THE Government's drugs tsar Keith Hellawell yesterday launched a pioneering scheme aiming to tackle drugs and alcohol abuse in rural areas.

Mr Hellawell gave his backing to the Community Education Drugs Initiative, as he gave a speech to the annual conference of the Hambleton and Richmondshire Drug and Alcohol Reference Group, in Northallerton.

The project, which aims to educate youngsters about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, has already been given a boost by a £50,000 grant from the Health Authority Charitable Trust.

It will involve eight specialist youth workers, who are now completing their training for the scheme, providing support to under-25s across Hambleton and Richmondshire.

Workers will begin operating in the new year in Northallerton, Richmond, Bedale, Ryedale, Wensleydale, Thirsk, Stokesley, and Easingwold.

Their work will focus on supporting and counselling people at risk of drugs or alcohol misuse, advising other youth workers, training young people over- 16 to have a positive influence on those around them, and using the latest technology to get the message across.

Barbara Rennie, from Hambleton and Richmondshire Community Addiction Service (Harcas), praised the initiative.

She said: "You can't do a one-stop shop in Northallerton, for example, because what happens there doesn't necessarily happen in Leyburn or Easingwold.

"We couldn't just have one scheme because it's such a huge patch.

"There are not many schemes like this in the country to get youth workers trained up to specialist level.

"It is not necessarily that there are a lot of drug users we don't know about, but if there are people out there with problems, youth workers might be the right people to get them to face it and talk about it."

The workers will operate across the community, working with people in youth centres, in villages, and mixing with young people on the streets.

Mr Hellawell addressed yesterday's conference of the National Strategy on Drug Use in Rural Areas.

He also visited the young offenders' institution, in Northallerton