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.

Qualitative evidence – LEADER's impact on life in rural Scotland

Evaluating the current LEADER 2014-2020 programme presents challenges as first of all data on the specific outcomes of projects has not been collected yet. This is because only very few projects have been completed yet which is why only their outcomes are recorded in LARCs. Secondly, because a large extent of the budgets has not been committed to projects yet, we cannot say what type of projects will be funded in the end and what their impact on rural Scotland will be. Nevertheless, using qualitative methods allows us to get an overview on the impact LEADER has had so far and particularly focus groups help to identify how projects have not only delivered specific quantifiable outcomes, but also how projects have had a wider impact on for example the rural economy. This section of the report first explains the rationale for choosing the LAGs Highland, Outer Hebrides, Rural Perth and Kinross and Dumfries and Galloway for the focus groups.

Focus groups were conducted in April 2018 and partly transcribed. Questions discussed during the focus group are listed in annex A. In summary, questions aimed to collect examples and evidence on the cultural, economic, social and environmental impact that LEADER funded projects might have had on rural Scotland. Participants in the focus groups were also given the opportunity to raise concerns about funding, governance, administration and other challenges.

Afterwards, the examples and information provided by the participants of the focus groups are analysed in terms of LEADER's economic, social, cultural and environmental impact. Governance at this stage cannot be evaluated as the programme has not been competed yet and thus we do not know at this stage whether LEADER has been implemented successfully. Additionally, the section evaluates challenges projects applications were facing, many of them can be considered as related to governance.

The selection of focus groups

The project started with an analysis of the quantitative data on LARCs and data was first extracted on the 26th of February. For the selection of focus groups, it was particularly relevant to identify projects that were either completed or live, but close to completion. This is because the focus groups were conducted to collect examples for the impact that LEADER projects have had so far. In February 2018, 348 projects had been approved. Of these 348 projects only 180 either were completed already or to be completed by the 30th of April. As discussed later, by far not all of these projects met their expected deadline as so far only 59 projects overall reached the stage of completion of final claim made when data was extracted again in May 2018.

The 180 live or completed projects were then analysed according to the type of project (community, enterprise or farm diversification), total costs and intervention rates and the Local Development Strategy covering the project. These variables were selected due to comparability and accessibility. This is because LEADER follows a bottom-up approach and therefore allows LAGs to define their own Local Development Strategies. The quantitative data mentioned however is comparable. Additionally, it is easily accessible and thus transparent.

Based on these criteria – status, budget, type of project – LAGs were compared and four case studies selected: Highland, Rural Perth and Kinross, Dumfries and Galloway and Outer Hebrides. The details for these decisions are outlined below:


The LAG Highland has been selected for the focus groups due to various reasons: the size of its budget and the currently relatively low value of LEADER commitments; its geographical characteristics with both remote rural and more urban rural areas; and lastly the diversity of the projects currently live, completed or on hold.

With £8,805,388, the LAG Highland has the largest allocated budget of all 21 Scottish LAGs which should allow for greater administrative capacity. However, in February 2018 the value of LEADER commitments had only reached £1,366,749.78 or 15.5%. This is substantially less than for the majority of LAG, even though it needs to be highlighted that spending is not expected to follow a linear trend and that we expect spending to start at a low level, reach its peak much later in the program when groups and individuals have submitted their applications and claims are being made. Additionally, we expect higher initial costs to set up administration.

Whilst therefore it is to be expected that budgets have not been spent to a large extent, the LAG Highland stood out when focus groups were selected and as the previous section highlighted, it still stands out. It will therefore be interesting to examine why LEADER commitments are relatively low and whether the current structure prevents the LAG from using up its budget to a larger extent. Whether current structures help or prevent an efficient use of LEADER is particularly interesting in Highland, as it is the only LAG that is divided into Local Area Partnerships (LAP). Due to the size of the LAG, seven LAPs deliver a specific Local Area Action Plan, manage their local budget and make decisions on local projects that seek LEADER funding.

