Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning and welcome. We are very grateful to you for coming this morning to, hopefully, advise us on what happens with Objective 1 in England because, as you know, we are in the process in Wales and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. Perhaps you would introduce yourselves individually and tell us where you are really with Objective 1 in the regions.
  (Mr White) Garry White, European Policy Adviser at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in Whitehall. My Department is the managing authority for all English Objective 1 and 2 structural fund programmes; and we generally oversee the operation of those programmes.

  (Mr Flamson) John Flamson, European Director, Merseyside. I am one of the senior management team of the Government Office for the North West. I was recruited to manage the Objective 1 programmes. I have come into this from outside the Civil Service on a five-year contract to manage the programmes. Merseyside, of course, has an Objective 1 programme now but it is coming to the end of a previous Objective 1 programme where, although is 1994-99, some of the spending is still going on and it has been extended until June. We are managing the cross-over from one programme to another.
  (Ms Yates) Sylvia Yates, Programme Director, for the South Yorkshire Objective 1 programme. I was recruited into my post, although I was an existing civil servant before coming to do this work. Objective 1 status is new for South Yorkshire and as part of the Government Office for Yorkshire and Humberside, although we are located in the heart of the programme area, my role varies to lead a group of 60 individuals, some of whom are civil servants, some of whom are directly recruited into the programme, to deliver the specific targets both financial and in terms of activity and so on for Objective 1 through to 2008.
  (Mr Bayly) Richard Bayly, Director of Devon and Cornwall in the Government Office for the South West. I have a team within my directorate which provides the secretariat for Cornwall for the Objective 1 programme which, like Yorkshire, is a new structural fund programme of significance. Our programme and structure is a little different from some others in that, as well as supporting the programme monitoring committee with a secretariat and a working group and some peer group appraisal groups, based on project assessments and appraisals, we also have a structure supporting the PMC developing strategic outreach into the partnership to sponsor and champion projects, with a strategic group chaired by Sir Michael Hickes the chair of our Regional Development Agency in the South West, and a number of task forces and local geographical delivery structures reporting to that.

Albert Owen

  2. I am interested in the interrelationship between the different layers of government. Could you describe the current divisions of roles and responsibilities for delivery of Objective 1 in your regions between the Government Offices, the DTI and the RDAs, and how do you see this relationship developing in the future?
  (Mr White) Perhaps I could start on that question. As far as the inter-departmental relationship is concerned, the Department of Trade and Industry has overall responsibility for the structural funds for the United Kingdom, including the devolved authorities. My Department has responsibility as a managing authority for English programmes. We also have the paying authority role which, in practice, we delegate with the managing authority role to the Government Office. They carry out the day to day responsibility of operating the structural fund programmes, appraising the projects, acting as a secretariat to the programme monitoring committees and so on, and also issuing payments. The role of the RDAs has recently been established. Lord Falconer recently wrote to all regions about this, and it confirmed that the Government Offices would continue to carry out that day to day role with the RDAs having a more strategic role. For example, acting on behalf of the partnership, being in charge of the interim evaluations and so on.
  (Mr Flamson) I often get asked this question by businesses: who is making the decisions? I think the simplest way we have tried to explain it is that at a national level the UK Government does a deal with the European Commission for a wadge of money, and then the UK Government decides to use the Government Office as the managing agent with actually, I have to say, quite a large degree of operational freedom; and then the Government Office executes its managing agent role through a partnership structure. My codicil to that would be, if there are any tensions around the management of a programme they are usually largely within the management of the programme, rather than between the managing agent and the European Commission, or the managing agent and the managing authority in the DTLR. I think that may be just the nature of big and complex programmes.
  (Ms Yates) I would certainly agree with that. Under the current programme period our relationship with the European Commission is different compared to the past. The various representatives from the Commission act more in an advisory role, and that has definitely made a difference. I have actually characterised the relationship between advice and guidance given that comes from central departments and from the Commission through to strategy and delivery much more locally, where our relationship with the RDAs, local authorities and local partners on the ground is particularly key. I think there is fertile ground there for tension one can understand, because there is pressure on all of us to get results.
  (Mr Bayly) I would certainly echo what Sylvia said about the role of the Commission. I think the consequences of Berlin is that we have seen much more delegated programmes, and I think a very much better relationship between regions, partnerships locally and the Commission. At a local level you specifically mentioned the DTI and DTLR interface, and it is worth mentioning that both those Departments are partners in the Government Office structure in England. At regional level the Government Office is able to represent both of them. I said in my earlier answer that in Cornwall, to some extent, we had anticipated what Garry was saying about the emerging role of the RDAs, and we have this strategy group chaired by the RDA chairman which has the specific function of championing the strategic development of the programme. They are embedded as the lead delivery partner in that way.

