Based on the challenges described, but also on the positive examples of the impact LEADER has had on rural communities, there are a number of recommendations to be made. These recommendations are divided into short-and medium-term recommendations that aim to improve the impact of the current LEADER 2014-2020 programme and recommendations for any future funding models in a post-Brexit Scotland that could replace LEADER.
Short- and medium-term recommendations for the current LEADER 2014-2020 programme
As the current LEADER programme is coming to an end soon, only a limited number of recommendations can be made for the remaining programme. The following recommendations aim at improving the experience for LEADER project applicants. The most first one is based on the key observation that the degree of challenges in terms of payments and claims seemed to vary substantially between LAGs. While claims were perceived as too complicated in every focus group, particularly in one focus group the delay between claim and payment seemed to have put applicants under substantial pressure. In other words, differences between how LAG's staff process applications and claim seem to be an issue in some areas, but not in others which leads to an difficulties in the treatment of applications, claims and general support. In order to first of all speed up claim payments, but also to ensure equal conditions across rural Scotland and in case of poor performance to step in the first recommendation is:
1. 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.
One way to ensure claims can be dealt with more quickly could be to keep more continuity between funding programmes in terms of staff by applying the same guidelines across all LAGs. This was also recommended by a LEADER applicant who has had experience with several LEADER programmes:
"One of the weaknesses of LEADER is that there is always a gap between programmes. You lose staff because they can't stay here and they find a job somewhere and someone else has to be trained. And you lose part of the programme. Once this programme runs out, another program should be set up. Otherwise, the skillset in the local areas is lost." (Stornoway)
This increased continuity could also help to make the support more efficient as in some LAGs applicants claim the LEADER staff was "very good, but there are not enough of them" (Perth). However, it needs to be highlighted here that there were substantial differences between the focus groups in terms of issues with staff and claims processing. Thus, in case of poor performance the Scottish Government needs to step in and centralize services which also means that LAG staff needs to be monitored.
Going beyond recommendations regarding administrative processes, the funding process per se requires an evaluation as it seems to favour large organisations and not support small organisations to the same extent. This observation is based on stories and examples that were being told by LEADER applicants during the focus groups. However, because there is no sufficient data available on a correlation between organisation size and LEADER applications, comments such as the following need to be interpreted carefully:
"I think it is quite interesting that it is fairly substantial organisations that have come in for the funding or organisations which have had funding from somewhere else to bring in a consultant to do the app form. So my concern really is (…) we are further empowering strong organisations, because the process is so daunting, that maybe smaller organisations, they just look at the application and say I am not going to do it."(Highland)
Consequently, another recommendation is:
2. 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.
With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union on the 29th March 2019, the future of programmes such as LEADER is uncertain. The following recommendations therefore are based on the current LEADER programme, but also aim to inform any future funding models that could replace LEADER.
LEADER follows a bottom-up and decentralised approach with its 21 Local Development Strategies. All focus groups participants were in favour of continuing this local approach for future funding models. No one perceived the LDS to be too restrictive and generally the LDS were seen as a good fit for the LAGs. At the same time, discussions in the focus groups showed confusion among project applicants about the multi-level structure of LEADER in that people were not sure whether regulations stemmed from the EU, the Scottish Government or their LAG. Thus, the recommendation is:
3. 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.
In a future funding model the structure of LEADER could also be changed to ensure LEADER applicants receive more appropriate support. This could be done by allowing staff to specialise in either community or business projects. The quantitative analysis highlighted a connection between commitment rates and the type of projects which could suggest that business and farm diversification projects are more onerous to support. Therefore, this report suggests that services and support could be delivered more efficiently if schemes were divided. This was also brought up by a focus group participant:
"Let's have two LEADERs – one for a commercial viability side and one for the community support side. The team cannot possibly know all aspects." (Perth)
Thus, another recommendation is:
4. For the Scottish Government to review whether business and community projects should be separated. While a future funding model could still process community projects, business projects could be dealt with by other agencies.
In this context of service delivery, we know based on the approved funding and the number of projects so far that the average project size currently is £62,380. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence from one of the focus groups that organisations know: "if you want anything less than £10,000 do not apply for LEADER because it is not worth the effort" (Highland focus group participant). This on the one hand again suggests the need to look into more support for small organisations, but on the other hand also implies that LEADER is not suitable to meet the needs of small scale projects. Consequently, a more differentiated funding approach is recommended that allows to distinguish between small, medium and large grants and a matching degree of reporting:
5. 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.
Because LEADER is a European Union funded programme, it is subject to EU auditing regulations, currently project payments cannot be made upfront. However, Brexit might present the opportunity to re-examine this principle. Many applicants here mentioned the Lottery Fund approach as a good example that distinguishes between small grants of up to £10,000, medium ones of £10,000 to £100,000 and large grants of over £100,000. Depending on the grant size, payments differ as well as small grants can be paid up front, medium and large ones 50% upfront followed by 40% after the first instalment and 10% when the project is finished. If LEADER funding followed a more similar approach to the Lottery Fund, another key challenge described by all focus groups participants – the problem of having to advance payments over a long time – could be addressed. Thus, the next recommendation is:
6. 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.
Additionally, because many applicants reported problems with the LEADER restriction to only allow one-year projects, after Brexit a follow-up version of the LEADER programme should ensure that multi-year projects are possible in every LAG/ future administrative body. Here, it is crucial that all LAGs have to follow the same guidelines as in some focus groups it was mentioned that projects had to have a 2 month gap in between or can only be funded for one year, which is a local LAG guideline, but not an EU or Scottish Government regulation. Thus, the next recommendation is:
7. 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.
This report also recommends to re-evaluate the principles LEADER is based on (see p. 11) one of which is the requirement for innovation. Project have to be innovative in order to receive funding. However, as described by several participants the need for being innovative is perceived as counterproductive for rural development. Projects that contribute do not necessarily have to be innovative as long as they fill a need. Thus, the report recommends:
8. 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.
Lastly, since the whole of the LEADER budget of £77.4 million has not been committed to projects yet, this paper only presents a snapshot of the programme as it is. For a comprehensive analysis of the impact not only LEADER 2014-2020, but all LEADER programmes in the past 25 years have had on rural Scotland, further research is needed once more data is available. Additionally, an evaluation at the end of the programme should also involve an analysis of how LEADER programmes in other EU member states have been implemented and delivered.
Therefore, the last recommendation is:
9. 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
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