Pathfinders were announced in 2004 - the real purpose as developing the strategy was to ensure that in the process of devolving decision making mechanisms were in place for Central Government to engage better with Local Authorities.
8 Areas around England
The initial aims in the prospecturs were local priority setting, encouragement of innovative joined up solutions to rural delivery problems, deciding what at local level works best - all embedded in the rural strategy - none rocket science but worth saying anyway.
In addition it was about creating a mechanism for rural polic relationship with local govt; giving extra strengh to the way councils can engage in the policy debate; helping government to appreciate the policy challenge at local level; integration of rural funding streams; making the rural side of LAAs go better.
It was clear that central govt really didn't have a clue about how local govt works in this sphere and that has improved (a bit). They were anxious too to deal with the integration of funding streams primarily by helping authorities understand how they flow.
Progress in the last eighteen months, so significant outcomes are hard to see - but there is progress - testing and strengthening of existing relevant partnerships; there are lots of interesting things being done and contemplated (many might have been done anyway, but pathfinders have given a forum for talking about them and probably improving them as they go); seeing good central-local dialogue (including GOs); and the impact on rural LAAs - not all the way, but clearly progress.
However the funding streams integration hasn't got very far except to help everyone learn how difficult it is to understand!
This was established as a 2 year programme to fit in with the anticipated spending round. Next year will ensure there's some proper reportage including a national conference to hear from those involved in the pathfinders and to learn lessons.
Important not to stop in 2007 when the programme finishes - good things need to continue!
Will also want to broaden and mainstream the process (drop the 'pathfinder' tag) but keep enough structure to allow influencing to happen.
Start thinking hard about new challenges:
intensified LAAs and LSPs - the local government white paper is to be released very shortly - this will be tremendously important and hopefully encouraging.
improving rural delivery partnerships at regional as well as local level;
a new Rural Development Programme to start sometime next year - RDA's will be spending £80m a year in England covering the competitiveness of farming (Access 1) and the socio-economic side (Access 3), so need a step change in the way that Government, Local Government and the Voluntary Sector relate to the RDAs;
implementing the Leader-approach - 5% must be spent in this manner. In practice a large amount of this will be found from the socio-economic side. So making this work properly will be mission-critical. Some of the work done in the pathfinder process will be very important in making this work.
economic, social and environmental 'integration' in the new RDP.
We hadn't thought of this when we set up the pathfinders, but we said it was important that we had a better relationship with you and it's gratifying that that groundwork has been laid ahead of these important trends.
And so whither Rural policy? Under Miliband we are taking stock (or throwing it up in the air and seeing where it might land) - so much talk of "mainstreaming" rural policy but little understanding yet of what that might actually mean. What we do know though is that the importance of rural policy is undiminished at a national and european level.