When the government announced its plans for supporting local infrastructure organisations in July, the reaction was mixed. Recognition that the plans were sound in many ways was tempered by dismay at the short timescale for bids and the one-off nature of the available funding.
Instead of replacing the infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders with another funder that would hand out money to infrastructure projects, the government created the £30m Transforming Local Infrastructure fund, which requires local infrastructure groups to form consortia in their top-tier local authority areas and compete for the cash (see information below).
The money can be used over 18 months to help modernise and rationalise the work that they do, but not to preserve the status quo. Expressions of interest were received from all local authority areas in England except the Isles of Scilly, and successful projects are expected to be notified in January.
Not everyone is convinced. In an open letter to Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, Simon Hebditch, the first chief executive of Capacitybuilders, says the government has "systematically dismantled the architecture of support organisations". Hurd strongly denies this.
Kevin Curley, chief executive of the local infrastructure umbrella body Navca, says many members realise the proposals could improve the way they work. In too many areas, especially cities, there has been a "multiplication of the number of local support charities", he says, and it's right to eliminate duplication now finances are tight.
"The money available from the government is about change and improving the collaboration between organisations and, in some cases, getting organisations to merge so that they can present a more convincing case to the local authority and local NHS to keep supporting them," he says.
Caroline Schwaller, chief executive of Kivca, the Keighley-based council for voluntary service that is leading the bid in the Bradford area, says allowing only one application per local authority area has forced organisations to work together. "We have a history of a lot of partnership work in the district, but it hasn't always been able to come out with really tangible outcomes," she says.
But Schwaller says Kivca had less than three months to put bids together - a big challenge in Bradford, where 16 partner organisations were involved. The fact that the grant will last only 18 months poses further questions. "What I'm afraid of is that it will lead to some hasty decisions that could be damaging in the long term, and that we won't have enough time to do things properly in 18 months," she says.
John Cunningham, general secretary of Peterborough Council for Voluntary Service, believes that the fund offers a genuine chance to reform, but questions whether a scheme that does not produce economies of scale from cross-regional partnerships is the most effective way to spend £30m. It's as if the government is "throwing a fish to the cats and walking away", he says.
But Curley says that it's wrong to criticise the fund for not providing ongoing support. He says: "No council for voluntary service can have a long-term sustainable future unless it has a funded relationship with the local authority and also usually with the local NHS," he says. "Money from central government has never done that and money from Capacitybuilders never did that."
CONSORTIA - HOW THE FUND WILL WORK
The Office for Civil Society's Transforming Local Infrastructure fund will award grants of between £250,000 and £600,000. Only one application per upper-tier local authority area in England is allowed, so organisations must collaborate and appoint lead applicants. It is a competitive process and not every local authority area will receive a grant. The concept of "forced collaboration" has caused some concern, particularly among black and minority ethnic infrastructure organisations, which fear they will get sidelined.
Grants will not fund existing work; they must be used to "rationalise and transform" support services in each area by, for example, facilitating mergers and restructuring over the next 18 months. Lead applicants had to submit expressions of interest by 2 September and applications by the end of October. First payments will be made in March next year.
The fund succeeds the infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders, which closed in March, and has up to £30m. The Big Lottery Fund has also announced a separate £20m fund for infrastructure programmes.
Read Simon Hebditch's open letter to Nick Hurd and the Minister for Civil Society's response