Secondly, the LAG Highland includes both remote rural areas and some more urban parts and therefore would potentially allow for a comparison of projects according to the rurality of their locations.

Thirdly, projects in the LAG are diverse in terms of their financial budgets. While with one exception all projects are community type projects, projects range from large financial budgets of more than £100,000 total costs, medium sized projects of over £50,000 and smaller project of between £20,000 and £50,000. Interestingly, very small projects of under £10,000 have not gone live yet. Lastly, the LAG yet has to have fully completed a project and also has one project on hold which potentially could provide additional insights.

Rural Perth and Kinross

The LAG of Rural Perth and Kinross has an allocated budget of £3,800,124 and the value of its LEADER commitments were at 25% or £932,204.89 in February 2018, which makes Rural Perth and Kinross performing below the average of 33% whilst having a slightly larger LAG allocation than the average of £3.7 million.

Projects carried out in this LA range from one of the three biggest one in terms of total costs of over £1 Million – with an intervention rate of just 8% -- to projects over £200,000 with intervention rates of up to 89% to small projects of under £20,000. The type of projects do not only include community projects, but also support micro and small businesses. The focus on supporting businesses makes this LAG an interesting example. Lastly, this LAG has the highest number of projects on hold and furthermore no completed projects so far.

From a geographical perspective, Rural Perth and Kinross is located in rural central Scotland, but borders onto more urban areas of Scotland.

Outer Hebrides

The LAG Outer Hebrides has a small budget of £3,177,666, but had at the time of the selection of the focus groups (March 2018) by far the highest relative VALUE of LEADER commitments of 62% of its budget (as in February 2018).

Unsurprisingly, the LAG has a high number of completed projects which is particularly helpful for an impact evaluation. Additionally, intervention rates in this LAG range from just 11% to as high as 100%. The LAG is also funding one of the three largest projects of all LAGs with total costs of over £1 million at an intervention rate of 11%.

Amongst the funded projects are community projects, but also enterprise and farm diversification projects. From a geographical perspective, this LAG was selected as it is one of the most remote areas of Scotland and part of an Island authority.

Dumfries and Galloway

The LAG Dumfries and Galloway has an allocated budget of £5,595,370 of which almost 45% has been committed to LEADER already (as of February 2018). Thus, the LAG does not only have a large budget, but is also performing better than the average and unsurprisingly, the number of completed projects is high.

Projects are also quite representative as they include both farm diversification and community projects. What is interesting in this LAG are the relatively low intervention rates of under 50% in many cases. Geographically, Dumfries and Galloway rural and located in the South of Scotland, which helps to ensure that focus groups are spread out across Scotland and not just centred around more Northern areas.

Economic impact

Key aims of LEADER are to develop and utilise the potential of rural areas. These can range from poor levels of service provisions and a lack of employment opportunities to the need to utilise and protect natural assets and cultural heritage in order to become and remain competitive (EC, 2006). Thus, LEADER projects are not only expected to have an impact on the environment, communities and cultural heritage, but also on the rural economy. Based on the focus groups, the economic impact of LEADER is easily underestimated as far-reaching knock-on effects are hard to quantify and measure. The LEADER project database holds information on the following indicators that – once the programme has finished – will provide some overview on the economic impact of LEADER covering employment opportunities, training, up-skilling of volunteers; new businesses and facilities:

  • Volunteers engaged
  • First time volunteers
  • Existing jobs safeguarded
  • Jobs created in supported projects
  • Annual change in the number of visits to facilities/attractions
  • Local residents who have access to new or improved community - based services
  • Community facilities created and new services provided
  • New enterprises and new products or services created
  • People accessing training/development opportunities
  • Individuals trained/gaining new skills or re-skilled
  • Young people trained/gaining new skills or re-skilled

Because only 59 projects of 495 approved project (12%) had been completed or have submitted their final claims by May 2018, the quantitative data is too limited to assess the economic impact of LEADER. What is more, quantitative evidence does not take into account how the creation of one job or the provision of training opportunities has affected the rural economy. One participant summarised this interconnectivity of the rural economy and labour market as follows:

"In the rural economy, three, four, five jobs are comparable with far more jobs in more urban areas." (Stornoway)

The economic impact of LEADER projects – based on examples given during the focus groups, but also based on an evaluation of the LEADER project database – is threefold: jobs, skills/training and effects on local businesses.

