Future of European Funds- a new beginning?

Oliver Henman was Head of Partnerships & International at NCVO, and blogged about civil society around the world. Oliver left NCVO in July 2014 but his posts have been kept here for reference.

I’ve just got back from Brussels where I had my final meetings of the year with the European Commission and I was really struck by the fact that the whole place is still buzzing, everyone is talking about the future of the EU budget- but what does this really mean for civil society?

I met the key officials at the European Commission responsible for the future of the Structural Funds in the UK to find out what’s really going on…

EU Budget

The European Commission and national governments are currently consulting on the shape and size of the EU’s ‘Multi-Annual Financial Framework’, this will set the total budget from 2014-2020, including the EU Structural Funds. The EU is showing a real interest in the role of civil society, including the voluntary sector and social enterprise with a series of recent high-level policy developments such as the Social Business Initiative so the next few months are crucial for us in ensuring greater opportunities for our sector!

What I heard from the officials at the Commission is that they believe social inclusion remains a key priority for ESF in the UK, in particular youth unemployment, however they explained that it will be up to each Member State to develop its own specific package on the major funds and so we are also in regular dialogue with the lead UK government department: the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) as they roll out their consultation road-shows on the future of the funds.

At NCVO we’ve been working intensively with members and partners across the country in our European Funding Network, including RAWM (West Midlands), One East Midlands (East Midlands) and Network for Europe (North West) for over a year to identify what can be learnt from current EU programmes and what can be improved for the future.

But what do we mean by EU funds?

Structural Funds

The largest share of potential EU funds for civil society projects comes through the European Structural Funds, in particular the European Social Fund. These funds are a major potential source of support to projects with a focus on social outcomes for local organisations.

The European Social Fund exists to promote social inclusion, skills and employability for those furthest from the labour market, it is currently used to match fund a range of government initiatives around employment and skills. We believe there is real scope for a specific part of this fund to focus on community-based projects to engage with the most vulnerable communities through local training and development of pathways back to employment.

The European Regional Development Fund focuses on development of local enterprise start-ups and could be used to offer real opportunities for organisations with a stronger focus on social enterprise to develop localised projects with blended finance as a way to stimulate new growth at the local level.

Meanwhile the Maritime and Fisheries Fund and Rural Development Fund are focused on enhancing development in their specific geographic target areas.

Latest thinking presented at a series of regional road-show events by BIS, suggests that the EU as well as the UK Government are looking at ways that these funds could work closely together to deliver jobs and social inclusion through more effective local partnerships. This could enable real opportunities for local organisations to work side by side with local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to develop projects to reach those who are currently not able to access these funds.

Our members are keen to deliver community-led local projects but there is still a lack of clarity over the precise role of civil society in Local Enterprise Partnerships and we believe it is crucial to widen the membership of these bodies if they are to take on a stronger coordination role.

Civil Society Delivery

It is clear that the EU and UK government both see a role for civil society, including the voluntary sector, social enterprises, co-operatives and mutuals and we have jointly set out some clear recommendations on how this role can be enhanced in the next programme. We are pushing for a stronger role for civil society through:

  • A specific stream of funding for projects which deliver local solutions for social inclusion, employment, start-ups and skills within the community
  • The importance of local delivery to ensure a genuinely community-led approach, allowing for local consortia within major programmes
  • The role of  social enterprise alongside voluntary and community organisations in the regeneration of local areas
  • Integration of the funds coupled with simplified administration to allow for easier access for civil society organisations
  • A blend of funding mechanisms (grants, contracts and social investment) to increase flexibility to deliver the key priorities
  • Development of the core skills and capacity of civil society organisations to fully engage in these programmes.

ESF logoThis is a live process and we will continue to run our own events around the country and would be keen to hear from any other civil society organisations that have key knowledge in this area in the next few months.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in EU funds, so feel free to keep in touch with the team and follow our tweets @EUfundingNCVO or join the conversation #futureEUfunds

In January I’ll take a look at some other EU funds…

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