Rival local infrastructure organisations could sabotage each other’s bids for funding from the Office for Civil Society’s new £30m Transforming Local Infrastructure programme, according to Kevin Curley, chief executive of the local infrastructure support group Navca.
Curley told Third Sector he was pleased that the government had chosen to support infrastructure and that many aspects of the policy were "excellent", but he warned that the criteria for the programme could have "the bizarre and damaging consequence" of causing disputes.
The fund is aimed at helping front-line voluntary and community organisations collaborate more effectively by merging back-office functions and sharing services. Organisations interested in applying for a share of the fund must register interest online by 2 August.
After 5 August they must contact other organisations that have registered interests from the same upper-tier local authority area and agree to formulate bids together.
They then have until 2 September to submit expressions of interest and until 31 October to apply for grants of between £450,000 and £600,000.
Only one expression of interest is allowed from each local authority area. If more than one is received, all bids from the area will be rejected, unless any bids are deemed ‘frivolous’.
Curley said the rules could lead to a "repeat of the worst aspects of ChangeUp" by encouraging local infrastructure groups that did not get on well to "bury their differences" until funding was secured.
ChangeUp, the £231m programme started by the Labour government to strengthen voluntary sector infrastructure, was the subject of a critical National Audit Office report in 2009.
"The problem is that the funding process forces people to work together even where there is a history of bad relationships," said Curley.
"Organisations excluded from a bid could sabotage the bid by putting in their own bids and refusing to collaborate.
"There should be a means by which funders can still support a credible partnership of organisations where they have a case for saying it is not possible to include everybody."
Judy Robinson, chief executive of the regional voluntary sector network Involve Yorkshire & Humber, said it welcomed the fund but bids should be judged on quality rather than geography.
In a letter to the OCS, Robinson said: "The pattern of infrastructure across England is very varied and we think that flexible responses to this rather than a prescriptive formula are more appropriate."
A spokeswoman for Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector on the Compact, said: "We are concerned that the short timetables introduced by this application process might prevent or restrict organisations from applying."
A Cabinet Office spokesman said:"It is important to get people to work together. Infrastructure organisations are there to support frontline charities, and that has to be the priority." Asked whether the department would consider changing the criteria for the fund, he said he was unable to comment.
On the same day the OCS announced details of the fund, the Big Lottery Fund revealed it was to open a £20m infrastructure programme.
A BLF spokesman said it would reveal further details of the fund later this year and that it would be distinct from and additional to the OCS funding.
"Lottery funding remains additional to that of government, but we are actively working alongside government to develop a more intelligent and integrated offer," said the spokesman.