In all focus groups, participants gave examples of how some of their projects have helped to create or sustain jobs. Because the majority of projects in the current LEADER programme are still running, the project database only provides limited insight on the jobs created. However, the extent of job creation became clear in the focus groups:

"Tourism is seen as the only chance the area has got. (…) In terms of employment, we thought there were going to be 2 full-time and 4 part-time employees eventually. Well, we have hit that within the first 6 months and most certainly will need more." (Perth)

Going beyond this very direct effect on the labour market, there were also examples of how the creation of a job or even of housing as part of LEADER funding helped to retain families in the area.

"We had a situation where a school was going to close. We created one job and therefore a family could stay. And one job that helped a family to stay can be the difference between a school closing, a shop and services closing." (Stornoway)

Another theme that appeared in every focus group was the effect LEADER funding had on skills and training not only of staff, but also of volunteers. Especially training provided to volunteers was felt to be crucial in order to help local communities and families:

"Our funding funds a full-time coordinator who coordinates 25 volunteers. If we didn't have the money we would not be able to have these volunteers. These volunteers help families in the area and support them." (Perth)

This "value we add to the volunteers themselves" (Perth) was also perceived as fundamental to up-skill people in the area and increase their levels of employability. This effect was sometimes an indirect one, as LEADER did not always fund skills and training specifically, but:

"We could not train people and train local people to train, if we did not have the facilities to do so, so it has provided the infrastructure." (Stornoway)

Participants also highlighted gaps that LEADER funded projects were filling. The most striking example for a gap in the provision of skills was provided in the Dumfries focus group:

"We have a very big project working with young people and there is a gap in provision of education in the region that no person under 16 can do the arts. How about that? 3600 square miles of Scotland and there is no courses whatsoever offered by Dumfries and Galloway College offered in the arts. We are beginning to fill that gap. We had over a 1000 young people last year but we can only do so much." (Dumfries)

As indicated already, the economic impact of LEADER is hard to measure and participants in all focus groups agreed on the knock-on effects that LEADER has on the local economy. Plenty of examples highlighted how one LEADER funded project has helped to either attract other businesses:

"I consider my project it is a small bunk house. We had a local shop and café which was on the market for 2 and a half years but was not selling. And then a local couple bought it and they said they only bought it because it was only five minutes down from the bunk house and that will hopefully create a business for them and a lot of people." (Stornoway)

Or it has helped to attract more visitors that then benefitted the local economy:

"I have built a tourist destination and interpretation centre and it is 12 miles from the main road so all of a sudden I am increasing the traffic down that road which means the shop is getting more footfall, the café is getting more footfall. There will be a coffee shop." (Stornoway)

Another observation that emerged during the focus groups was how a LEADER funded project did not only help to indirectly benefit the local economy by increasing the number of visitors in the area, but direct by co-operating with local businesses:

"We have a residential recording studio (…) It is bringing in new business into the Islands. We have also been working with the existing recording studio, so there has been a lot of new partnership projects that have been set up with engineers and producers and musicians here. This supports the creative industry which really is a growing industry here on the islands. In the future, we hopefully expand to establish some new jobs in terms of apprenticeships, engineers that work alongside, potentially catering as well." (Stornoway)

In terms of economic impact as defined in the framework (figure 1), LEADER projects mentioned in the focus groups have helped to develop the rural economy. This is because projects have contributed to an exchange of learning and helped individuals to learn new skills. Project funding has also affected other businesses and individuals in the areas and therefore released some of the potential of rural areas and provided opportunities. Additionally, it has contributed to local initiatives and enhanced rural facilities.

