MILLIONS IN AID LYING UNSPENT

CUMBRIA'S most deprived communities could lose millions of pounds of European cash which is lying unspent.

Only one third of £30million set aside for six major initiatives in needy rural and urban areas has been lined up for specific projects.

And just a small fraction of that has actually been spent.

Government officials blame a lack of people on the ground to draw up Cumbria's bids for the cash, and a lack of "tangible proposals, but some who are close to the bidding process say the red tape involved is "horrendous".

Leaders of each initiative have now been given less than a year to spend the money - or lose 60 per cent of it.

Initiatives now at risk include one strand of a foot and mouth rural rescue plan which Cumbria County Council claimed would create or save 1,200 jobs.

The money was trumpeted last February as a means of funding 27 separate projects including business centres in Wigton, Cockermouth and Longtown. Only three projects have actually received any cash.

A £7.5million initiative to help regenerate the urban west coast of Cumbria is in better shape and should get to keep its Euro-funds.

Government Office North West has said if any of the six initiatives fail to spend 40 per cent of the EU money by the end of next September, what is left will be taken away.

The biggest potential loser is the plan to make rural Cumbria an "economic development zone" (EDZ).

Leaders of the zone have committed just £660,000 of the £6million made available by Europe.

That includes:

n £250,000 towards the £3million Wordsworth Trust centre, Grasmere;

n £235,000 towards a £1.08million facelift of the Whinlatter Visitor Centre, the home of the ospreys;

n £152,000 towards a £877,000 revamp of the Nenthead Mines.

Rosie Mathisen, director of the European Liaison Unit which helps free up cash for Cumbrian initiatives, said the main problem was too few hands "on the ground".

Too few of the rural projects had been worked up into "tangible" proposals, she added.

"The Cumbrian EDZ is the most vulnerable," she said.

"A lot of my concerns are to do with having the people on the ground to do long-term jobs of building the projects. It is the one that may need the most support."

The West Cumbria and Furness EDZ has managed to allocate £3.1million (41 per cent) of the £7.56million made available by the EU, although much has not yet been spent.

To qualify for European cash, projects have to be approved not only by a "partnership" of public and private bodies overseeing the EDZ, but also by the regional government office.

That has extremely tight rules on what does and does not qualify.

One source close to the bidding process described the red tape as "horrendous".

A third initiative - "Business and Ideas" - was awarded £12.6million of the £30million Euro-pot to help bring new commerce to Cumbria.

Less than £1million has been spent so far. Businesses have been reluctant to pump in their own money to free up the European cash. State aid rules mean that the EU can fund no more than 15 per cent of the cost of a private-sector project.

The £30million money was awarded to Cumbrian initiatives for the period 2000-06.

n Cumbria's separate five-year plan for a £265million Rural Action Zone is not in question and the company that will run it will be operative in April.