Cash crisis raises fear for future of rural projects

From left at the hall: Mark Wilson, Neil Booth, Janice Wood, Mark Woolley and Martin Bell. 'Picture by Gerard Binks.

From left at the hall: Mark Wilson, Neil Booth, Janice Wood, Mark Woolley and Martin Bell. 'Picture by Gerard Binks.

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SENIOR politicians have admitted that a deepening financial crisis in the public sector will intensify pressures to ensure Yorkshire’s rural communities receive millions of pounds in European funding.

A huge question mark hangs over the future arrangements of the hugely successful LEADER programme, which has provided a financial backbone to hundreds of projects in rural communities across the region.

But the perilous state of the nation’s economy has meant that swingeing cutbacks in funding from Westminster have left councils across the region faced with funding settlements even worse than initially feared.

North Yorkshire County Council was instrumental in establishing the country’s most successful LEADER programme, but many of the civil servants involved are no longer employed at the local authority.

The county council is now faced with an even worse funding settlement following an announcement last week by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.

The authority is facing a deficit in the region of £24m over the next two years instead of the anticipated £22m, meaning it will have to enforce £93m in savings by 2014/15.

The council’s leader, Coun John Weighell, said: “The benefits of the LEADER programme have been of huge benefit not just in North Yorkshire, but for rural communities across the whole country.

“As the funding cuts from Westminster bite, it is vitally important that we have alternative funding streams available. The problem is that we do not have anywhere near the same resources as we did when the first LEADER programme was set up.

“It is heartening to hear that there will be more funding available, but there are some very real concerns over exactly how much and what form the new programme will take. Reassurances need to be given, as this is a hugely important source of funding for rural communities.”

The Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, Robert Goodwill, told the Yorkshire Post that he has witnessed the benefits of funding from the current LEADER programme throughout his constituency.

Mr Goodwill is himself a farmer on a 250-acre farm at Terrington, near Malton, which has been run by his family since 1850.

He said: “We need to make every effort to get the structure in place for the next round of funding. It is a vital source of money for so many rural communities.”

While uncertainty remains over the available resources in the UK, the exact amount of funding which will be provided from the European Union has also yet to be established.

An EU summit to discuss the budget for 2014 to 2020 broke up last month with Prime Minister David Cameron warning the deal being offered in Brussels “was not good enough”.

Talks are expected to resume in the new year, but the lack of a clearly defined path to the new round of LEADER funding has led to key figures having to look for alternative employment.

Mike Horrocks, who has overseen the country’s most successful scheme, the North York Moors, Coast and Hills LEADER Programme, since its inception, admitted that he has been forced to look for a new job.

Mr Horrocks moved to North Wales with his wife Ali and their two young children earlier this month to start work as the corporate programme manager at Denbighshire County Council.

He said: “The programme has seen lots of people getting around the table to work together, and it is vital that this continues.

“There were previously gaps in the rural infrastructure, and there is always a danger that this will disappear. It will be a real challenge to build this up again.

“The saddest thing is for the groups of volunteers, who have done so much for their communities. These are the people that must not drift away, but there is a danger that will happen if there is a gap between the award of funding.

“There is a real positive attitude at the moment to carry on working together, but this can quickly fall away if we are not extremely careful. Good will is nothing without the resources to back it up.”

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