More than 150 EU-funded projects delivering skills training in England and Wales are threatened by the UK government’s failure to adequately support them after Brexit, university and local government organisations have warned.
Universities UK, which represents 140 universities, said that a looming funding gap between the ending of old EU support payments and the introduction of a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund would mean many EU-supported projects will now “stall or stop”.
Before Brexit there were 245 projects in England and Wales that received a total of £712mn in EU structural funds that will not be fully replaced by a UK equivalent until 2024-25, according to UUK.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive, said the group had written to Michael Gove, the secretary for levelling up, outlining its concerns about the failure to maintain support for the projects and the impact this would have on the government’s levelling up agenda.
“The uncertainty around the implementation of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, especially the timing, seriously threatens many projects in all four nations of the UK directly supporting local employers, jobs and communities,” he said.
The government has announced that the £2.6bn UKSPF will be phased in over the next three years. It has committed £400mn this year and this will rise to £700mn in 2023-24 and finally to £1.5bn in 2024-25.
Funds from the previous EU scheme for 2014-2020 will continue to be paid out until 2023 but the UKSPF’s new “people and skills” funding will not start until April 2024, leaving a gap that training providers warn will mean key staff and programmes will be lost.
Analysis by New Philanthropy Capital, a think-tank, said that with 1mn fewer people in the labour market than before the pandemic, the funding gap would hit those in the least well-off areas.
“The likely cliff edge in funding for programmes which are helping people to get working again threatens to undermine [the] government’s own levelling up ambitions,” said Leah Davis, head of policy at NPC.
Projects at risk include a business support centre at the University of Gloucestershire that helped create 1,200 jobs and a programme to apply the University of Manchester’s expertise in graphene engineering to more than 200 businesses.
Paul Wiper, application manager at the Graphene Centre, said such projects were essential to government plans for fostering relationships between universities and industry. “They really help universities realise their ambition of becoming more relevant to local national and international companies,” he said.
The Local Government Association said the gap would lead to a “reduction of capacity and provision” and potentially the “permanent loss of vital expertise built up over many years”, and it urged the government to find a solution.
Kevin Bentley, chair of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said councils relied on the EU funding to deliver programmes that were core to the government’s own levelling up agenda.
“It is essential that the government ensures there is a smooth, uninterrupted transition from the end of the ESF [EU structural funds] programme to the UKSPF,” he added.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to respond to specific questions about the funding gap between the two schemes, but said the UKSPF would “ramp up” to match EU fundings levels of £1.5bn a year by 2024-25.
“Alongside commitments to support regional finance funds across the UK via the British Business Bank, this exceeds the UK government’s commitment to matching EU structural fund receipts for each nation,” it said.
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