Headlines: October 14th, 2004

Seven rural pathfinder partnerships have been announced for England as a step towards giving communities in the countryside more power to set their own priorities and to target the use of resources. The government says the move reflects its commitment to devolve decision-making and resources to the English regions and to local people. The Local Government Association has welcomed the announcement.The pathfinders will bring together local authorities, regional development agencies, the voluntary sector, community councils, and others to test practical ways to make local service delivery better and to develop mechanisms for providing services that are needed where they are needed most.

The seven are Dorset, the Peak District Rural Action Zone, which covers the Derbyshire High Peak and Dales, Staffordshire Moorlands and East Staffordshire areas of the Peak District National Park, Shropshire, Hampshire, Yorkshire and the Humber, including the Humber Rural Unitary Authorities, Lancashire and the Fenland areas of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Peterborough. Each pathfinder is in a different Government Office region. The north east of England will join the programme after the referendum on an elected regional assembly has taken place.

Naming the seven, Alun Michael, the Minister for Rural Affairs, said the government was committed to devolving resources and to enabling local people themselves to play an increased role in determining how their priorities were met. The initiative was about targeting specific needs, and tackling those needs at a local level and making better use of local resources and effort. “It is not about intangible or ephemeral aspirations – it’s about jobs and services, and enabling local partnerships to deliver. The pathfinders will get to the root of the issues, identify barriers and how to overcome them, and help to spread what works,” he added.

The pathfinders’ programme, and especially the lead role that local authorities will play in it, has the backing of the Local Government Association. Councillor Alan Melton, Chairman of its Rural Commission, said, “It is vital that the pathfinders are given the support they need to develop new ways of working. If barriers get in the way, they must be removed, and the findings of their work must be listened to, to help shape the future of rural delivery for all. We want local communities to be able to notice a positive difference.”

The need to inject new thinking into the way services are delivered to rural people in the future, is the theme of the ‘ruralnet2004’ conference which goes into its second day today at Maidstone in Kent. Organisers say traditional services delivered in traditional ways by traditional service providers are being withdrawn on a daily basis, hitting the most disadvantaged rural people the hardest. New thinking and innovation is required urgently.