England receives £1.5bn a year in European structural funds aimed at reducing regional disparities across Europe.
Understanding their scale and effectiveness is crucial, as is taking stock of lessons learnt from their delivery and administration. This is all the more important as the UK is set to leave the EU and future funding arrangements need to be designed.
Our final report finds that ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and ESF (European Social Fund) funding have played an important role in delivering environmental and rural objectives since 2007. The lack of other funding mechanisms to tackle these objectives suggest replacement funds could have a clear role to play post Brexit.
As part of our study, we sought to identify key factors that enhanced or hindered the effectiveness of the funding. To do so, we conducted interviews with project providers and government stakeholders and undertook focus groups with representatives from a wide range of local sub-committees engaged in supporting the delivery of the funds.
The long term nature of European funding and the consistency of its priorities over time were found to be critical in allowing local environmental projects to come to fruition. However stakeholders felt that current funding priorities focused too narrowly on preventing degeneration of the environment and there would be benefit from a wider focus including promoting natural capital and nature recovery and protecting the environment in the future. Broader interpretations of funding eligibility for climate change adaptation and the shift to a low carbon economy were also seen as key considerations for getting the most out of future funding arrangements.
European funding was found to have played an important role in enhancing rural SME competitiveness, promoting research and innovation and supporting the shift to a low carbon economy in rural areas. But stakeholders suggested that future funding might also wish to consider other important rural priorities such as community development and workforce skills. Aspects of eligibility criteria would also benefit from being revisited in future funding arrangements as they may have contributed to a city-centric approach to funding allocations, meaning some rural priority areas received relatively little attention.
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