An officer at South Lakeland District Council has been awarded a prestigious Churchill Fellowship award to travel to the US and Canadian Rockies to explore strategies aimed at increasing the number of young people living and working in rural areas.
Economic Development Officer Ruth Leahy was one of only 150 people across the UK successful after submitting their project proposals for the 2019 round of applications. There were nearly 1,800 applicants.
Churchill Fellowships enable UK residents of all ages and backgrounds to “travel to learn, return to inspire”, and every year fellowships are offered in a series of “award categories” that reflect key contemporary issues. Churchill Fellowships are funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, a UK charity.
Born and raised in Kendal, Ruth studied Politics at undergraduate level and Sustainable Development for her postgraduate qualification at The University of Leeds, before returning back to South Lakeland after her studies to make her home.
Starting off in Colorado, US, and travelling the length of the Rockies across the Canadian border into British Columbia and ending in Alberta, Ruth will spend six weeks visiting rural mountain communities that offer an eclectic mix of culture, outdoor lifestyles and economic prospects.
She plans to meet elected officials, destination management boards, government officers and community leaders along her route, stopping off in some of the “coolest” towns in the US and Canada.
Ruth said: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from colleagues in rural communities on an international scale, and represent my work and home in new destinations.
“South Lakeland is a stunning part of the world with many economic and cultural benefits though there are challenges in the form of availability of affordable housing, unemployment, lower than average wages and a perceived lack of opportunity for young people.
“Innovative action is needed to ensure that our communities are sustainable, vibrant and resilient, and attracting young people to move and stay here is a crucial part of this.
“There is a global trend of young people migrating to cities, to the detriment of wonderful rural communities, however, the Rockies experience some of the youngest demographics globally.
“I’m hoping to capture the spirit of these young, thriving communities and bring some fantastic ideas back home so that our communities are more inclusive and sustainable.”
Gareth Candlin, Economic Development Programme Manager at SLDC, said: “We in the Economic Development team are immensely proud of Ruth’s achievement in being awarded this fellowship.
“It has involved a lot of hard work on her part on an issue she is passionate about. What she discovers and learns on her trip has great potential to influence decision and policy making in South Lakeland – making a real difference to people.”
This comes as South Lakeland’s new Council Plan seeks to put young people at the heart of the community, and create more opportunities for young people to live, work and explore.
The Great Place: Lakes and Dales Lottery-funded pilot project, initiated by Craven and South Lakeland District Councils, is currently working on how arts, heritage and culture can be used as a catalyst for economic, social and environmental change for younger people.
In its 2017 Rural Economy Growth Plan, Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) outlines the opportunity to develop a vision of Cumbria as the “Rockies of the UK”. Ruth has drawn inspiration from the strategic work being done in the county, and hopes to piece it all together with an action plan from her findings.
On her return from North America, Ruth plans to disseminate her learnings with a series of presentations to county and region-wide stakeholders, policy makers and communities to inspire new ways to tackle longstanding issues. She also plans to make a documentary along the route, focusing on rural living and community spirit.
Ruth joined SLDC in 2015 as an Economic Development Project Officer and has worked on a number of town and village regeneration projects across the district and Morecambe Bay.