Adam Price

  3. Turning to the implementation of the programme, we have a highly politicised discussion in Wales on various technical aspects. Could you explain to me in layman's terms what the difference between the rate of commitment in Objective 1 programmes and the rate of spend represents?
  (Mr Flamson) Let me try and answer that on behalf of colleagues and then they can say. I think it is right that there should be some inter-scrutiny because this is one of the measures of the performance of a programme. I would actually underline that. It is one of the measures. Within RPMC we had a very big debate at the beginning of the programme and said, "What is it? How would you characterise it?" I was particularly putting the point that it is a strategic investment fund; and I do not think I am too dissimilar to other colleagues around the country. If it is a strategic investment fund then the investment matters, the outcomes matter, the impact matters; and the rate of spend is a measure of progress but not the only progress. I would underline that. Otherwise, if you focus exclusively on that, you are managing a spending programme and not an investment programme. I think that is hard for any partnership to come to grips with that. Equally, when you are given potentially financial penalties by the European Commission what they call "decommitment", if you do not spend to a certain minimum of spending thresholds potentially money can be taken from you, that itself can militate against there being an investment programme. You do have inbuilt tensions. I think we have had to be careful about consistent definitions. Sometimes when some people say "commitment", some mean that they had approval at a board to a certain amount of money, and they aggregate that up and say, "We have reached a certain commitment". Some would go through an action plan process, and approve an action plan which is in fact a collection of projects, and then they will total up the aggregate of that and say, "That's a commitment". Others, certainly in the Merseyside programme, would only count a commitment when the grant offer has been approved by a board and approved by the receiving applicant, so it becomes a hard contract. There are different definitions of commitment. It is very important that commitment levels are driven upwards in any programme, because otherwise you cannot convert that into spend. We have been doing some work on that recently, looking particularly at the history of previous programmes—what is the rate of conversion. We all face challenges. I would say that our colleagues in Wales would face similar challenges to elsewhere in the UK of converting commitment levels into spend. You have got to get commitment levels up; but also you have to make sure you convert those into a healthy rate of spend, otherwise you get financial penalties. The true picture at the moment in each of certainly the English Objective 1 regions is that we are all on course to break through our minimum spending targets at the end of 2002-03. I think the challenge will come for us all in converting previous commitments into real spend in 2004-05 onwards. I do not want to underestimate the challenge, but I think it very much needs business performance targeting within boards, rather than just becoming a political issue.
  (Ms Yates) Just a minor point. Whilst it is difficult and we have to focus our minds on planning and controlling the rate of spend and, in fact, urging partners to deliver in ways we have not done before, in my experience this has got to be a better way than having programmes where the last two-thirds of the resources are committed in the last 18 months. Then you have a mad rush; you probably support projects of poorer quality and value for money than if you spread things out. I think having to accept the burden of more rigorous programme management is actually a blessing, because the programmes will deliver, in my opinion, better quality initiatives as a result.

