LEADER 2014-2020: process evaluation

Initial process evaluation for LEADER 2014-2020 and assessment of its economic, social, cultural and environmental impact on rural communities.


Since launched in 1991, the European Union's LEADER programme has been a key initiative for rural development and has helped to fund numerous small-scale projects developed and conducted at a local level. As illustrated in figure 1 below, the aim of LEADER is to promote rural development in the rural parts of the European Union's member states. In terms of the input invested, the current LEADER programme runs from 2014 – 2020 and has a budget of £77.4 million that has been allocated to a total of 21 Scottish rural areas. These rural areas are called Local Action Groups and have the purpose of defining what type of projects are eligible to receive funding, they make decisions about funding, manage financial resources and help bring local stakeholders together. LAGs can spend a maximum of 25% of their allocated budget on administration and staff to ensure the delivery of LEADER.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government manages the budgets, monitors the delivery of LEADER and pays the LAGs as it is both the Managing Authority and the Paying Agency. Additionally, Accountable Bodies sit between the LAGs and the Scottish Government and carry out administrative and financial activities for the LAGs. All LEADER projects and their details are uploaded to the Local Actions in Rural Communities system (LARCs). Most importantly, a key input in the LEADER programme besides financial and staff resources are individuals and organisations at the local level and their ideas for projects that help to develop their area. Before introducing the concept of LEADER and its approach that is often described as a "laboratory for rural development" with high levels of discretion for each LAG within general guidelines (Ray, 2000), the aim of the programme and the type of projects funded are to be explained first.

Figure 1 Framework of LEADER 2014-2020

Figure 1 Framework of LEADER 2014-2020

Based on Grieve et al. 2011; European Commission, 2006; Scottish Rural Network[1]

Aim and impact

LEADER aims to build social and cultural capital, improve the rural environment and develop the rural economy. LEADER values the importance of soft factors such as community life, traditions, social infrastructure and cohesion, and material or hard factors such as buildings (Grieve et al., 2011). LEADER funded projects can also facilitate basic services for cultural and leisure activities and for the rural population. There is a strong focus on building co-operation with other LAGs in Scotland, the UK and Europe and to realise the potential of rural areas. Examples for projects with a strong social focus are the development of club and community hubs to provide facilities for local groups and bring people together. Examples of cultural projects are the re-examination of archaeological evidence in rural Scotland or funding for music festivals.

In terms of its environmental impact, LEADER should connect well-being and the protection and preservation of the environment. It aims to encourage community groups to take actions on climate change and to enhance natural heritage. Examples for projects with a strong environmental focus are the development of footpaths around natural heritage or to reintroduce certain species back to areas.

Economically, LEADER is expected to create new employment and training opportunities by investing in tourism, crafts, farm diversification and in small businesses. Here, LEADER also supports local food and drink initiatives. Overall, LEADER serves as a tool in order to increase support to local rural community and business networks to build knowledge and skills, and encourage innovation and cooperation in order to tackle local development objectives. Examples for projects with economic impact are funding for micro-businesses such as breweries that aim to both provide employment opportunities and training and also develop local food supply chains.

Lastly, with the bottom-up approach LEADER is taking, it also aims to improve governance by focusing on local stakeholders to develop and conduct projects. This is done by building knowledge and skills in the rural area and encouraging stakeholders to develop innovative projects and to cooperate. Here, LEADER aims to be transparent, integrate various types of local players such as organisations and the public sector and helps to improve communication between the different groups included.

Approach and actions

In order to address these five outcomes of governance, economic, social, cultural and environmental impact, LEADER follows an approach that is based on seven key principles (see EC, 2006):

1. Area-based local development strategies

2. Bottom-up approach

3. Local public-private partnerships: local action groups

4. Innovation

5. Integrated and multi-sectoral actions

6. Cooperation

7. Networking

An area-based local development strategy allows rural areas that are coherent and have sufficient resources in terms of financial and economic support and population to develop local approaches to challenges areas are facing. These areas often have common traditions and are relatively small. They do not have to follow administrative structures which is why in Scotland for example Local Action Groups are not necessarily the same size as Local Authorities.

LEADER's focus on a bottom-up approach means that decisions are made at a local level by local actors in contrast to purely top-down approaches where decisions are made at a national level. The LEADER approach aims to foster interactions between local and regional or national actors. This aim of the bottom-up approach is to actively include economic and social interest groups, private and public institutions and help build capacity.

