Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Social Investment Fund

Posted on April 6, 2012 by stephennicholl In the run up to the 2011 Assembly elections the Executive announced the establishment of an £80 million Social Investment Fund. Almost a year later and we still await clarity on how the money will be spent. I have collated some of the comments I made during the consultation process. Any decision to focus on the need to invest resources to address poverty and deprivation is to be welcomed. Such decisions bring with them the responsibility to ensure that any interventions move beyond paying mere lip service to the issue and strategically deliver meaningful change to the lives of those affected. The Social Investment Fund will not address the causes of poverty and deprivation nor will it have the resources or time frame to break the poverty and deprivation cycle to ensure that equal opportunities are available for all. In this context the SIF must not become a barrier to further investment or development of more strategic and long term plans to ends all forms of inequality. The timescale for introduction of programs and funding suggest that the earliest resources are applied for the purposes intended will be September 2012. This shortens the time available to make meaningful change which can be measured and evaluated. A commitment to re-profile the budget will increase the annual spend which will either be reduced in future years or require additional commitments from the Executive to maintain the same level of activity. The high-level aim of the social investment fund is comparable to government objectives generally. The reality is however that the sums of money involved are less than has been applied to the same purpose over many years without a significant change in circumstances in most areas of deprivation. The areas of deprivation remain the same and the variation in the quality of life between those in the most deprived areas and those in the more affluent areas continues to widen. While the fund may encourage strategic partnership responses to issues it is reasonable to ask if such methods of working should already be mainstreamed into the day to day activity of the relevant agencies. The failure is not that there is not the finances to do this, the failure is that the system of government or more accurately the system of administration is based on a silo mentality where the first priority is to move the problem onto someone else’s desk or into another department. A streamlined system of delivery based on such working to address specific issues will deliver more effective interventions with a more efficient use of resources. The social investment fund proposal states that it does not displace any existing government schemes or programmes but will seek to optimise their impact and increase potential for synergy. As noted above it is questionable why such schemes are not already optimising their impact and increasing their potential. There is a concern that while government schemes are immune from displacement, schemes within the voluntary and community sectors are not offered the same protection. Similar schemes have not succeeded in the past and there is nothing new or innovative in these proposals to suggest that they will be any different from those have been tried before. If these schemes are to run parallel with neighbourhood renewal partnerships, community empowerment partnerships, community planning initiatives and other government programs then what form of evaluation will determine precisely which intervention leads to the eventual results. It is clear that the finances do not exist within this particular program to address all the issues targeted. This suggests there is a need to re-evaluate the use of central government funds to change the way government deliver services as a mechanism to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation. Poverty and deprivation are not short-term issues to be addressed by short-term funding. They are a long-term intergenerational failure of society to ensure that everyone benefits from the opportunities presented by a first world economy. Too often in the past there has been a focus on trying to address the consequences of poverty without making a long-term policy driven commitment to addressing the causes. Making some money available for a few years misses the point that those who live in poverty will be only the latest of a generation who live in the same poverty that their parents and grandparents lived in. While the intervention in communities must address the needs of all generations the investment must also be maintained for a generation. What have been classified as systemic issues linked to deprivation represent many of the consequences of poverty and deprivation. Tackling such issues cannot be seen as addressing deprivation in itself. Clarification must be given as to whether or not the social investment fund will provide additional resources to the projects and programmes already addressing the issues identified or will new competing programs be established. The process of regenerating and refurbishing existing facilities must clearly identify these will enhance local provision and how the revenue streams required to sustain such facilities will be provided. It must also be clear that play facilities and environmental improvements should not be seen as simply another funding stream for local government or other statutory providers to access simply to avoid meeting their current financial obligations. This strategic objective must be assessed against all of the other initiatives that have sought to achieve the same objective. Intensive focused investment through programs such as urban I and urban II along with a number of years of neighbourhood renewal initiatives give some idea of the task ahead. It should also be noted that general Government investment carries a much greater potential to influence the physical and social regeneration of deprived communities. For example if businesses targeted to locate at the Maze/Long Kesh development site were directed to Girdwood, Mackies or Titanic Quarter the potential for individuals from communities with high levels of deprivation to benefit would be higher. The 8 strategic plans seek to address issues which are already priorities for a wide range of government agencies and departments. If the objective is to create linkages between all of these issues then the total investment available must reflect the entire budgets available to address all these issues within all of the departments. If the process is not intended to properly integrate the delivery of services then it can only add to the complexity of government intervention which already exists. The areas identified have no relationship with any existing government structures. The absence of any concept of co-terminousity with existing structures will only add to the confusion that already exists over who can access the funds and who is outside the geographic areas as identified at present. The development of the Area plans makes it very clear that the vast majority of people in the investment zones will not be eligible for support under the inclusion guidelines. It is not clear whether or not the steering group should be made up of representatives who are in the potential investment zone as detailed above or should be restricted to representatives of those areas listed as suitable for inclusion as identified below. The questions in relation to the overall funding available for capital initiatives must include how a particular capital investment will drive social change. For example there is a need in inner city South Belfast for three primary schools to come together to create one sustainable school on a single site. Partnered with a strong commitment and ethos to changing educational outcomes such a development has the potential to address poverty and deprivation in the longer term. Should such investment be a basic core responsibility of the Department of Education or will be seen as something additional to be supported through the social investment fund. There is a need to clearly show that investment from the social investment fund is additional to general departmental spend but that departmental spend is still targeted on addressing the same issues relating to poverty and deprivation. The structures proposed represent a hierarchical top down approach with the final decisions being taken by OFMDFM. Such a structure also presents the potential for individual steering groups to work at different levels with different inputs, outputs and outcomes. There remains a significant issue of the existing delivery bodies such as Neighbourhood Renewal Partnerships and CEP’s as well as the future role (if any) of Local Government through the community planning function. A simplified framework could be led by local government through the community planning role with direct Ministerial oversight through a Minister led task-force on addressing poverty and deprivation capable of holding departments as well as community planning partnerships to account for delivery of agreed targets. There remains one over-arching issue in relation to the proposed programmes and themes, none can be addressed satisfactorily in the time –scale envisaged or with the funding that has been committed. Such goals can only be achieved by a fundamental shift in departmental resources being focussed on a transformation of service delivery and a clear signal that inter- departmental co-operation is a priority

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