Mr Williams

  4. Could I ask why you anticipate greater programmes with conversion in spend in 2004-05, rather than 2002-03?
  (Mr Flamson) I think generally speaking with most new programmes, because they have been in gestation for a period, you get a project developing phase that runs in parallel with strategy making and the approval phase; so when you open for business (and it varies in different areas) there is some pent up demand and you mop up some of that demand and convert that into commitment and spend. You have to then work very hard in some areas, particularly where you are in the change management business; it is not as if you are giving money out to anybody who is just coming along and wants it; you are actually trying to work to a strategy—some of which people are not so much resisting but are trying to be convinced of. There is a hard job; a programme management job, not just a spending control job. I think that is what I meant. I do not think the pattern will be exactly the same in each area; it depends on the way the programme is structured; the degree to which there are large projects, for example; the degree to which there are action plans of clusters of activity, say, for a university or local authority area, or what have you. I think that the programmes differ in that respect, but I think they all face a similar challenge, because we are in the change business; we are actually trying to change economies and the equity share within those economies and I actually think that is ambitious.

Mrs Williams

  5. You probably have heard it has been suggested that, in Wales, some priorities and measures within the programme are over-subscribed, whilst others are having difficulty attracting applications. Is this something which has been reflected in your own experience?
  (Ms Yates) If I can start answering that. I think we are all very keen to manage our programmes in such a way that we do not have an unhealthy and unhelpful scramble at our doors for funding for thousands of projects, because we could not cope, to be frank, with huge deluges of requests for funding. In our various ways we have taken the line that the strategy that has been hard negotiated over in developing single programme documents should be what drives the core for activity in our various sub-regions. For example, in South Yorkshire partners there were very keen that we should have an end to fixed pay rounds with five o'clock deadlines on a Friday, and if you came in at 5.05 that was it, it did not matter how good your project was you were not going to be looked at. We have definitely pursued the approach of commissioning work, actually getting partners to think through (even accepting, that built in some extra delay at the beginning of the process) what it was they wanted to fund. How were we going to provide this support to existing companies and tailor our core for projects quite tightly so that we got the sort of activity coming forward for funding that we wanted. That has actually helped a great deal. The net effect is that we have fewer larger projects. The intermediaries we rely on to deliver—I mentioned the Regional Development Agency earlier, and organisations like the Business Link operation in England—are delivering huge initiatives on our behalf and work much more closely than we could ever do with a myriad of project applicants and fund holders.
  (Mr Bayly) I think we always anticipate in Cornwall that there might be some measures which will be under a lot of pressure: the measure focussing on infrastructure, for example, or focussing on the flagship project for developing higher education capacity in Cornwall through the combined university in Cornwall project. We have worked with partners from the beginning to try to ensure that there is prioritised vision of how those measures should be used before projects arrive, to avoid partners investing nugatory effort in developing projects that could not be funded. We do have some measures which are quite tight but we are not in a position of over-subscription.

  6. Would you say that, because you have set up that strict structure from the very beginning, you have avoided that situation?
  (Mr Bayly) It has certainly helped with that. This is going to be a continuing debate. The further we go into the programme the more tight the debate will become. We think we have got the structures that can help us to see that through.
  (Mr Flamson) We had trouble with it because we were moving from one system of open bidding to a new system where we said we wanted to be more strategy and not supply driven; more proactive, not reactive; more commissioning and not open bidding. That was hard because we were having to broker that. The partners bought this and said, "Yes, we think this will, in the end, cut down project development time and waste and increase quality". You do need buy-in for that, and it needs to be transparent. What we tend to say to people is that we have a variety of tools that we use to solicit projects. One is targeted commissioning. For example with the European Social Fund we have recently gone out in the marketplace saying, "We are looking for projects in the following categories or measures because we are under-subscribed in those areas". Sometimes we will make a direct approach in terms of a strategic alliance, like a Regional Development Agency or a small business service company. Other times we will respond to good ideas, so we do not close the door is the point I want to make. We will deal with any application that comes to us, but we are just trying to organise the flow of applications so that they are more closely aligned to strategy. I personally think that is fairer, and I think it has less risk than open bidding. I think open bidding looks equitable but when you actually look at it and unpack it it might not be equitable; because those people who put in very convincing applications will always be at the front of the queue; and also you are dealing with lots of submissions without necessarily tying them to what the programme is saying it needs at a particular point in time. I do not want to give the impression it is a closed door for those people who have got good idea—we negotiate that.

