The ex-post evaluation of the Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP) 2007-2013 has been commissioned by the Scottish Government in December 2015.
The evaluation applied a mixed-method approach, but was predominantly relying on desk-based research utilising the findings from previous studies and surveys conducted during the course of the SRDP.
The report is structured in line with the 'RDP Ex Post Evaluation Guidelines' addressing all general and common evaluation questions.
The SRDP intervention logic was considered by most stakeholders to be appropriate to the needs identified in rural Scotland. The logic was robust, especially at Programme level. Most Measures were well chosen to address some of the key weaknesses identified at the outset and during the Programme period. The consistency of the SRDP with national rural policy priorities was also confirmed.
The SRDP 2007-2013 spent a public sector budget of €1,425m (99% of its allocated resources), making a 100% use of its EAFRD allocations (€678m).
The 2008 Spending Review and a depreciation of Sterling against the Euro resulted in a significant reduction of financial allocation to the Programme, which was reduced by a third (33%) of its original public sector resources. The European Economic Recovery Plan later added funding to selected Measures to address some of the needs of the rural economy following the economic crisis. As all available funding was taken up, the demand for SRDP funding was confirmed and was widely felt of having contributed significantly to sustaining employment in agricultural holdings.
The significant strategic emphasis of the Programme on environmental interventions (74% of total SRDP spend) was a direct response to the long-term decline in farmland biodiversity and the condition of many designated sites and was in close strategic alignment with Scottish policy direction thereby addressing important current needs.
Through the budget alterations the SRDP experienced a narrowing of focus on four individual Measures (spending nearly three quarters (72%) of total SRDP budget). This set clear strategic priorities focusing on: the modernisation of agricultural holdings; payments to farmers in areas with handicaps; agri-environment payments; and first forest afforestation of agricultural land.
Regarding those interventions targeted at improving the rural economy, the SRDP was largely seen as a vitally important support mechanism for farm and forestry holdings and rural businesses in difficult and uncertain times when confidence levels were low.
The inclusion of farm and forestry holdings as well as rural businesses was relevant and appropriate with a focus on supporting diversification and growth.
The delivery mechanism of the SRDP utilised a number of established schemes, but also tried to implement new integrated approaches through schemes such as Rural Priorities and tried to address regionalisation of resource allocations through new RPAC bodies.
Although the rationale of the implementation approach to link established support schemes with an integrated SRDP approach was good, it proved ambitious in light of the complexity of the online application processes in place. The approach could have been transformational but needed to be much better targeted and more actively facilitated to achieve this aspiration. At the end, the complexity of the approach potentially hindered more people from applying rather than supported a learning process.
Similarly, the RPAC approach was seen as highly beneficial in joining up agency interventions, but was largely ineffective due to lack of devolved decision-making powers and weaknesses in the appraisal of applications.
A further major challenge for the ex-post evaluation was the quality of the monitoring data sets and particularly the target setting, which was one of the Programme's greatest weaknesses. This limited the extent to which an assessment could be made regarding the Programme's effectiveness in achieving its outputs and results effectively and efficiently.
The calculation of unit costs, for example, demonstrates that in a number of cases, the SRDP seemed to have changed its original approach towards supporting more people but in a more light-touch manner (although other areas of the Programme evidence the opposite approach particularly in Axis 3 for non-agricultural businesses).
Despite the weaknesses, there was consensus that the SRDP has been substantially important to the participating businesses and rural communities and a number of aspects were thought to have worked particularly well, including the Programme's focus on the Food and Drink sector and the Monitor Farm Programme.
Primary research findings indicate that the aims and objectives of the SRDP, particularly with regard to introducing innovative approaches and helping the agricultural and forestry industries to restructure and modernise, were achieved successfully by increasing businesses' capacities and productivity and therefore influencing business sustainability.
Apart from LFASS the bureaucracy of the SRDP was perceived as a key obstacle and challenge for most applicants/beneficiaries, raising questions over the Programme's efficiency in delivery.
Also with regard to LEADER, the efficiency of the programme suffered considerably from a heavy policy compliance burden which in turn placed demands on LAG staff's capacity to work more intensively with their rural communities.
In terms of achieving results, the importance of the SRDP in sustaining and safeguarding jobs was emphasised by respondents throughout the ex-post evaluation primary research.
Surveys of beneficiaries throughout the Programme period showed that the majority of respondents reported positive effects on their business efficiency, output, quality and competitiveness. Much of the SRDP investment was considered effective in terms of additionality.
The support was relevant to beneficiary needs and the results of the support were substantial but were not clearly evidenced by the CMEF indicators as they were unable to capture the range of results achieved. Over and above performance of LEADER was not added to the monitoring data, thereby remaining under-reported.
Regarding impact, economic impact assessment estimates that the SRDP has created or safeguarded between 30,400 to 33,400 jobs and between £1.03bn and £1.12bn of GVA. The wider primary research suggests that the majority of jobs were safeguarded rather than created.
Axis 1 and Axis 3 interventions had a direct focus on creating and maintaining economic growth and job impact and have achieved this with an average cost per job between £11,000 and £11,800 for Axis 1, and between £18,700 and £21,200 for Axis 3.
In terms of environmental impact, limited monitoring and survey data availability necessitated to draw from perceptions of stakeholders and previous studies. Here, it was thought that some agri-environment options of the SRDP were well used and almost certainly contributed to species recovery (e.g. Corn bunting). A significant number of new hedgerows were established. However, the Farmland Bird Index, the key impact indicator, declined slightly over the period, with some component species, especially upland waders, faring very badly.
It is also thought that new afforestation will most likely reduce GHG emissions, but other Axis 2 measures, especially LFASS might counteract this and may well increase emissions. LFASS was a major contributor to protecting jobs in remote areas but its environmental benefits are more questionable. NPIs are likely to have enhanced water quality in priority catchments. Soil quality remains compromised by falling soil carbon levels and erosion risk over significant areas.
Regarding targets, one of the main issues was the basis and realism of the targets, which was acknowledged by the Managing Authority but never fully resolved. The issue was more about the determination of targets than the performance itself.
Finally, the conclusions of the ex-post evaluation note, that while there was little time to address failings during the Programme period, the evaluation team and stakeholders feel that lessons have been learnt and that the new SRDP is currently benefiting from a new system and better guidance.
The report finishes with a list of ten recommendations.
Email: Neil Henderson