New research shows that changes in government funding mean an uncertain future for some bodies set up to ensure community involvement in regeneration. Herpreet Kaur Grewal reports

Last week, Regeneration & Renewal reported on unpublished research that said bodies set up to ensure community participation in local decision-making could face a funding cut of 40 per cent (R&R, 4 April, p10). Preliminary findings of the study, conducted by third sector body Urban Forum, sounded an ominous note for community empowerment networks (CENs).

Initially, there were networks in 88 of the most deprived council areas in England, and £43 million a year has been invested since 2001 in developing these to get people and grass-roots groups involved in local renewal initiatives. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) says that more than 88 probably now exist, but can’t give a more precise figure because they are no longer funded centrally.

The networks fund numerous grass-roots projects and events, provide representation on local strategic partnerships and lead community development work, such as involving the hardest-to-reach groups in regeneration. In Bolton, for example, “ambassadors” from ethnic minority groups were recruited to consult their communities and identify their priorities.

Direct government funding for the networks ended in March 2005, when the Single Community Programme was wound up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (R&R, 22 April 2005, p2). Now, their money comes from the Safer and Stronger Communities Fund (SSCF) via local area agreements through which local areas agree with Whitehall how central government funding will be spent. But only core funding for successful networks was safeguarded when the arrangement changed, and this has led to a slight drop in CENs’ number.

Last week, the SSCF was absorbed into the new Area-Based Grant, which pools 39 funding streams, including the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund (NRF), which has now been replaced by the Working Neighbourhoods Fund (WNF) and that is tightly focused on economic growth (see Feature, p20).

While there is no direct link between CENs’ funding and the NRF, local strategic partnerships have had the option of using the NRF to meet SSCF goals. Some fear that its disappearance, plus the lack of ring-fenced funding for neighbourhood endeavours in the new Area-Based Grant, could endanger the existence and work of network-type initiatives.

Urban Forum chief executive Toby Blume estimates that up to 18 networks had no funding at the beginning of April because of the changes. But he adds: “That does not mean they no longer exist or that there’s no other alternative (to CENs in the area).”

A DCLG spokeswoman says that the Government is cutting the strings on more than £5 billion of local government funding over the next three years as part of the devolution process. She says: “Councils … can channel new money into community empowerment networks and other measures involving the third sector if this is a local priority.” New legislation, such as the Local Government Act, stipulates that councils have a “duty to involve” the third sector in decisions about where local money should be spent, she adds.

Jonathan France, senior consultant at consultancy Ecotec, says this kind of incentive for local government could ensure the future is not completely bleak for the networks. But he also warns that, while the move towards greater voluntary sector public service delivery may boost the third sector, it is likely to focus on larger bodies. In such cases, a specially ring-fenced pot of money would benefit grass-roots regeneration groups, he says. Whether CENs survive will also depend on how strong their relationship is with councils, adds France.

Kevin Curley, chief executive of the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action, says that if the networks end, there could be less scrutiny over whether council regeneration spending decisions addressed social needs alongside the new focus on economic growth. Third sector representation on local strategic partnership boards could also be in danger. Curley says CENs represent grass-roots opinion, “and continuously remind the public sector of that”.

There are few appraisals of the networks, but government public spending watchdog the National Audit Office reported in 2004 that they successfully influenced local public service providers. It added, however, that their representation was not always diverse, tending to be dominated by professional voluntary sector groups.

But Alan Riddell, former Neighbourhood Renewal Unit director, is sanguine. He says the SSCF and NRF were always meant to be “supplementary” and time-limited funds. He says the networks should now look around for other funding, such as the £130 million Grassroots Grants programme run by the Government’s Office of the Third Sector. He adds that they should be encouraged to make their case to local bodies, to survive this latest squeeze on council budgets.

March 2000: The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, Community Chest, Community Empowerment Fund and the Community Learning Fund are set up.

2003: The Community Chest, Community Empowerment Fund and Community Learning Fund are all swept into the Single Community Programme.

March 2005: The Single Community Programme is absorbed into the Safer and Stronger Communities Fund (SSCF). This fund is parcelled out to local strategic partnerships to spend on building capacity in deprived areas and to provide core funding for community empowerment networks.

March 2008: The SSCF is absorbed into the new Area-Based Grant, along with 38 other funding streams, leaving it to councils’ discretion to fund the networks.