Just over 15 years ago, a special programme for rural areas was introduced in the Netherlands. The start of this so-called LEADER programme took place in the north-westerly part of the province of Friesland, the first LEADER region in the Netherlands.
LEADER is one of the initiatives of the European Commission. LEADER is the acronym of Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Economie Rurale (loosely translated as ”collaborating in rural development”). It is an experimental programme giving a social-economic impulse to country regions. This is done by way funding local and regional initiatives in order to support the regions that endeavour working together. LEADER could be called the incubator for a new rural policy with support for initiatives from the grassroots level, the bottom-up approach. So these are not any schemes initiated by (local) government but by ordinary people, local societies or private parties. The power of this approach is mainly in bringing local initiatives to life, and the opportunities provided by LEADER in facilitating and financially supporting these often rather small-scale activities.
In this theme issue of Noorderbreedte we elaborate on some of the projects from the current LEADER programme. We introduce some of the initiators of these projects. And we take a look at the meaning of these projects for the revival of the countryside, for the quality of life, and for the further development of a town or region.
Putting it into perspective: in the previous period (2000-2008) Noord-Nederland (the name of a cooperation covering the northern part of the Netherlands) had eight LEADER regions in the three northern provinces. Nationwide there are 28 LEADER regions. The Noord-Nederland cooperation checked the projects for subsidy criteria to make sure the European rules are properly complied with. In this period, 366 subsidies for local and regional projects have been made available on the Noord-Nederland scale. In all it’s about 28.5 million euro of LEADER subsidies on a total funding of 120 million euro. The remaining monies were provided by private parties, various funds and especially by self-motivation.

The success of the implementation and future operation of these projects mainly depends on the input from volunteers. In a survey, Hanze University has made it clear that local forces characterise the countryside and the success of the projects depends to a great extent on mobilising those local forces. The nature of the projects is very diverse and mostly based on a small scale. The examples quoted in this issue of Noorderbreedte are related to agriculture, cultural history, nature and landscape, tourism, locally grown products, archaeology, sports and leisure time activities, providing information, education, starting entrepreneurs, landscape architecture, integrated fisheries and international collaboration. The economic effects are particularly felt in the sum total of activities and initiatives. There is not one universal solution for everything but rather many solutions that lead to results. It is not a matter of wanting to work together, but rather of having to work together for the future, not only to secure the quality of life but also to strengthen the regional economy, which is a very important condition for the quality of life in rural areas. For some time we have been seeing a transition from a spatial development dominated by activities such as agriculture to one that is more focussed on activities such as living and recreation. It remains important and may become even more important in the future in view of the possible decline in population numbers. Nourishing the potential of the village and its surroundings will benefit the countryside. Collaboration will remain the key word to achieve this goal.
Brainpower, expertise, scientific knowledge and creativity must be mobilised and developed, and as a prosperous periphery, Noord-Nederland may even set an excellent example and become a source of inspiration for other West European areas.

This special edition of Noorderbreedte has been accomplished with the help of LEADER coordinators Jan Beekman, Vronie Bootsma and Henk Rozema, and with support from the provinces of Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe, the Rural Areas Network and the communities taking part in the LEADER programme.