Dr Francis

  7. What would you consider to be the most successful aspects of the management of the Objective 1 programme in each of your regions?
  (Mr Bayly) I think we would certainly want to flag the quality of the partnership that has been developed as a serious success. I think partners in Cornwall felt that one of the region's weaknesses has historically been its approach to issues in quite a fragmented way; and it was very anxious to use the programme to address that. I think one of the successes is that Objective 1 in Cornwall is now the brand for the vision of the future of Cornwall. It is not just seen as an investment or funding programme. I think that has been a real success for the partnership. I think the partnership has moved from achieving a consensus to having a strategic vision and driving delivery—very much as John was describing in wanting to move in the direction of commissioning activity. I think that has been a very significant success. Again, within the overall manner of the partnership, the focus on achieving quality in the programme and not just spend has been a real success. It goes back to your question about levels of commitment. It is one thing to get levels of commitment and levels of spend; it is another to ensure that one is securing the outputs that the programme was designed to achieved. The partnership has always been very good at focussing on ensuring that only quality is coming through. I think that as a package has been something to be pleased with.
  (Ms Yates) I would like to add from South Yorkshire that one of the thoughts that impressed me a great deal is the will to integrate the programme and not to see the strands, the priorities, as compartmentalised and ring-fenced and only pursuing a particular track. Of course, people recognise the fact that we cannot move money around willy-nilly, and we have to deliver targets that we set within each of the compartments; but there is a great deal of enthusiasm for actually getting projects to come forward as whole proposals that will take resources from various elements of the programme at different times, and a synthesis of activity so that we do not end up creating jobs that actually are not going to last very long because we have put the eggs in the wrong basket with the kind of companies we want to attract into the sub-regions and so on. That has been very impressive.
  (Mr Flamson) I would echo a number of those points. I think with the creation of an investment fund, of seeing Objective 1 as a strategic investment fund, there is a maturity now in our partnership that realises it is not the only kid on the block. Although we have a partnership overseeing an investment fund, we equally have other very key players in the sub-region—at a sub-regional level or regional agencies playing at a sub-regional level, or local authorities and other partners through local strategic partnerships. I think that is the next challenge for us, not just in succession terms, to see how we recognise the legitimacy of those; and for the partnership board overseeing the European funds to realise what its role is. I think that has been a change, probably within the last six to nine months. Other things : the engagement of sectors, particularly what we call our pathways, the 38 most disadvantaged communities in Merseyside; and the private sector; the engagement of groups of people in real policymaking and investment decision-making—again, not without problems but we can forget those. I think that has been helpful. Another couple of areas I would have to cite—I think the delivery of a major venture fund, which we know has been followed in Wales, as well as the Merseyside Special Investment Fund. Another area is the engagement of the higher education sector, particularly the two universities based in Liverpool, in starting to look at a much more strategic way as to how it can contribute to the economy. Finally, what I think is a more hard nosed view about business development—looking at the delivery of services to businesses not as a social service but as a way of improving their productivity and competitiveness and perhaps looking outside the area (and we will look across the country) for examples of best practice, and how we can improve business competitiveness. I think there is a cluster of things. There is very much a partnership and investment strategy angle to it.

