‘Community-led local development’ (CLLD), previously known as ‘the LEADER method’, is for many still a quite new way to work with local development. In the current programming period 2014-2020 there are even more possibilities available for funding. Four different EU funds can be used for CLLD and a successful recent European seminar, held on 7-8 December 2016 in Båstad, Sweden, explored how to strengthen the LEADER/CLLD approach in these funds.
About 140 participants from almost all EU Member States gathered in Båstad Sweden during 2 days in the beginning of December to share experiences of how the LEADER method is working today and what can be done to get it to work even better. The participants represented all levels in the decision chain, from the local actors in the LAGs to managing authorities and paying agencies up to all the four EC directorates funding the CLLD: DG AGRI, DG MARE, DG REGIO and DG EMPL. The national rural networks and of course the organiser, the European Network for Rural Development, ENRD, were also well represented, as well as the European Fisheries Areas’ Network FARNET. There were many interesting presentations in plenary in the start of the conference, covering the 25 years of history and experience in LEADER. The main part of the programme comprised 4 rounds of interactive workshops, when the participants really had possibilities to exchange experience in smaller groups and identify concrete suggestions to make the LEADER method function better.
The discussion showed that the implementation of CLLD involves a number of challenges which need to be addressed in order to ensure that local strategies deliver the expected results. The following challenges were often coming up during the Båstad event:
(1) Administration and regulation – a necessity and a hurdle
Starting as a pilot Community Initiative in the beginning of the 1990s, with a fairly flexible administrative framework, the LEADER method was mainstreamed since 2007-2013 and incorporated in the overall Rural Development Programmes and also in the Fisheries Programmes financed from the European Fisheries Fund. This mainstreaming and the resulting application to LEADER of the same rules as for other RDP measures, as well as the tendency of some managing authorities to ‘gold-plate’ (i.e. to create additional rules for LEADER, on top of those defined in the EU legislation), has increased administrative burden for all implementation levels. Consequently, many local actors complain that the bottom-up approach and other features of LEADER are under threat and can disappear in all these top-down regulations and controls. This is still perceived as a key challenge in spite of the many efforts to simplify CLLD delivery.
(2) The challenge of new Funds
In the programming period 2014-2020 it is possible for the Member States to use, in addition to rural and fisheries funds, also the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund for LEADER-type activities. Here there are many different solutions in different member states, from using all four funds to using only the EAFRD. However, so far most of the experience in CLLD implementation comes from rural and fisheries areas, and three years from the start of the programming period very little can be said about the practical implementation of CLLD in the regional development and social funds.
An additional challenge can come when several funds can be combined within a single strategy. This can further increase the administrative burden for the LAGs and staff when handling several regulations. The local project promoters find themselves even more confused. Unfortunately, the regulations for the different funds are not well coordinated and at the national level the implementation rules can differ even more. One proposal for improving CLLD implementation that was highly popular with the participants was to have a single set of rules across CLLD funds and across Member States.
Here Sweden was showcased as a successful example since the funding for CLLD is organised with one common managing authority and one paying agency, making it possible to coordinate the implementation as much as possible. That said, the Swedish representatives in a modest way pointed out that the local groups have been starting only in the second half of 2016 so the real test of the multi-fund solution is yet to come.
It was also clear that there is a large variation in the starting process of the LEADER/CLLD groups. There are still some member states where the LAGs have not been selected. In the Swedish perspective the LAGs are frustrated over starting so late in the programming period, but there are already about 100 projects approved by the managing authority and 200 – 300 approved by LAGs waiting for final approval, which is very good progress when compared to most Member States.
(3) Building trust
One of the general conclusions for improvements was the need to restore and increase the trust at all levels. In particular, building trust between managing authorities and paying agencies on the one hand and LAGs and FLAGs and their beneficiaries on the other can help overcome some of the administrative complexities of CLLD implementation. At the local level the project promoters must understand and feel that LEADER is firmly anchored in the local needs and assets. The implementation rules must be simplified so also small project promoters, without big administrative muscles, dare to apply for project funding. A key to achieve this is transparency and a better communication both downwards and upwards in the implementation chain. A mutual internship programme between LEADER offices, managing authorities and the EU Commission was one of the tangible suggestions.
Another important point was that development processes, which are built in the DNA of LEADER, have to include and embrace the risk for failure. To find innovative solutions to the rural challenges we have to be willing to risk something and dare to approve projects which may not bring the expected results, and LAGs and beneficiaries should not be punished for taking such risks. One or two ‘failed’ projects might be the necessary stepping stones for the final really successful innovation.
International coordinator at the Swedish Rural Network