Neighbourhood fund 'will undermine community decision-making'

The Government's new Working Neighbourhoods Fund will lead to the closure of many community empowerment networks and undermine efforts to involve deprived communities in decision-making, according to umbrella bodies representing the community and voluntary sector.

The Department of Communities and Local Government announced that the three-year, £1.5bn fund will focus on reducing unemployment. It will be launched as part of the local government settlement next month, replacing the DCLG’s Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and the Department for Work and Pensions’ Deprived Areas Fund.

The DCLG explanation document says the Working Neighbourhoods Fund has been set up to “empower local communities by putting employment at the heart of neighbourhood renewal to find local solutions to local challenges”.

However, Toby Blume, chief executive of the Urban Forum, said the replacement of the NRF by a fund exclusively for tackling unemployment was “ill-conceived and inconsistent with the Government’s devolution agenda”.

He said the removal of ring-fenced funding for community empowerment networks would “write them out of history” and threaten the involvement of deprived communities in decision-making.

He said: “With empowerment and community engagement high up the political agenda, you could be forgiven for expecting the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund to continue in its previous guise.

“Empowerment won’t be achieved simply by reducing the number of people on incapacity benefit. It is necessary to increase civic participation and foster the conditions where unemployment is likely to fall. As CENs go to the wall, we will have to reinvent them, no doubt at great expense and with much of the learning derived from them being lost.”

Kevin Curley, chief executive of umbrella body Navca, said the voluntary sector had essentially lost the argument for ring-fenced CEN funding and it was now up to networks to argue the case for funding at a local level.

He said local authorities that took empowerment seriously would continue to fund CENs, but the WNF would certainly lead to a significant decline in the number of networks.

He said: “Unless local authorities take community engagement seriously, they won’t get the quality of input they need. This will come back to haunt them if they can’t demonstrate public involvement in their Audit Commission assessments.”

However, he said Navca welcomed the £1.5bn of spending on “one of the worst examples of deprivation in poor areas”. He said schemes aimed at improving levels of basic skills in deprived communities had suffered recently because the Learning and Skills Council was “only focused on level-two qualifications”.

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