  8. In relation specifically to Merseyside, how have you modified the management of the programme in the light of your experiences of the first programme?
  (Mr Flamson) I think it became more organised but, I have to say, it became more expansive in the first stages, and we had to take stock of that. The PMC grew and we trimmed it down again while still maintaining the sectoral balance. We said, "We need to be a bit more business-like or professional about this. We can engage people but we do not always have to engage people through formal committees". I think that is something we all should reflect on. You might actually get a more meaningful engagement and more empowerment for people in different ways. We have just got to be careful about presuming that engagement and involvement is always sitting in committees that are looking at some very narrowly defined technical issues. I personally do not believe that is the best way.
  (Ms Yates) Could I just elaborate on that from my perspective in South Yorkshire, where the decision-making framework that we established at the beginning of the programme is now one that we are going to move away from. I sent in a chart last week that shows the new world into which we are moving, whereby the middle of this year the range of "driver partnerships"—there were boards that took the early decisions about the strategy and commissioning I referred to in the first year of the programme, and now we have got activity underway we need to move into a different mode of operation. Through reviewing partners' views and taking time over the middle of last year we have concluded that we now need to institute changes that will allow the programme directorate (my team) to be able to call for advice and expertise where we need it, but very much to get on now with delivering the programme, and making sure that proactively we seek out the projects we know will deliver. We are changing, two years into the programme and moving away from one set of decision-making structures to something quite different.

Chris Ruane

  9. Did you have to seek permission to do that? Is it not seen as changing horses in mid-stream? Who did you have to seek permission from?
  (Ms Yates) In a sense permission came from within the partnership, because we asked people what they thought we should do now. We conducted a wholesale assessment over three or four months last year, and so the initiative to move to the strategic groups you see there (which is a pretty crude visual representation and the reality will be more complicated than that) that came from within the heart of the driver partnerships themselves, who recognise that meeting monthly now, when there were very few decisions left to take, was not a productive use of their time; and there are lot of other people engaged around the programme who are going to monitor and look closely at the programme delivery, and they did not particularly want to get into that game. We have changed and the work will come to an end by the end of the summer. There is great recognition of the value of doing what we did, but we now need something different because we have got to speed up the things we were talking about earlier—commitment and spend.
  (Mr Bayly) Could I add one thought, where perhaps we are a little different in Cornwall. The partnership recognised early that there was a problem of capacity in the region in handling a regeneration programme of this kind in all sectors—in the private sector, in local government and in the voluntary and community sectors. Some of our structures have been deliberately designed to help to inject additional capacity. In terms of community economic development we have delegated structures built on the model of the old Leader programmes to enable people at a local level to take a lot of ownership for community and economic development. Similarly, we have some task forces for individual areas like small business, learning skills, agriculture and so on. Part of the reason for that is with an eye to the exit strategy of ensuring there is the capacity in the region to drive its future agendas from within.

  10. What is the extent of cooperation with other Objective 1 areas in the UK that you as a group met before you meet with your Welsh counterparts?
  (Mr White) Certainly there has been considerable cooperation. There is an Objective 1 network at director level where the regions liaise directly with each other; and, also through the European offices, they liaise with Objective 1 areas in other Member States. As far as within the UK is concerned, probably the best example which John briefly mentioned was the Merseyside Special Investment Fund, which operated under the 1994-99 programme, and has been replicated not only in Merseyside but also the other three Objective 1 areas, including Wales.

  11. Can you think of any other examples where best practice has been swapped between Objective 1 areas?
  (Mr Flamson) I do not think sufficient happens. I think that is partly because of the excessive demands of mobilising programmes of this scale. To give you a personal response to that—we were only talking about this before we came in. We said, "We really need to do more of this", to understand the pressures that each are under, and also to identify common issues. I think it happens through correspondence and on the phone, but I do not think it happens to the extent that it should. That is a personal view.

  12. Can you think of any examples that you have of best practice from around Europe? Europe is an inter-regio site of best practice set up by the Commission. Can you think of any practical examples which you have copied?
  (Mr Bayly) We made extensive use of contacts in Europe in trying to design our flagship project for developing our Cornwall university project. The precedents there were useful, not least in securing Commission agreement to eligibility. The other thing I would add to what John says, and I agree with John's reflection, is that I think there was actually more productive liaison when we were developing the strategies, the single programme documents, and going through the negotiation phase. We built links with Scotland when we were designing our delivery structure. I think in the welter of energy put into launching the programmes that has probably faded a bit and it is probably appropriate to strengthen those links now.

