This section describes:
- The legislative context of the SRN
- The structure of the SRN
- The budget of the SRN
- The methodological approach of the evaluation
- The sources of data
The Structure and Purpose of the SRN
The Scottish Rural Network (SRN) is the National Rural Network (NRN) for Scotland, supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). The purpose of the network is to facilitate the delivery of the 2014-2020 Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP). The SRDP delivers Pillar 2 of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and is comprised of a number of rural schemes.
The SRDP seeks to support agricultural and forestry businesses, to protect and improve the natural environment, to address the impact of climate change and to support rural communities. The emphasis on rural development - in Pillar 2 of the CAP - can be distinguished from the emphasis on direct farm subsidies found in Pillar 1. The current cohort of rural networks – in each member state and in each of the four nations of the UK – are constituted by section 1 of Article 54 of the EU Regulation 1305/2013. Article 54 of this EU Regulation 1303/2013, in turn, requires the Scottish Government to evaluate programmes within the SRDP.
European legislation prescribes four key functions to national rural networks, which are intended to be provided by the network support unit (NSU). The NSU can be understood as synonymous with 'the SRN' for the purposes of this evaluation. Both refer to the core team in Scottish Government that provide this. The four key tasks are:
"Networking by the national rural network shall aim to:
(a) increase the involvement of stakeholders in the implementation of rural development;
(b) improve the quality of implementation of rural development programmes;
(c) inform the broader public and potential beneficiaries on rural development policy and funding opportunities;
(d) foster innovation in agriculture, food production, forestry and rural areas."
The SRN is managed within the Rural Communities Policy and SRN Support Unit, which sits within Rural Economy and Communities in the Directorate for Agriculture and Rural Economy. The SRN, at present, has four staff, alongside a policy team leader with experience of the wider rural community landscape. The current staff are as follows:
- Network Manager
- Rural Policy Officer
- Communications and Content Officer
- Stakeholder & Business Engagement Officer
The next section will consider the background and policy context which has led to the emphasis on networking within the current SRDP.
The European Policy Background of Rural Networks
The establishment of rural networks as a policy device in the EU has evolved since the 1980s, specifically with a view to encouraging endogenous, community led rural development. This can be understood as emerging in opposition to approaching rural development as something which is 'done to' rural areas by external forces. As the ENRD note in their description of networks, on the subject of policy development:
"…there was a growing recognition that development actually occurs through people sharing or exchanging ideas, information and resources. This can happen in a variety of ways and across different geographical scales, but reflects the role of networks and networking in rural development."
From this perspective, a rural network can be understood as a crucial tool in the 'activation' of endogenous rural development, by facilitating community led rural development and linking rural development to the goals of rural communities. The current approach, wherein member states are tasked with cultivating rural networks as a matter of national policy, commenced in the 2007-2013 RDP programme. As the ENRD suggest, networks can play an important role in improving the social capital in rural areas by acting as a central point around which communities can co-operate. The emphasis on 'people' as being the core of the network is emphasised throughout the ENRD's discussion of networks:
"Most importantly, rural development networks are networks of people, many of them volunteers, and it is their enthusiasm and commitment that these structures depend upon. The success of networking thus depends on the individuals that make up the network, and their ability to make the most of the opportunities offered by the networking ecosystem, such as events and activities organised by Network Support Units."
This is also perceived to have important benefits for policy development, as it can result in the inclusion of far more 'voices' in the process and incorporating 'bottom up' approaches in policy development, in a context where a wide range of stakeholders can be brought on board.
Finally, the ENRD emphasise that networking will play a key role in the next stage of the CAP (2021-27) wherein each member state will have a National CAP network that feeds into a broader European network. Going forward, this background informs the recommendations of this evaluation, which are concerned with ensuring that any future networking activity is effective in maximising the opportunities for community led approaches to rural development. The next section outlines the current context of rural policy in Scotland.
UK Policy Context
The UK has left the EU. One result of this will be a new responsibility for developing rural policy in a context where the EU has had a formative role in both the nature and structure of rural and agricultural development. It is worth noting that 'rural' should not be conflated with 'agriculture'. Scottish Government research indicates that, in 2018, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing sector comprised only 1.6% of gross added value (GVA) in the Scottish economy. While this is higher in some areas, i.e. 7% in islands and remote rural areas, and 5% in mainly rural areas, it is nonetheless important to emphasise that 'rural' areas should not be thought of solely as 'agricultural' areas.
