The government has brought forward by a year the start date for a new fund for skills investment.
The timing of the announcement, made just days ahead of the revised start date, has led to concern that local leaders’ hands will already be tied and providers will be unable to capitalise on the move.
The people and skills element of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is designed to help economically inactive adults into work through skills interventions.
Spending the cash had been restricted until April 2024, but the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said on Thursday that it will remove that restriction from April 2023.
DLUHC confirmed that authorities have already been allocated the cash and the start date for it has been moved forward.
However, concerns have been raised that many authorities will have already committed all of their allocation to the previous timeline, leaving them unable to take advantage of the change.
Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said: “This flex is definitely welcome and helps to minimise gaps in support – a temporary reduction in help that never made sense in the first place.
“But the fact that it’s so late in the day means that local areas already have other plans in place, that some existing programmes will already have closed and that putting in place new support will take time.”
Evans said he hoped local areas will “do all they can to make good use of these flexibilities” to ensure “proper investment in people, learning and skills”.
The DLUHC update said the fund is “well-aligned” to meeting the prime minister’s goal of boosting skills capability, and be “the main source of funding to support economically inactive individuals move towards employment”.
It said that the removal of the restriction will “maximise the impact of the fund in this area”.
The UKSPF launched in April last year, with the funding period running from April 2022 to March 2025.
It replaced the European Social Fund (ESF) which had been delivered through the European Union and was therefore no longer available to the UK post-Brexit.
Three priorities are being delivered through the fund – communities and place, supporting local business and people and skills.
The communities and place funding was able to be used from the launch last April, while the other two portions can be spent from this April (year two of the fund).
In addition, ringfenced funding is provided to authorities through the UKSPF to deliver the Multiply programme – the government scheme for adults without a grade C or above in maths to access free courses that will help them gain a maths qualification.
The £1.58 billion fund for England over the three years has been allocated to ten mayoral combined authorities and Greater London, 50 unitary authorities, 165 district and borough councils and 23 upper tier authorities.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils were among those to secure a slice of the cash – just over £1 million for Babergh and around £1.1 million for Mid Suffolk.
But allocations for year two of the fund have already been set.
A spokesperson for the two authorities said: “All of our year two projects have already been identified and projects are in commissioning stage with all funding committed. We will not seek to change the year two funding allocations.
“The outcomes and targets for the whole UKSPF programme have been signed off via our investment plan by DLUHC, there is no current opportunity to change these targets and add additional skills projects to the existing plan.
“We are working with Suffolk County Council [the local education authority] on commissioning skills projects for delivery in year three.”
Others have welcomed the move.
Graham Wood, economic development manager at the unitary authority Durham County Council, which was given £30.8 million in core UKSPF funding, said the council had shared its concern that funding people and skills from 2024 only would “create a real terms gap in provision of employment support programmes and wide-ranging upskilling opportunities”.
He added that the announcement “will allow us to advance our emerging plans for employment and skills activity”.
A spokesperson for the mayor of London said: “It’s vital that Londoners have the right skills to get good jobs in the industries that need them, which is why the mayor has long called for the government to bring forward the people and skills element of its Shared Prosperity Fund.
“City Hall officers will now work to establish when programmes can realistically start, given the late confirmation by government.”
Greater Manchester Combined Authority welcomed the move. Officials had already been working to align its recycled local growth fund cash with the skills and people element of the UKSPF that would effectively have brought forward the UKSPF cash by a year.