The EU funded LEADER programme for rural communities aims to support local rural communities and business networks to build knowledge and skills, and encourage innovation and cooperation in order to tackle local development objectives. This report examines the impact of LEADER 2014-2020 on rural Scotland. It analyses quantitative evidence on budgets and spending of the 21 Scottish Local Action Groups (LAGs) that are responsible for the delivery and coordination of projects. Additionally, it evaluates qualitative evidence based on focus groups. Since the whole of the LEADER budget of £77.4 million has not been committed to projects yet, this paper does not claim to present a comprehensive impact evaluation but rather presents a snapshot of the programme as it is.
With the United Kingdom aiming to exit the European Union on the 29th of March 2019, EU programmes such as LEADER need to be put to the test in order to evaluate to what extent these have had an impact on rural communities. LEADER follows a bottom-up approach, which aims to encourage individuals and organisations at a local level to apply for funding of projects that help to develop rural communities and businesses. Under the current LEADER 2014-2020 programme, LAGs have been allocated an overall budget of £77.4 million.
Research aims and methods
This report is the initial process evaluation for LEADER 2014-2020 and assesses its economic, social, cultural and environmental impact on rural communities. It aims to provide policy recommendations for the current LEADER programme and for a potential follow-up programme post-Brexit. This is because while there is substantial information available on the type of LEADER projects, their financial budgets and their delivery, there is little information available in Scotland on the actual difference LEADER and its projects have made to life in rural communities.
To gain information on LEADER's impact, the project was divided into two phases – an analysis of administrative data on the Local Actions in Rural Communities system (LARCs) and secondly, the collection and analysis of qualitative data generated through focus groups in four Local Action Groups (LAGs). All LEADER projects and their details are uploaded to LARCs. However, whilst LARCs asks projects to report a number of outcomes that will help to capture economic, social, cultural and environmental impact, data at this stage is very limited due to the low share of completed projects. Therefore, four focus groups were conducted for the second stage of this research. These groups were held in four different LAGs that had been selected based on the status of their projects, budget and types of projects. The four LAGs selected are Highland, Rural Perth and Kinross, Dumfries and Galloway and Outer Hebrides. Focus groups were carried out in April 2019 and attended by project applicants.
One of the findings of the report is that both the budget size per LAG varies considerably, but also that some LAGs are lagging behind in terms of the value they have committed to projects at this stage. The overall budget allocated to 21 Scottish LAGs between 2014-2020 is £77.4 million of which the highest budget is allocated to the Highland LAG with £8.8 million and the lowest to West Lothian £2.2 million. The average budget is £3.7 million. At the time data was extracted (18th May 2018), LAGs had committed £30.9 million of their budget to LEADER projects. The data shows that the higher the LAG overall budget, the higher the value of commitments at this point are with the exception of for example the LAG Highland. Commitment rates are significantly higher if a LAG has accepted relatively more community projects as opposed to business or farm diversification projects.
The qualitative part of this research report is based on focus groups that were conducted in four LAGs and to which project applicants had been invited. The examples provided highlight the impact LEADER has had on community life, traditions and heritage, social infrastructure and cohesion, and the provision of services for cultural and leisure activities for the rural population. In terms of an environmental impact, LEADER projects help to preserve the environment and engage people with natural heritage. Economically, LEADER has helped to create new employment and training opportunities by investing in tourism, crafts, farm diversification and in small businesses. Projects – sometimes indirectly – support the local rural community and business networks to build knowledge and skills, and encourage innovation and cooperation in order to tackle local development objectives. Despite the positive impact LEADER has had, this report also highlights the challenges applicants face. Key concerns raised by participants were that the payment claims process and the perceived discrimination of small organisations. Additionally, a lack of funding flexibility, transparency and communication were perceived as key issues.
Based on the findings, this report recommends:
Short- and medium-term recommendations
- LAGs should ensure claims are processed promptly, for example within 20 working days. Scottish Government should produce expected standards of services for LAG customers and LAG performance should then be monitored against these standards. In response to poor performance of the LAGs, further options should be explored, including bringing support into Scottish Government, where performance remains unacceptable.
- For the LAGs to evaluate the need to support small organisations by for example setting up networks between more experienced LEADER applicants and inexperienced smaller groups.
- The qualitative research showed strong support for a continuation of the decentralised approach of LEADER with its separate Local Development Strategies. These are perceived to ensure a variety of projects with a local identity. However, it needs to be promoted by LAGs or any future administrative bodies more clearly that the funding itself stems from the Scottish Government if the funding approach was continued post-Brexit.
- For LAGs or any future administrative bodies to encourage funding for small projects and for the Scottish Government to distinguish between small, medium and large grants in terms of applications, reporting and administrating. Easier access to small grants can also encourage more creativity in terms of project ideas.
- For the Scottish Government to allow some payments to be made up front, where legislation permits, ether in parts or completely, depending on the grant size.
- For the Scottish Government to ensure that in future funding models LAGs or any future administrative bodies follow the same regulations and processes in terms of funding periods and flexibility.
- For the Scottish Government to evaluate the principles of the LEADER approach and review whether the focus on innovation truly serves the purpose of rural development.
- For the Scottish Government to look into commissioning or undertaking additional research on the impact of LEADER programmes on rural Scotland and to include an analysis of lessons that could be learned from LEADER programmes in other EU member states.
Email: Eva Kleinert