9 March: How we've helped to make the £2.4 billion Regional Growth Fund more transparent.
The third round of Regional Growth Fund (RGF) funding has just opened for applications and, thanks to pressure from campaigners, this time there has been a significant change in the way the public will be able to scrutinise the bids.
The RGF is a £2.4 billion pot of funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to local projects run by councils and businesses, and includes many transport schemes and new roads. The first two rounds of the RGF have seen road schemes being handed this funding with no information being released to the public at all and, along with local campaigners, we’ve been busily challenging this.
In November, we used Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation to ask the department to release Round 2’s successful bid documents but were refused, with BIS saying that all the information in the bids was commercially confidential.
We have appealed to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) about this and, in the meantime, volunteer campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Anthony Rae, has seen success with his own appeal to the ICO about a local RGF road scheme - the Finningley and Rossington Regeneration Route Scheme which would run from Robin Hood Airport to the M18. After refusing his request initially and at internal review, BIS has now agreed to allow Anthony to see the bid documents, so we are hoping that our appeal will yield similar results.
And all this pressure has led BIS to make much clearer in the £1 billion third round of the RGF that details of applicants’ bids will be subject to FOI. At the top of the previous RGF application form (archived by us here in Google documents), bidders were told simply this :
"Applicants should be aware that information provided in confidence is likely to be exempt information under the terms of Section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and that the operating department will respect its confidentiality."
But in the application form for RGF Round 3, the phrase "likely to be exempt" has been changed to "may be exempt" and applicants are asked to say whether they wish each answer to be considered confidential and, if so, to provide clear a justification for why the information should be covered by FOI exemptions.
This is a significant step, and should enable the public to obtain much more information much more easily about these projects. However, it still falls far short of the policy of full website publication of transport project bids, which is now the practice of the Department for Transport.
Along with local campaigners, we’ll continue to put pressure on BIS because it’s clear that, like any other decision where public money is put into potentially damaging projects, RGF bids need to be scrutinised and challenged in the open before funding decisions are made.
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