  13. How could that be done? What practical measures could you take to do that?
  (Mr Flamson) I think there are a couple of things. I think one is those engaged in the management of European programmes within the UK need to meet more often with focussed agendas, and that is beginning to happen. There have been meetings but I think those early meetings have focussed on a number of process issues. I think we should be focussing more on dissemination of best practice; not just in a forum like that but we should be seeking some further information from the European Commission itself. We do that through some of our regional offices, for example, in Merseyside—we have the Merseyside/Brussels office—so we do take PMC members and others over to hear stories from other countries—from Germany or from Denmark—to excite them as much as to inform them and say, "Look, good things can happen". I do see it as an important part of board development as well as dissemination of best practice. We need to use the European Commission in a constructive way better, through regional offices and directly.
  (Ms Yates) I would add, during the negotiation of the programmes the joint Objective 1 network was very instrumental in political activity and lobbying. I think now, after those programmes have been agreed, adopted and moving, we could maximise the existing network to identify common issues, things we are doing well, things that are not working so well, and actually use our contacts in the Brussels office to seek information and examples across areas in the EU. I think there is something there that, Phoenix-like, could rise from the ashes.

  14. Are you aware there is an all party group of back bench MPs on Objective 1?
  (Mr Bayly) Yes, and MEP interest as well, which certainly has been active in the South West. The other thing I was going to add was that a number of us have twinning projects with accession states. In Cornwall we have twinning projects with both Poland and Hungary with staff from the Government Office working there. There is a real learning opportunity for us there. It is not a one-way flow of information at all. That is another example to add to the list.

Mrs Williams

  15. The twinning idea seems an interesting one. How do you decide on who you would explore these possibilities with?
  (Mr Bayly) There are a number of European Union funded PHAR projects for supporting accession states. The DTI and DTLR invited the regions to volunteer to contribute. To some extent the project within a particular country which we ended up with depended on that country's decision on both which Member State in the European Union they wanted to partner with and a particular suggestion on teams coming forward from that country. They had quite a lot of influence on what happened.
  (Mr White) Under the Commission's PHAR programme there is basically an annual bidding round, where accession states say which particular areas they would like guidance on from existing Member States, and the structural fund inevitably arises. My Department successfully bid for a project in Hungary supporting the development of their capacity to organise structural funds there. As Richard has said a colleague of his from GO South West has been part of that team. We have one lead pre-accession adviser overseeing the whole project, and I think four others from other parts of England in support. We do welcome the opportunity to not only advise candidate countries on how we operate the structural funds here, but also get feedback from them and learn from their experience as well. It is very beneficial for both parties really.

