Tipped as a safe pair of hands, the new Secretary of Secretary for State for Housing, Communities and Local Government seems to have all the attributes the Prime Ministers likes in a politician. Most expect him to knuckle down and ‘just do his job’.
But whilst the column inches have centred on how this week’s mini-reshuffle affects the Cabinet’s Brexit balance, it’s easy to forget the significant challenges that lie ahead for James Brokenshire, the new Housing Secretary. He holds the key to a fairer, more inclusive Britain that ensures disadvantaged communities receive the skills and employment support they need – which is no small policy area.
When Britain leaves the European Union, it will lose its European Social Fund (ESF) – a huge pot of money worth £500 million every year in England and Wales alone for programmes supporting individuals and communities that fall outside mainstream government provision. Brokenshire’s Ministry holds responsibility for its replacement – the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) – and has the chance to design a world-leading successor initiative.
However, with time running out and Britain edging ever closer to Brexit, what does the new Housing Secretary need to know?
The government needs to act urgently to avoid a gap in funding for disadvantaged jobseekers and their communities. A cliff edge in funding could mean people who need support, such as individuals with mental health conditions, young people with learning difficulties and ex-offenders, lose out on vital employment support. The loss of funding could also have a profound impact on organisations delivering ESF projects, leading to a loss of expertise, infrastructure and partnerships that could, at best, take years to recover or, at worst, disappear altogether.
The government needs to provide guarantees on current funding, which will impact the shape and size of the successor. There is a lack of clarity about what will happen after the current round of ESF monies ends, with the prognosis varying between nations and across funding streams. Organisations need firm commitments so they can plan ahead and adjust their business plans accordingly.
The government needs to provide more detail on the successor fund. Since its initial announcement in the Conservative manifesto last June, there has been very little additional information about the UKSPF provided and efforts to seek further clarity have been unproductive. Experts from across the employment, skills and civil society sectors need to be involved at the earliest stage for the new initiative to be a success – hopefully the new Housing Secretary will excel where his predecessor fell short.
ERSA and the NCVO lead an expert Working Group on the future of the ESF and are working across sectors, nations, departments and levels of government to support the work on the Shared Prosperity Fund. If the new Secretary of State can live up to his reputation, we all hope he will listen to the sector’s advice and knuckle down on the UKSPF without delay.
Sam Windett, Head of Policy and Communications, ERSA