Social impact

The key innovative aspect of LEADER lies in the idea to enable local people to develop a set of actions and find public funds to put these actions into reality. Thus, the multi-level structure of LEADER requires the individuals and groups to work hand in hand with government, the wider civil society and economic sectors to establish public-private partnerships (Ramos and Delgado, 2003; Nardone et al., 2010). LEADER can contribute to social cohesion in various ways – by requiring joint project designing, preparation of the projects plans and an evaluation. At the end of this process of joint actions, communities have made use of their powers at a local level and thus actively implemented the idea of decentralization. When measuring the impact of LEADER on social cohesion, again the project database only offered limited evidence. Project coordinators take records of outcomes such as:

  • People Participating in LEADER projects
  • Young people and those in disadvantaged groups involved in their communities
  • Hard to reach people who have a more active role in community development (including young people)
  • Local residents who have access to new or improved community - based services
  • Community assets developed
  • Community facilities created and new services provided
  • New products or services created
  • Rural population benefitting from improved services/ infrastructure
  • Projects that have developed as a result of networking or sharing good practice

Again, because only 12% of all approved projects could report final outcomes and only 40% of the overall LEADER allocation had been committed at the time data was collected, the quantitative evidence on the social impact of LEADER is limited. This is also because social cohesion is hard to measure. A participant of the focus groups summarises the effect a new project can have as follows:

"Once the funding starts and you get contractors working in an area, there is a sense of community wellbeing generated and a buzz that things are happening and more local people tend to get involved." (Stornoway)

Several examples were provided in the focus groups of how LEADER has helped to connect generations by bringing elderly and children or young adults together. Other examples mentioned that by offering activities for elderly also their relatives benefitted.

"If we have the facility where we can do morning and afternoon music sessions where we can play music from their time. If you were able to provide something within their locality and make it easier for people who are looking after them – it is just trying to put something into the village." (Highland)

Thus, in the examples provided LEADER has helped to address the challenges rural Scotland faces – a lack of services and an ageing population in this case. Additionally, LEADER projects have not only supported relatives regarding care taking responsibilities, but it has also helped to bring generations together and exchange experience, ideas and knowledge. In all focus groups, participants were referring to "community hubs" that help to build cohesion between different groups of locals.

"What we have created is a community hub, where the elderly come during the day, the extended family come when people are home and on holiday and they can go through their files and get their croft histories and look at photographs of their previous generations and add to it (…). The company that is developing the building, there are quite a few people from the community working for that company and they feel it is their own project. Young and old – it is the old people who are important because they have the intangible cultural heritage and the children learn from them and they see their elders in a different light. And it adds to the kids' school projects." (Stornoway)

Whilst the remoteness of rural Scotland is a challenge for many adults, it is particularly problematic for harder to reach groups, young people or the elderly. Several examples were mentioned of how a LEADER project has helped to bring services to rural communities:

"(…) A lot of the kids would have to travel to Perth. But a lot of the kids are not capable of travelling – that is the reason for why they are hard to reach. It is almost as bringing out the services from the city to the local region so that it is more accessible for the locals." (Perth)

By providing services in rural areas, LEADER funded projects therefore contribute to a more inclusive rural economy, but also address needs of disadvantaged groups that otherwise would either have to relocate to more urban areas or that would be left behind:

"Just anecdotally, we work with a lot of families that need services. If people are in regular need of services, they are more likely to move into the cities. So making sure services are also provided in the rural areas is absolutely vital." (Perth)

LEADER aims to help communities find local answers to rural problems such as ageing populations and restricted access to services. In some cases, LEADER funding was not used directly to improve access to services, but has enabled groups to make additional use of facilities that were provided partly due to LEADER.