Albert Owen

  16. Going back to the make-up of the partnerships, in Wales they operate a "three-thirds" principle—private, public and voluntary sectors are represented in equal numbers on all the local and regional partnerships that administer the programme. It is also a requirement to have a gender balance. How does this apply? I believe this is a Wales/European only office and not a Commission requirement. How does it apply in your areas?
  (Mr White) As you say, the European structural funds require a gender balance on the programme monitoring committee and do not specify what that is. Certainly our programme monitoring committees have sought and, I think, obtained a reasonable balance. In terms of the public, private and voluntary sector split, there are no hard and fast rules set down by the Commission or ourselves. Really we encourage the partners themselves and the Government Office to agree what seems a reasonable division for that particular programme. It can vary between programmes.
  (Mr Flamson) The important thing is to look at the PMC as the board. If the PMC is the board, anything after that is at the discretion of the PMC—what sort of sub-boards or structures it wishes to set up and what rules it wishes to impose. We have tried to get a reasonably representative board—regional players with government players, with community and voluntary, with higher education and further education, private sector and so forth. So it is a very inclusive board. That led to it getting bigger and bigger in the design stage earlier, and we said, "This can't go on, it's unmanageable and we need something smaller whilst maintaining the central balance". In terms of gender aspirations, we have taken the ambitions, certainly in discussions with the European Commission, of trying to get 40 per cent female of on boards. We have not succeeded currently in the revised programme monitoring committee, but we exceed that in other sub-boards. So it is a mix. More than that, the PMC itself has said it does not want to just take this as read, what our current state is. We will be putting a paper at the end of January on gender main streaming, not just looking at the balance within our board and sub-boards but what lies behind it, and what is the ultimate policy when people identify ascending organisations, and what can we do to engage people better so we do have a more diverse board. The ambitions within the board are undiminished in terms of their general balance but I think the reality takes longer.
  (Ms Yates) In South Yorkshire when we initially set up the driver partnerships that I mentioned earlier there was a fair amount of regard to getting the sectoral split right; but also I think, combined with that, a passion about getting the right people along who would be able to represent and, more importantly, consult. I think in my experience that is where things can unscramble. You can have people who represent a sector but whether they actually communicate before a meeting and after a meeting is a different matter. As we move into the new regime, I think our approach will be much more about the right person at the right time doing the right job. There are lots of other activities we can engage in to make sure the consultation is still a reality and people are aware, particularly in community groups, of what we are doing. We are moving away from strict sectoral splits now. Woefully the gender balance in South Yorkshire is not as I would want it to be. We have a target to get to a 25:75 split by the middle of this year, and we will do better after that, I hope.
  (Mr Bayly) I have to say, if you were looking for the lagger amongst the programmes on gender balance you would probably find it with us. We look to the Welsh model as an exemplar which we aspire towards but we are not there. It is worst on the programme monitoring committee. It is relatively quite a lot better at some of the lower levels. We have a serious problem in terms of gender balance on our programme monitoring committee, which we have discussed with the partners and will require change. In terms of sectoral balance, yes, we look to sectoral balance at the higher level overarching groups. In terms of some of the structures which I described earlier we quite explicitly do not. For example, we have a taskforce on the SME agenda which is entirely private sector. They wanted that and we were very keen to see private sector engagement on the programme, and that I think is part of quite an interesting story about the success in engaging the private sector in the programme. We have not looked for an equal third, third, third balance in every partnership structure we have got.

Mr Martin Caton

  17. Could you describe the process an applicant goes through to get a bid approved? I realise this might vary according to which priority we are looking at, which measures and whether it was business or in the voluntary sector. If each of you could very briefly go through that?
  (Mr Flamson) If I give an overview, and I think it picks up a point that Sylvia has made before. If one is going through a commissioning round then you are beginning to narrow the range of applicants, rather than if you are going through a open bidding round. The nature of the commissioning or approach has an effect on some of that pre-application timetable. This needs to be understood. I think we have this discussion within each of our partnerships. When you look at applications or projects there is a pre-application stage. How do you convert an idea into something that is a credible opposition and then work that up into an application? That can take some considerable time if it is a major or complex project. That is the pre-application stage. Sometimes people mix that up. They think the moment they have lodged an idea with somebody, which may just be an idea to work through, they think the clock has started ticking. I think people need to be disabused of that; because that is a project development pre-application stage. When it actually comes to the application stage, the formality of the application in terms of the standard forms of ERDF and ESF that are submitted, that will then go through to the Government Office; and we have slightly different systems but, in effect, what happens is that an application would be logged, somebody would be assigned to appraise that application in quite a rigorous way—sometimes using external consultants or internal experts, for example cost benefit analysis, looking at viability checks, looking at the deliverability of the project—and all of that takes place within what people sometimes call the "application or appraisal stage". That is usually a Government Office stage. It is hard to say on every single application how long that would take. You are talking really of an 8-12 week period. If it is a relatively straightforward application then obviously it would be quicker. If it is a really complex application it would take a lot longer than 12 weeks; but (and it is a big "but") that turnaround time in that application stage is in direct proportion to the quality time that has gone on in the preapplication stage. If any programmes suffer one thing in common it is that they get dumped on by a lot of applications many of which are not well thought out, and people then get a lot of angst and think that these are unfairly dealt with; when actually what is happening, and I think this has slowed down programmes across the country, people have been attending to project development issues in the appraisal stage. If one was being cruel to be kind, they should have been rejected much earlier or sent back to the applicant and said, "Could you work this up more because we really can't deal with this in the state it's in", but roughly speaking in that sort of period. Then of course after that you are into an implementation stage, when approval is given with appropriate conditions and accepted, and then it is up to the project sponsor or applicant to deliver that. You then move into a programme management stage. How do you make this applicant work and make happen what they have applied for? There are different stages, and I think we just need to delineate those stages, and to look at the processes and the communication that applies to the applicant community in each. I think it is very important that those stages are transparent but rigorous. I think in our different ways we have all been seeking to try and improve them for the benefit of the customer and in terms of the applicant, but also for the benefit of the stakeholders who are overseeing the vision.