At present, several pressing policy issues have emerged with substantial rural components. In particular, the 2019 Programme for Government (PfG) notes the importance of supporting rural development and emphasises that "…we need to do more to stem rural depopulation and to attract more people to live and work in rural and island communities." In this context, the PfG emphasises that these achievements will come from effective engagement with these areas:
"We will work with Scottish Rural Action and others to support the development of a rural movement that will engage with communities between rural parliaments to include a more diverse range of voices, including those in disadvantaged communities."
Other specific policy developments include the introduction of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 and the development of a new National Islands Plan. The Act introduces a requirement for responsible authorities to carry out Island Communities Impact Assessments which require, in essence the 'island proofing' of strategies, services and policies to make sure that islands are not adversely impacted. In October 2019 a Private Member's Bill was launched, which suggested a parallel 'rural proofing' approach for Scotland's remote rural communities. The need for the development of specific, rural focused business support that engages with the opportunities presented by the rural economy is also under discussion within policy teams. In addition, the 'climate emergency' continues to be a cross-cutting policy issue, in which rural communities have an important role.
The SRN's primary operational planning takes place via an annual communications plan and operational plan, both of which are signed off by the SRDP team. These are also presented to the Rural Development Operational Committee (RDOC), which meets on a biannual basis. This is pursued over the course of the year, alongside work developed in response to ad-hoc requests for case studies, events and other forms of support. The SRN then proceeds to enact these plans through collaborative working that incorporates both rural stakeholders, communities and Scottish Government policy. As observed above, the challenge for both evaluation and policy development is effectively monitoring the impacts of this activity and continually improving performance in light of this information. As discussed in the conclusion, this evaluation provides several recommendations that may enhance this process should there be a future rural network in Scotland.
SRN Spending and Budget
The total allocated budget for the 2014-2020 funding cycle is £4 million. This equates to less than 1% of the overall budget of Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the same period, which was £1.2 billion.
This evaluation is best characterised as a process evaluation. It provides an account of the activities that the SRN has undertaken, and provides feedback from interviewees about their perceptions of the network and its use. This can be distinguished from an impact evaluation which would be able to demonstrate what the outcomes of the intervention have been. The latter has not been possible in the current context, reflecting both the lack of monitoring and reporting of SRN outcomes in the current SRDP period and the challenges presented by the structure of the network itself. As above, the nature of outcomes are likely to be diffuse and non-systematic (although this does not mean they are not important). There is also limited scope to establish what would have happened without the network because, as a national service, we cannot meaningfully compare the outcomes of the SRN to a rural context without the SRN. However, as noted, the key recommendations of the evaluation relate to ensuring that a future rural network is easier to monitor.
The methodology is mixed, using a combination of interviews with internal and external stakeholders, alongside analysis of the information provided by the SRN. Interviews were conducted with 17 participants in total, including the SRN team, stakeholders from within Scottish Government and with stakeholders external to it that have worked with the SRN. The secondary material for analysis includes SRN outputs like event records, communications and other forms of data from their internal monitoring system. Interview participants have been selected for their thematic relevance, i.e. having worked with the SRN in the past or being able to offer a valuable external perspective. The qualitative data was analysed thematically, and illustrative quotations are provided throughout the evaluation to provide further context.
Purpose and Structure of the Report
This evaluation does not make a recommendation on the future of the SRN. Given the severe impacts of Covid-19 in Scotland, the uncertainty surrounding future funding for agriculture following the UK's departure from the EU and the potential for considerable legislative change following this, the broader budgetary and resource context does not allow for this. Instead, the evaluation provides an overview and analysis of what the SRN has contributed to the SRDP, where there has been scope for improvement and suggests a range of mechanisms that could underpin the design of any future rural network.
Chapter 2 reviews pre-existing evidence on the network, and reviews the (limited) academic research into the EU's rural network approach to rural development. It also considers the SRN's own data collection through surveys and the most recent evaluation of the network during the 2007-2013 session of the SRDP.
Chapter 3 reviews the SRN's work on stakeholder engagement and communications. This reviews the SRN's work developing events and communicating funding opportunities.
Chapter 4 reviews the SRN's efforts to improve the implementation of the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) and support for innovation.
Chapter 5 provides a short conclusion, drawing together the findings from the other sections, before providing recommendations that may assist any future network in pursuing their goals.