"Our vision was that the club house would only be used at the weekends for shinty, but through the week Monday to Friday it was going to be empty. And we thought that if we had a dedicated room for first aid training, that room could be used by GP, health visitors, opticians, anybody who would be willing to come to the village to offer the services. Our vision was to make it a sports community and health pavilion, to make it a community asset." (Highland)

Based on these examples, LEADER has helped to further develop social capital in rural Scotland by driving community actions and by helping rural communities to identify their potential and build services and opportunities for several groups within the community. Additionally, it has helped to bring people together and contributed to an exchange of knowledge and skills. Projects seemed to have helped not only applicants but also volunteers to develop innovative ideas and cooperate between sectors.

Cultural impact

Many examples were provided of how LEADER funded projects help to protect heritage or revitalise cultural traditions. In some cases, heritage was protected in a very direct way by bringing back rural Scotland's history into people's minds:

"They built a replicate of an Iron Age roundhouse and that has been the hugest success and it is based on archaeological digs and findings in the area." (Dumfries)

In other cases, it was not community projects, but businesses that helped to remember the heritage Scotland offers and utilised it.

"The area used to be well renowned for orchards, but a lot of people have turned to soft fruits or let their orchards go. We have spoken to a lot of people that have let their orchards go. From our perspective, we are making use of something that is already there but not being utilised. And we are celebrating what used to be grown in the area." (Perth)

LEADER funded projects have helped not to rediscover traditions, but to keep heritage alive and open it up to a much wider audience. In the Local Action Group Highland, shinty clubs have used LEADER funding to preserve their sport and to also attract young players.

"To keep them coming to a sport that is traditional and Highland culture and heritage, it gets harder and harder. I think LEADER has rescued us in that respect." (Highland)

Whilst these examples already highlight how traditions are now revitalised, other LEADER projects also actively prevents cultural knowledge from disappearing as illustrated by an example from the Outer Hebrides:

"We did a lot on WW1 and got national acclaim for it and under the current scheme we are doing a place names book and there is over 2000 place names (…). If we did not document the cultural heritage that is in people's heads, it would go with the people as they die of." (Stornoway)

When going back to the evaluation framework in figure 1, we can therefore say that LEADER has impacted cultural capital of rural Scotland. This was done by funding projects that enhance cultural heritage, tourism and leisure activities. It also seemed to have helped to encourage cooperation between local players.

Environmental impact

Under CAP, part of LEADER funding is also aimed at preserving the environment and protecting the countryside. Three key areas have been identified to help enhance rural heritage:

  • biodiversity and the preservation and development of 'natural' farming and forestry systems, and traditional agricultural landscapes;
  • water management and use;
  • dealing with climate change.

Based on the LEADER project database and the focus groups, many projects either solely aim to protect the environment or connect the preservation of rural heritage with rural tourism.

Even though there are many projects with environmental impact listed in the project database, only few were represented in the focus groups, here mainly in Dumfries. One example provided was the South of Scotland Golden Eagle project that is partly funded by LEADER and aims to rear and release golden eagles in Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. Another project that took place in Dumfries and Galloway is the eco-school programme that encourages environmental management, action and sustainable development education at primary schools. Again, part of the funding came from LEADER.

Also in Dumfries and Galloway, participants reported about how the diversion of a footpath around Castle Loch has not only led to an increase of visitors in the area to enjoy the countryside, but also encouraged locals to get in touch with their rural heritage, particularly children:

"In the woodlands surrounding the Loch we have a forest classroom that the local primary school uses and we have got a kindergarten area, there is a very good private nursery in Lochmaben and they love going there and take the young children down there very regularly. There is various species on the side. (…) We are releasing a number of eels into Castle Loch." (Dumfries)

Other projects with environmental impact range from various environmental works over regenerating harbours and additional habitat work. Thus, despite not being represented in all focus groups, there are a substantial number of projects with a strong focus on preserving natural heritage and the environment. Once the programme has finished, a quantitative analysis of the number of participants in environment-focussed or heritage-focussed projects, events and initiatives can be conducted as data is collected in the project database.