  18. You get to the appraisal stage and somebody is designated to undertake the appraisal, is it one of your members of staff that is involved or how about the partnerships you talk about, are they involved?
  (Mr Flamson) That is how the application would be dealt with. At that particular appraisal stage you can use external consultants if it was very specialist. You can use some of your panels or the partnership boards as a sort of first check. Again, there are different sequences that people would adopt there without unduly delaying. In the end what would happen, again in our different ways but the similarity is, that a recommendation would be reached and that recommendation would be put before the appropriate body. In Merseyside's case we have panels who look at business skills, community development or property development; and one of those panels, chaired by a non-executive leader from the partnership (not chaired by government) would debate applications, receive their recommendation and make the decision. So it is a partnership engagement in that decision. If it was really big stuff, over 5 million euro grant, then in our case it would go to the programme monitoring committee.

  19. Step back to your pre-application stage, I take your point about being cruel to be kind but when you say, "This isn't up to standard, we need for it to be an actual application but there may be a seed of a positive, good, worthwhile idea here", is there any way you can then help in that project development?
  (Mr Flamson) Yes, very much so. If people are asking me to describe, "What are the key functions of a programme executive, what skill sets are you looking for?" I do have a personal view on this. I do not think sufficient attention has been given to one part of the skill set. I think we are looking at three things: firstly, the skills to help with project development, helping people convert good ideas into workable projects; secondly, skills appraisal, making sure that you can take a good decision in the public interest; and, thirdly, skills of programme management—being able to drive individual projects to conclusion in support of the project sponsor. At that point you have said, "This is a good idea", so it moves into an advocacy role of trying to make it happen. I think that is what programme executives, however they are constructed, do. I think the ways in which people exercise the project development side differ. You can use the wider partnership to a greater degree rather than, say, the executive stage.
  (Ms Yates) I sent our first indication of service standards and you can see what the process looks like in South Yorkshire, or does at the moment; we are going to modify that in the light of the other changes we are going to make. We have published our targets for achieving the processing of registered interest forms, which is the first indication of a project idea, and then what we do with the application, and would seek to tighten those up and make the timescale as short as possible, but recognising all of the points made about the degree to which ideas work in the first place. You could spend a month, if not years sometimes, working with people to get the right balance of activity and support.
  (Ms Yates) We will start to do things differently from the middle of this year. The registration of interest forms that we introduced in the early days will probably begin to drop off now and we will go to direct business planning with applicants and then an application form on top of that. We will consult partners about the business plans but, increasingly, once the full applications on the set forms have been through the appraisal mechanism, we will simply approve because we have the initial approval both to the strategy and to the idea in the first place, and that will be one of the mechanisms we will introduce to speed up delivery and get commitment levels up to where we want them to be to achieve spend.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002