Crowdfunding model for community grants a ‘step into darkness’

Lib Dems Daniel Purchese, Morwen Millson, and James Walsh outside County Hall. They succesfully persuaded committee members to call for the Tory-led West Sussex County Council to pause a new crowdfunding model for community projects.

A new crowdfunding model for community grants in West Sussex has been described as a ‘step into the darkness’ by councillors.

The Members’ Big Society Fund, Community Initiative Fund (CIF), and Small Grants Fund are set to be rolled into one scheme by West Sussex County Council from April.

A new model will be created and supported by an online crowdfunding platform, but the council grant budget has been slashed from £660,000 to £330,000 for 2018/19.

Lib Dem councillors raised concerns about the changes and called-in the decision.

The Environment, Community and Fire Select Committee then backed a pause to the scheme’s introduction to receive more information on Wednesday (February 7).

Councillors supported the idea of a crowdfunding platform, but preferred a trial or transition period before full implementation.

Heidi Brunsdon (Con, Imberdown) asked if enough due diligence had been carried out and questioned the ‘degree of indecent haste’.

She said: “I think we are stepping into the darkness on this.”

She added: “I think it’s a bit too early to jump into the deep end on something we know very little about.”

Meanwhile James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, suggested smaller organisations and more deprived areas would be at a disadvantage, criticised the lack of scrutiny, and argued the current system was working well.

He said: “The Community Initiative Fund is working well and supported in the West Sussex communities. Why change something that is not broken?”

Daniel Purchese (Ldem, Rustington) argued they were ‘potentially sidelining a huge swathe of the demographic’ by shifting to an online only platform.

He added: “It’s slightly disappointing this committee has not had the opportunity to scrutinise this at a much earlier stage.”

The online platform would be run by Spacehive at a cost of £88,000 over the first three years, and then £22,000 a year after that.

The council is expected to save money by a reducing back-office support administering the current funds.

New community projects would be submitted to the crowdfunding platform for residents, organisations and businesses able to donate.

Verification would be carried out before any projects went live, while donations would be held by a secure third party until a funding target was reached when they would be released.

Organisers could then select the option of applying for CIF funding from the county council, with decisions on these grants continuing to be made by individual County Local Committees.

Debbie Kennard (Con, Shoreham North), cabinet member for safer, stronger communities, said: “Our job and roles as county councillors dispersing these funds to the community will not change. All we are doing is now the community will have the chance to gain funding while we are backing them.”

She described how the new model would allow them to ‘maximise the benefits for the community’ as the council currently receives applications for far more funding than it has available each year.

She explained: “This is not about saving money even though there are savings to be made. It’s about maximising benefits to the community and what they can get.”

Councillors raised concerns about the ability of residents without internet access to complete applications, but officers said support would be made available at libraries.

They also described how the majority of current CIF applications are completed online.

Simon Oakley (Con, Chichester East) suggested a crowdfunding system could ‘lead to a popularity contest’ while Andrew Baldwin (Con, Horsham East) added: “I’m not convinced we have got all the answers.”

Andrew Barrett-Miles (Con, Burgess Hill North), chairman of the committee, summed up calls for greater assurance and evidence before the changes are implemented and a request for a presentation from Spacehive to councillors.

The cabinet member does not have to follow the committee’s resolution.

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