The Government is already thinking about possible replacement funds, so what are seven best bits of ESIF that we can take forward into possible new funding streams to be developed here in England?
1. Intervene early
ESIF programmes require a strong intervention logic backed by a better evidence base before they’re signed off.
It’s a tough task and test at the outset, but it leads to better programmes. Universities are well-placed to help with this design work.
2. Manage performance and evaluate throughout
Performance management and evaluation should take place from the very start of programme design, not as an afterthought.
Performance rewards are designed to be directed to local places based less on rates of spending and the delivery of short-term outputs, and more on progress towards strategic objectives agreed from the beginning.
3. Be sustainable and inclusive
ESIF funds for a wider range of investments. Its mantra of ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ reflects a broader attention towards sustainable development than other investment programmes, which are often focussed on immediate jobs and growth.
The stronger focus on inclusion fits neatly with the Government’s new attention to ‘places left behind’.
Moreover, the focus of ESIF on equal opportunities is often more genuine than other programmes.
4. Seek stability and confidence
The longer-term approach works more slowly at first, taking time to build better projects, but it often pays off in the end.
Rather than an annual beauty parade to secure local funding allocations, we see a seven-year period of stability and confidence. Fixed and transparent quantitative criteria determine funding allocations. All of which is preferable to an annual ‘discussion’ which is often opaque and challenged.
It also creates much less rush to get money spent, often regardless of quality, before artificial target dates.
5. Form partnerships
Partnership is at the heart of ESIF. Final decisions may rest with departments of Government, but the rules mean that the support of local groupings within an open dialogue is essential.
Decisions are not taken by meetings of single bodies closed to the public and other local partners.
6. Mix funds
Some UK funding streams have followed it, but it was ESIF that led the trend to move away from basic grants towards a wider mix, which includes loans and equity stakes.
Universities can learn a lot from ESIF-backed Venture capital programmes, especially in the North and Midlands.
7. Work across boundaries
ESIF is a single national programme devolved to the local level. The structure of our local institutions in England has made it harder than it could have been, but this combination has created opportunities to work across local, often artificial, boundaries.
ESIF may have had its problems, not least of which is the red tape, sometimes designed in Brussels, sometimes in London. But it contains important lessons that we should not forget when we work together to design its replacement.