EXCLUSIVE: 'Ridiculous constraints' mar high street fund

By Dan Peters | 08 October 2020

Councils may be left out of pocket after spending thousands of pounds on safety measures they cannot claim back from an economic recovery fund, it has emerged.

A £50m fund for councils across England to prepare for the safe reopening of high streets and other retail spaces was announced in May and the Government promised it would be ‘ready to spend’ from the start of June, but a number of councils have yet to receive a penny.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is understood to have been made aware that a number of councils may have spent money on items that are not eligible for the Reopening High Streets Safely Fund (RHSSF), which comes from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund.

Some frustrated councils are now regretting ever having bothered to take advantage of the bureaucratic fund, which involved the completion of masses of paperwork and logging on to a number of webinars that attempted to guide them through the claiming process.

A number of local authorities have been told they are unable to get back some of the money they have spent.

Some have blamed unclear guidance - believed to have been flagged as an issue by the LGA at the time - issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

A report to a LGA meeting read: ‘The £50m safer reopening of high streets fund to councils was a helpful step in the initial phase of coming out of lockdown, but councils have found that there were too many limitations on it and additional funding will be needed to rebuild healthy high streets.’

An LGA spokesman added: ‘At a time when many councils have been facing financial challenges it is important that they do not end up with unexpected additional costs.

'We have raised this issue with the Government as councils should be able to access this additional support in an efficient and flexible way so that it can be spent on issues that matter locally.’

One council chief executive said: ‘The Government has put the most ridiculous constraints on use of this funding that it is almost impossible to find something you can spend it on – most of the most useful things (e.g. reopening public toilets safely) are barred.’

Bradford City Council’s portfolio holder for regeneration, planning and transport, Alex Ross-Shaw, added: ‘The fund had so many strings attached to it, it was never going to be ready to spend from 1 June.

'We’ve only just been allocated a contracts manager.

‘There’s a pattern of behaviour from the Government making big announcements that don’t match up to the reality.

'Local authorities are stuck with a hugely bureaucratic process or spending money they don’t have, which was promised to them months ago and which they may never get back.’

An MHCLG spokesman said: ‘We have been clear about the remit of the fund, which allows for four main types of activity.

'Officials have been in contact with councils in answering their eligibility queries.’

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Local economies Whitehall Business Finance Local Government Association MHCLG Chief executives Economic growth EU High street

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