25 July 2017

How can place-based approaches be used in rural Scotland?

A place-based approach has become more prominent in Scottish policymaking in the last few years, particularly as a result of the recommendations of the Christie Commission on the delivery of public services and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. 

But what does this mean for Scotland's rural areas?

Jane Atterton, Manager and Policy Researcher at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) discusses the implications, currently also the subject of joint research by SRUC Rural Policy Centre staff and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute. The research is being funded by the Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment (RAFE) Strategic Research Portfolio 2016-21.

There has been a return to place-based policy in Scotland recently, particularly as a result of the recommendations of the Commission on the Delivery of Public Services and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.

Claire Bynner, Research Associate at What Works Scotland, has already written a blog examining the role of place-based approaches and a working paper outlining the four rationales for place-based approaches in Scotland.

But what does the shift towards place-based approaches mean for Scotland's rural areas? These areas are significant. They make up 98% of Scotland’s landmass, nearly one fifth of its population, and approximately one third of its registered small and medium sized enterprises (some 51,000 businesses).

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting rural life, rural communities and the rural economy, and to do this, it has 'mainstreamed' the needs of rural Scotland within all of its policies. In practice this means that policymakers are required to take the needs of rural areas seriously and adapt their policies to meet local needs and circumstances wherever possible.

Rural should not be set aside as something different. So what in particular must be taken into account in formulating a place-based policy which is fit-for-purpose for rural as well as urban Scotland?

Considering scale and hidden deprivation


One aspect to consider is scale. Place-based approaches are happening across a variety of scales in Scotland, ranging from small localities – such as a village or group of villages, or a city neighbourhood – to much larger areas.

But what does 'place' mean to a rural person and how might this differ from an urban person? It may be more difficult to identify meaningful 'local' places in a rural area where residents are dispersed and travelling long distances from where they live to work or for socialising - although clearly this will vary for residents of different ages and with differing personal mobilities. On the other hand, physical or topographical landscape features, such as mountains or river valleys, or indeed distance and population dispersal, may more clearly delineate individual or groups of communities – or places - in rural areas.

For urban dwellers, work and leisure activities are likely to take place across a smaller geographical area. Place-based interventions in rural areas might therefore be best focused on functional regions which are built from the bottom-up through cooperation between settlements or between a town and a rural hinterland, for example, and which are meaningful to rural communities.

While the current place-based approaches are substantially different from those focused on deprived urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s, the underlying rationale is still to tackle deprivation and (increasing) inequality. But it is widely accepted that identifying and measuring rural deprivation is difficult as it tends to be dispersed and hidden amongst relative affluence.

If place-based interventions are targeted and shaped on the basis of identified deprivation, rural areas may easily be missed. This underlines the need to have reliable, up-to-date and fine-grained data to both inform the shape of, and measure the impact of, interventions everywhere. SRUC Rural Policy Centre's 2016 Rural Scotland in Focus Report discusses the evidence needs of rural Scotland in more detail.

Ideas of rural resilience and implications for community participation


Community capacity-building is key to place-based approaches to ensure that local people are fully involved in decision-making and activities. Much has been written about community empowerment and resilience in a rural context in Scotland, in relation to the EU's LEADER programme, for example.

Community empowerment and resilience is a key theme of the previous (2011-2016) and current (2016-21) Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment Strategic Research Portfolio, of which this work on place-based policy is also a part. Rural communities are often seen as having high levels of capacity or being more resilient, often because of necessity – maybe because they are geographically distant from support or because of particular challenges they have faced with limited external help.

However, those areas that are losing skilled and entrepreneurial people, or areas which simply have no engagement experience, may find that their capacity to engage in place-based working may be much more limited. In short, the overarching narrative emphasising the existence of high levels of capacity and resilience in many rural communities, may mask serious deficits of these characteristics in others. More, or different, external support may be required for communities that fall into the latter category to ensure that they can engage, and that there is not the creation of a highly uneven landscape of socio-economic development.

A key part of the place-based approach advocated by the European Commission, largely based on the work of Fabricio Barca in 2009 to inform Cohesion Policy, is innovation. Rural areas are often assumed to be less innovative than urban areas but, in fact, they are often more innovative. This is often due to similar reasons as those which may have led to greater resilience – distance from support services and/or a perception that they cannot help, or a particular need or challenge to overcome, for example, in relation to limited employment  options (which may encourage higher levels of entrepreneurship) or poor transport, which may encourage community entrepreneurship, in the form of community transport initiatives, for example.

But this innovation is usually different to the high R&D spend or patent activity which is usually associated with urban areas. It may be small-scale or incremental, more about a way of working, or related to the activities of a community group, for example. This innovation must be recognised and acknowledged. For example, rural areas are ideally placed to lead the design of innovative approaches to opportunities linked to the ageing population (rural areas are ageing faster than urban areas) or to digital healthcare, or through exploring how best to achieve alternative goals to economic growth, including wellbeing and happiness. Place-based working may be the most appropriate way of enabling such innovation to happen, as it encourages a range of local actors to be involved. This could be combined with a regional and national (and indeed supranational) policy infrastructure which is supportive and facilitates positive local action.

Also, to use the European Commission's language in the 2015 report on enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of Cohesion Policy through a place-based approach, place-based approaches are novel and experimental, which requires "changing the mindset of decision-makers moving from a more administrative and compliance-driven attitude to a more result-oriented and entrepreneurial one".[1]

Need for a positive narrative of rural potential


It is critical that in an age of tighter finances, the additional costs of delivering services in rural areas due to dispersed populations and larger distances are recognised and met and do not leave rural communities disadvantaged. Without doubt Scotland's rural communities are hugely diverse and many have serious challenges which must not be underestimated, including in relation to a declining and ageing population and the out-migration of people of working age, poor service provision, limited transport options and slow, unreliable broadband.

At the same time, however, there needs to be a shift in the narrative about our rural areas. Based on a large amount of empirical work, the OECD's work on place-based approaches is founded on the principle that all regions have the potential to grow, even those that might be regarded as being underdeveloped or lagging.

In a place-based approach, growth is based on endogenous resources and potential, so we need a much more positive narrative around the – often untapped – potential of rural regions. This will evolve the debate from one which emphasises their needs and tends to downplay their contribution, to one which emphasises their assets and how to grow their potential. These assets may be economic, in terms of the sizeable number and diverse range of businesses, but they may also be environmental - the carbon storage sites and the supplies of clean water, renewable energy and high quality food that are vital for everyone’s future.

These considerations are just the start of our work on place-based policy and service delivery. More information about our five-year plans are on the SRUC website.

If you would like to hear more about our work or let us know your thoughts, please email Jane Atterton (jane.atterton@sruc.ac.uk).

1. There is more discussion of rural innovation in: Dargan, L. and Shucksmith, M. (2008) LEADER and Innovation, Sociologia Ruralis 48 (3), pp. 274-291. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9523.2008.00463.x/abstract


Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland.

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