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Growth fund is failing Westcountry

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 11, 2012

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A powerful committee of MPs claims it is "scandalous" a £1.4 billion Government fund to boost the economies of the regions is plagued by delays.

The Committee of Public Accounts has criticised the Regional Growth Fund for failing to get money to the companies on the ground two years after it opened for business.

The Commons spending watchdog found £60 million – or just 4% of the entire fund – has reached projects on the front-line, with a raft of job creation schemes in the Westcountry yet to have an impact.

Their inquiry found across the country only 5,200 jobs can be claimed as having been created or safeguarded – well short of a target of 36,800 over the lifetime of these projects.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: "Given the dire state of the economy, it is nothing short of scandalous that so few projects funded by the Regional Growth Fund have actually got off the ground."

Some £100 million has been committed to projects across the South West, but some have been mired in bureaucracy.

Among projects waiting to get cash, according to the report, are a new space exploration venture at Goonhilly Earth Station near Helston, Cornwall, a Princess Yachts factory in Plymouth and luxury leather goods firm Mulberry's new facility in Bridgwater, Somerset.

In November, the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) netted £13 million to inject cash into small businesses and underwrite infrastructure schemes.

But the committee criticised local bodies appointed as "intermediaries" that are failing to get cash into the community. Yet authorities in Cornwall said they "confidently expect" to invest all £13m by the March 2014 deadline.

Ms Hodge said: "The rest of the £470 million spent so far had been parked in intermediary bodies, over which the departments have limited control. It is unclear what is being done to make sure that money is not wasted but spent on creating real jobs."

Some of the kick-start cash appears to have reached businesses as intended.

Around £6 million earmarked for Geothermal Engineering to build the UK's first commercial "hot rocks" facility in West Cornwall is among the one-third to get final approval.

Meanwhile, the Plymouth University and Western Morning News Growth Fund, which was given £1 million to help small businesses who were having problems securing funding to focus on growth and job creation, has handed out around 80% of the money secured from the Department for Business.

Simon Mallett, scheme manager of the Plymouth University and Western Morning News Growth Fund, said the scheme was "agile", it had attracted strong bids from firms and that it was poised to out-perform targets set by the Government.

Local Enterprise Partnerships and the Regional Growth Fund effectively replace Labour's Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), but LEPs have no money for staff and regions are getting a fraction of the spending money through the growth fund.

The Exeter-based South West RDA spent around £1 billion on regeneration projects such as the Wave Hub tidal energy terminal, off the North Cornwall coast near Hayle, and the Combined Universities in Cornwall at Tremough.

Former Minister for the South West, Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw, said: "Given that Government policy has plunged Britain into a double-dip recession it is a scandal that so little of the money earmarked for growth in the regions has been delivered.

"They inherited a perfectly good system with the South West Regional Development Agency that helped see us through the banking crisis post 2008. But the coalition tore that up and all we've had since is a vacuum. Scores of fancy announcements from Cameron but little or nothing delivered."

In the Commons last night Business Secretary Vince Cable was asked whether he was embarrassed so many winning bidders are still waiting for their cash.

He said: "I'm not in the least bit embarrassed by the Regional Growth Fund, which is a major success story. There are a very large number of projects which are actually up and running and creating large numbers of jobs."

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