Neo-endogenous rural development depends on ‘bottom-up’ activities that integrate external influences to increase local potential. This local focus calls for local knowledge, local resources and the engagement of local people to be central to development processes. Based on data from an evaluation of LEADER in England, we explore the scope for local control and the effective means of creating local empowerment within the neo-endogenous model. Interviews were held with policy actors and beneficiaries of funding across 20 of the 64 Local Action Groups in England. These highlighted a great diversity of projects generating an equally diverse range of outcomes. However, capturing their full value was problematic, suggesting that new approaches to evaluation should be explored to increase local control of the development process. Findings also indicate that the negotiation between top-down and bottom-up, and local and external influences is an ongoing process. Through this process, local learning has empowered local actors to develop flexible approaches tailored to their localities, but local empowerment is more effective when top-down parameters are clearly established.