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Over 70 delegates from government bodies, local organisations, police, health and community services met this week ...
Over 70 delegates from government bodies, local organisations, police, health and community services met this week at a one-day workshop to take forward a series of groundbreaking ideas for the 'Rural Action Zone' (RAZ) planned for South Holland.

Not least among those plans being discussed was for the way government spending is allocated to Lincolnshire to be rethought so that it enabled and supported 'cross department initiatives'. The complexities of providing effective services in such a rural area requires a much more integrated approach.

'RAZ' is a concept pioneered by Lincolnshire aimed at tackling head-on the problems faced by many people living in the more remote areas of the county: lack of access to public services, skills training and higher education, low wages, limited job opportunities and poor health.

Some of the ideas being piloted in South Holland could act as a blueprint for rural areas elsewhere in the country. This is particularly relevant now, with the publication of the government's Rural White Paper later this year.

'Life in the countryside is not quite the rural idyll many people believe,' says David Bowles, chief executive of Lincolnshire CC. 'For too many people, without the financial resources or private transport, it means they cannot access the services that will improve their quality of life. In terms of social deprivation, some remote parts of Lincolnshire - while they might have nice views and fresh air - are as deprived as poorer parts of the UK's big cities.'

'The economic pressures currently being faced by food producers and the farming community are making this situation worse. Many local people are dependent upon what is already a low wage industry. What's more, at any moment their employer could lose a major contract to a big supermarket chain which could put them out of a job.

'It is an irony, too that many people in remote areas are suffering from 'food poverty': they do not have easy access to the cheaper fresh foods available in larger supermarkets, which leads to poor nutrition - which has an effect on their health and their children's ability to learn. And yet we live in a county 'built' on food which is in over-supply.

'The whole thrust of RAZ has been to bring together everyone in the public and private sector and create 'joined up thinking'. 'Looking beyond the jargon,' says Chris Simpkins, chief executive of South Holland DC, 'this means that we don't look at the problems in isolation, but involve everyone in the 'chain'.

'We know this approach works. We have had massive success, for instance, in one local project to provide better services at home for elderly people - which has enabled many of them to return home and this has drastically cut our spending on residential and nursing care.

'Elsewhere, on the Royce Road estate in Spalding, we have received funding from the police, a local housing association and health trusts for a community development project. Why did they collaborate? Because a small amount of money from each of these 'pots' has helped us improve the living accommodation, health and job prospects for people on the estate - and reduce petty crime. Everyone benefits.'

Over the coming few months, Lincolnshire aims to put in place several of the new ideas suggested at the meeting, and also use them as a lever to attract additional funding existing national funding initiatives and Europe.

'What we are suggesting is innovative - we think our approach can be more effective than just trying to make rural problems 'fit' existing funding schemes. Applying this action zone approach in a rural area is attracting a lot of interest from policy makers as the government is under a lot of pressure to solve the problems of the countryside,' says Jim Speechley, leader of Lincolnshire CC.

'We want to break the cycle of 'low skills, low wages' by bringing food sellers and food producers together and encouraging the production of higher-value goods. We want to attract more highly skilled jobs into the area, and so reduce our dependence upon food production, by providing distance learning for people and setting up kids' clubs so people can take the jobs created. We want to keep more of our skilled young people - who are currently leaving the county for jobs elsewhere - by creating graduate placement schemes in local companies.

'All this and much, much more. Yes, it sounds ambitious - and it is ambitious. This area has suffered many years of lack of investment in its infrastructure, yet has a strong tadition of self help. We are prepared to be bold in our thinking in Lincolnshire - and take the blinkers off the way in which we all work. We look to government to back this approach to ensure that Lincolnshire, and rural areas like it, does not find itself falling further behind the rest of the country in terms of productivity, skills, health, wealth, education and life opportunities available to local people.

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