Thirdly, key to the delivery of LEADER are local public-private partnerships called Local Action Groups (LAG). LAGs define and implement Local Development Strategies (LDS), make decisions about funding and manage financial resources. They bring together funding and groups/ individuals from the private, public, civic and voluntary sector and help to create partnerships to create a critical mass. They also foster the dialogue between different rural actors and help develop cooperation. LAGs also try to take into account the different areas of interest under CAP such as environment, the agricultural sector and the diversification of the rural economy. Their main task is to support applicants in applying for project funding and delivering their projects. In Scotland, there are 21 LAGs (see figure 2 below).

Figure 2 Local Action Groups and their Local Development Strategies 2014-2020

Figure 2 Local Action Groups and their Local Development Strategies 2014-2020

Source: Scottish Rural Network, 2016[2]

Fourthly, LEADER aims to encourage innovation in rural communities. Innovation can range from the introduction of a new product, process or service. Projects applying for LEADER need to show how they meet this criteria.

The fifth feature of LEADERintegrated and multi-sectoral actions – means that projects have to stretch across multiple sectors and not focus just on one. Additionally, individuals and players from different economic, social, cultural and environmental background need to be connected and coordinated.

Networking means that knowledge and experience between LEADER groups, rural areas, administrations and organisations needs to be exchanged. These networks aim to overcome rural isolation and help to benefit from lessons learned.

Lastly, cooperation take networking a step further in that it encourages joint projects across multiple LAGs in another region, European Union member state or a third country.

The European Commission (1996, p. 3) summarises the LEADER approach as follows

"Given the diversity of the Union's rural areas, rural development policy must follow the principle of subsidiarity. It must be as decentralised as possible and based on a partnership and co-operation between all levels concerned (local, regional, national and European). The emphasis must be on participation and a 'bottom-up' approach which harnesses the creativity and solidarity of rural communities. Rural development must be local and community-driven within a coherent European framework."

Application and delivery of projects

Figure 3 illustrates the process applicants have reported following in order to receive LEADER funding. All green and purple boxes stem from the LEADER guidance provided by the Scottish Rural Network. The remaining boxes were added by the author based on information provided by the focus groups participants.

Figure 3 Application and project delivery process

Figure 3 Application and project delivery process

Parts of this figure (green and purple boxes) are based on LEADER guidance provided by the Scottish Rural Network[3]

The groups most likely to apply for funding are: local rural community and business networks, professional organisations and unions, trade associations, citizens, residents and their local organisations, local political representatives, women's associations, young people's organisations, environmental associations, cultural and community service providers including the media. In some cases however, the process of a LEADER application might start with a group of individuals with a project idea. Here, the application process starts by scoping available funding opportunities. In other cases, particularly larger organisations have already decided to apply for LEADER funding and no further scoping is necessary.

Before applying to LEADER, individuals and groups have to contact their LAG and submit an expression of interest (EoI) form introducing their project idea. LAGs review the EoI and provide feedback on for example how the project meets the Local Development Strategy or whether generally it seems to be eligible for funding. Applicants then complete the application form which is then subject to technical checks by the LAG staff. Based on several examples provided in the focus groups, especially smaller organisations and clubs get external support to help them write applications or to provide legal advice. Once submitted, LAGs then assess the application and a committee scores the proposal. If successful and approved by the committee, applicants receive a notification and are offered a grant and the project can start. If the project got rejected, applicants receive feedback.

Once in the delivery stage, projects are subject to inspections and are additionally monitored to ensure milestones are met. Claims for project costs can only be submitted once the project has started and in agreed stages only. Also, costs can only be claimed once the work being claimed for is complete and paid for. Claims are monitored closely and need to be approved. If there is an error with the claim, the claim needs to be updated and resubmitted in order to get approved. If there is a problem with the claim and the LAG rejects it, project applicants can appeal against the decision. A project is considered complete once all claims have been made and milestones have been met.

Looking at nearly projects close to completion, this report evaluates to what extent the LEADER programme 2014-2020 has managed to meet the needs of rural communities and aims to capture the impact LEADER funding has had on cultural, environmental, social and economic aspects of rural Scotland. The report reviews some limited quantitative evidence on the delivery of LEADER projects, followed by an in-depth analysis of focus groups that involved LEADER applicants from the LAGs Highland, Dumfries and Galloway, Rural Perth and Kinross and Outer Hebrides. The report additionally summarises key challenges applicants described in the focus groups and make recommendations.


Email: Eva Kleinert

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