Of the first six programmes aimed at provision for young people not in education, employment or training (Neet) funded by much-delayed European Social Fund (ESF) cash, one was in the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership region. Jo Lappin outlines the process now tenders are finally open.

The decision by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) to move forward with the ESF tenders for Neet provision is very much welcomed. It provides real reassurance that the mobilisation of the ESF element of European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) strategies has now properly started.

While the early progress with the Big Lottery was very positive, the delivery of significant activity and volume rests with the SFA and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) opt-ins.

The success of these will be critical to overall programme delivery at national level, particularly given that we are rapidly moving towards 2016 for a programme that was due to start in 2014.

It is understandable that the sector might be concerned about the timescales for the process, but the kind of organisations that are well placed to deliver these contracts will be used to operating at pace and will have considerable expertise of working with Neet clients.

They will also be very used to working with the SFA and understand the systems and processes, as they will already have completed the market entry pre-qualification process.

The role that individual local enterprise partnerships will play in the process differs from area to area based upon appetite and resource, with the SFA operating a flexible approach agreed in consultation with leps.

In Northamptonshire the focus has been on really adding value to the process and therefore concentrating on those elements that are most important to addressing local need. This started with working with the local ESIF Committee to develop Procurement Initiation Documents (PIDs) that fully reflected the specific needs of Northamptonshire, its labour market and the Neet client group, and importantly is genuinely additional to what is already being delivered in the locality.

While nobody would have chosen to be working to very tight timescales, it is important that we grasp this opportunity to really get the ESF programme moving

Leps, working through their ESIF Committees will also have the opportunity to provide a strategic fit assessment into the decision making process, reviewing best fit with local needs, with DWP, as managing authority, ensuring that this is done in a highly appropriate way that guards against vested interest.

Most Leps will take a very active role in both promoting the call for applications and supporting would-be applicants in developing their applications.

Leps will also be very conscious of the timescales that applicants are working to, and will be looking to put on workshops as soon as possible, for example in Northamptonshire the first workshop for would-be applicants is taking place on December 16. All Leps will also have detailed bidding information on their website and are likely to provide direct communications to would-be applicants so that they are aware of all bidding activity and deadlines.

Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership is well placed to be in the first wave of procurement, as we have excellent relationships with the local employment and skills community through our extensive governance arrangements. The Employment and Skills Strategy Board, chaired by Steve Davies, principal of Moulton College, really understands the skills system and is crucial in getting the message out to those who have a contribution to make in delivering activity.

In conclusion, while nobody would have chosen to be working to very tight timescales, it is important that we grasp this opportunity to really get the ESF programme moving. The national negotiation process with the European Commission took much longer than anticipated, and this is outside the control of the opt-in organisations and local partners. They, like us, just want to get things moving.