Lancashire could still be benefiting from a European Union funding pot for almost five years after the official date of Brexit.
The government has told the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) that it can extend the length of time it has to use up any remaining money allocated to it from the European Social Fund (ESF).
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Lancashire was awarded almost £75m of ESF cash for the period 2014-2020 - the last time UK regions will receive it before the country departs from the EU.
But the county has recently been a handed a £12m windfall, after changes to the exchange rate made its grant - which is paid in euros - more valuable. The euro has strengthened against the pound since the EU referendum result in June 2016.
Projects funded by the ESF were due to end in July 2021, but are now permitted to run until the end of 2023. However, Whitehall wants confirmation of Lancashire’s plans for the remaining cash within the next month - or the county risks having to sacrifice it to a national pot.
ESF money is spent on schemes designed to boost employment opportunities and to bridge economic gaps between different parts of the EU member states. They also require additional ‘match funding’ from the public or private sector in order to be approved.
A meeting of the LEP skills and employment board heard that UK government approval for brand new projects can take up to twelve months - and so endorsed a proposal to extend the life of existing schemes, subject to their performance.
These include collaborations with the University of Central Lancashire and Lancaster University to enhance vocational training, as well as broader efforts to help people who are not in employment, education or training of any kind.
Shaun McGrath, Lancashire County Council’s head of external investment and funding, told members that the spending plans “ensure that there is no gap between projects ending and the start of the government’s shared prosperity fund”, a UK-based scheme designed to replicate the functions of the ESF.
The ESF is estimated to have helped create 70,000 jobs in the North of England during its last full funding round, according to research by the University of Sheffield.