Going back to the framework illustrated in figure 1, LEADER has contributed to the environment as it helped to enhance natural heritage and funded projects that drove community actions on environmental issues.


Whilst the focus of this report is on the impact of LEADER and recommendations to widen projects' impact, challenges applicants are facing cannot be ignored as in all focus groups participants raised a number of concerns and problems about the current LEADER programme. Complaints focused mainly on financial administration, but also on the application effort per se, the lack of LEADER staff and the focus on innovation, which is a key criteria to receive funding. These issues can be seen as problems with the governance of LEADER.

There were mixed opinions on whether or not the application process was too onerous. One participant admitted:

"We did employ someone to apply for it and the club paid for that." (Highland)]

Others however viewed the application process as a "useful exercise" (Perth):

"You had to develop a 3 year business plan and actually as a new start business putting that together and doing your own research into your own industry and coming out with numbers at the end of it gave you a boost. (…) When you got to the bottom of the form, you felt like you were in a better place." (Perth)

In all focus groups there was an agreement that particularly for small groups and inexperienced applicants, the effort to administer the funding application and claiming costs was challenging. The question arose whether small organisations in rural Scotland really were empowered or not:

"It is called community but it is so tough. How is a volunteer group supposed to access a fund that is being made so difficult to administer?" (Highland)

All focus group participants thought the process of claiming costs was too complicated and slow:

"We have been waiting for 6 months. The claims form reminds me of the children's computer games. You go level after level and just when you think you have reached the end you are suddenly greeted with a big monster you have to defeat." (Perth)

There was also general agreement that "if you do not have the cash flow behind you, you simply cannot do LEADER" (Stornoway). Consequently, it was perceived that many small organisations and groups would never apply for LEADER funding as they do not have the financial capital to advance payments:

"We can manage the cash-flow but I don't know how smaller organisations can do it. We have not been paid anything yet. We started working on the 1st of July. "(Perth)

Another problem for some applicants was the requirement for projects to be innovative as "innovation moves away from need. If an area needs something, it might not be innovative, but still needed." (Stornoway). Many participants admitted difficulties in meeting the requirement:

"Organisations like us do not work like that .You cannot just come up with new stuff all the time (…). We had to change the name and branding of what we were doing already and very confusing for people (…) but we had to do that because we did not want to make people redundant." (Dumfries)

The requirement to be innovative is one of the key pillars of the LEADER approach (see p. 11) and innovation – cultural, social and economic – is regarded as a mean towards rural development. However, participants seemed to perceive the focus on innovation as a barrier for sustainable rural development.

Lastly, in all focus groups participants mentioned how restrictions in terms of funding periods are particularly challenging when staff is being paid through LEADER. One participant summarised the challenges as follows:

"You have to have two clear months between one project finishing and another one starting. Now, how do we pay people in those two months, where does the money come from to keep a project sustainable in those two months? (…) This is really hurting people." (Dumfries)

Going back to figure 3 that illustrates the application and delivery process of a LEADER project, participants in the focus groups agreed on that whilst the application process was challenging, the process of claiming costs was the most problematic one. It was perceived as particularly challenging that the feedback on claims provided took too long or the claiming process was not transparent enough. Thus, with regards to the impact on governance LEADER claims to have (see figure 1), we need to distinguish between governance before project start and after. On the one hand, there was general agreement that the support and communication with LAGs was good during the application process. On the other hand, it was also heavily criticised how during the delivery of the project communication, transparency in terms of what was expected by the projects applicants and also the processing of claims were poor. On the other hand, projects have helped to engage local stakeholders to work together and also to work with the public sector. Overall, the bottom-up approach seemed to have helped to get groups and individuals engaged and included, but the quality of communication and collaboration between LAGs and applicant seemed problematic from their perspective.


Email: Eva Kleinert

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