There was anger across Northern Ireland when the government’s funding allocations from the replacement for the European Social Fund were announced. Firstly, the announcement was made late morning on the very last day possible. And secondly, the level of funding from the replacement programme, the Shared Prosperity Fund, was much less than that lost from ESF. Many people felt this was not the promise the UK government made after Brexit.
For people in Derry, this was regarded by some as a second blow. While the city did well from the first found of the Levelling-Up Fund, it got nothing from the second round – despite having the worst deprivation figures in NI, and one of the very worst in the whole of the UK.
The second of the new series of Holywell Trust Conversations podcasts contains interviews with people in voluntary groups in Derry that have experienced the two programmes – both winners and losers – to ask them about their experiences and the impact of the decisions.
While Derry got nothing from that second round of the Levelling-Up Fund, it actually did very well from that first round. Some £49m went into NI from the initial allocations, of which £16m was won for the Derry and Strabane council area. This was far more than to be expected from its share of the population.
Criteria for the Levelling-Up Fund were projects that would cut crime in areas where it is worst; provide incomes for those who need it most; transform the economy by generating higher paid and higher skilled jobs; and attract new investment. Groups that obtained funding were a sports hub for boxing and snooker, that also contains football changing rooms; improvements to the village centre in Derg; and the Acorn city farm on a derelict part of Derry’s largest central recreation area, St Columb’s Park.
Success in that first round was in part the result of the council already having projects that were ready to go, with businesses cases prepared, and looking for funding. Shauna Kelpie of Acorn city farm, discusses her experience of successfully bidding for Levelling-Up Fund money on the podcast.
It was that context of first round success that explains Derry’s lack of success in the second round, when £71m was distributed across NI. That did not prevent some local people who bid into that second round from being very unhappy at being rejected, nor raising questions about how the government was implementing its criteria.
But if there was unhappiness about the Levelling-Up Fund, that was nothing to the sheer anger felt across the voluntary sector about the results of the replacement of ESF by the Shared Prosperity Fund. Many groups that had been funded for years by ESF, delivering important projects, found themselves without continued funding and were shocked by the decisions. Some employees were told on the Friday that there was no job for them to come into on the following Monday.
Catherine Barr of Derry’s Women’s Centre strongly criticised the bidding process as well as the decision, which means that some of its core services have now been lost. The government had told groups to bid in partnerships, and the proposal that involved local women’s groups and led by Derry Youth and Community Workshops was rejected. No explanation for the decision was provided by government.
Charles Lamberton of Triax is equally critical of the process, even though Triax was successful in its bid for funding. They are providing a range of training and support services to people across the Derry and Strabane council area who are economically inactive.
It is clear that while there is enormous anger at the decisions taken, the process undertaken by government departments has made the situation very much worse. Bidding processes began late, with decisions taken only at the very last moment. Nor were those decisions consistent with what many in the voluntary sector understood the criteria and level of funding to be. The result if a significant loss of key services, without obvious routes to replace them.
The podcast is hosted on the Holywell Trust website.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.