uncomfortable. 

The document also refers several times to working closely with devolved administrations. Yet I’ve seen little evidence of a willingness to work together constructively on either side. And I can see little if any alignment of economic or other strategies. However, Scottish Ministers’ outrage at funds going straight to local decision-making feels disingenuous when community empowerment is a key strand of Scottish policy.  A lack of coherence is bad enough, but active politicisation serves no one well.  

So what about parity of esteem for our sector? When colleagues from third sector interfaces and I met with UK Ministers recently, we asked for collaboration with the sector to be mandatory for local or regional partnerships developing investment plans and for the sector to have a clear role in delivery. The final version doesn’t go that far but it does strongly encourage engagement with the third sector. If Regional Economic Partnerships are the vehicle of choice, there’s a way to go achieving that in most parts of the country.  

The mechanics of how funds will be managed remains opaque. There are promises of sweeping away bureaucracy and recognition that traditional approaches to grant-making or commissioning are too cumbersome for many voluntary organisations. To be honest on the administration fees offered, whoever holds the pot won’t be able to afford to do anything complex. But if there’s one thing we can rely on from the public sector, it’s disproportionate, risk averse processes. I’m keen to be proved wrong.  

Finally, to the vexed topic of the amount of money allocated to Scotland. SCVO has argued for a long time that successor funding should be based on the amount of European funding allocated to Scotland, not what’s actually been spent. That’s because Scotland’s recent record on drawing down its rightful share is woeful. Hence the much smaller allocation to Scotland than to Wales, where they seem to know what they’re doing. Of course, it depends what lens you look through. It appears that by year 3, and if you include other funds like Levelling Up, Scotland might not come out of it too badly. One thing’s for sure, real comparative figures will be hard to pin down, surrounded as they are by the smoke and mirrors of political spin from Westminster and Holyrood.  

There’s much to be welcomed in the UKSF prospectus, particularly multi-year funding. It could offer opportunities for our sector. What we need to see now is an inclusive approach from the regional/local partnerships, a consistent, proportionate management system and Scottish and UK Governments actually talking to each other to achieve what’s best for Scotland, not what best advances the union or independence.