With the wealth of government initiatives in the last seven days, one can be forgiven for missing the announcement by High Streets Minister Simon Clarke of a £50 million pound fund to help kick-start high street businesses and other public spaces, such as beach fronts and promenades. The announcement was made on 24 May, with an amended version issued on 29 May. The fund is being allocated to councils on a per capita basis ready to spend from today, 1 June 2020.
The money will allow local authorities in England to put in place additional measures to establish a safe trading environment for businesses and customers, particularly in high streets, through measures that extend to the end of March 2020. For Yorkshire the allocation is just under £5m, with £1.2m of that going to the four authorities in South Yorkshire.
Most councils will welcome any help. But as with all things, the devil is in the detail (an area where the government has been found wanting in the last few weeks). This fund is no different.
For a start, the pace of delivery may be too fast for those councils that are already overwhelmed by dealing with the pandemic. Note that the final details came out three days before the fund is operational.
Of more concern is the fact that the requirements of this grant are covered by a funding agreement that, in the government’s own words, says “we hope to have agreed with all local authorities by the end of June”. So councils may find themselves committing to spending on this initiative, only to find that in fact the spending was not eligible – and as the government makes clear, “any expenditure incurred that is not eligible cannot be reimbursed”. Even eligible spending has to be completed up front, with the grant claimed back from the Communities and Local Government Unit in arrears.
In a final twist of irony the £50m funding comes not from a central government pot but from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) – a fund that the government has said it will be glad to see the back of. This EU funding finishes after the Brexit transition period ends, which explains why these spending has to be out of the door by the end of the financial year. What is less clear is why there is still unspent ERDF money at this stage of the existing process.
Any councils availing themselves of the money have to adhere to very strict ERDF branding requirements. So expect to see the EU flag reappearing in some of our towns and cities over the summer!