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Review and Evaluation of Iomairt Aig An Oir/Initiative at the Edge (IaaO)



Background and purpose

1. The Department for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning at the Scottish Executive commissioned Cambridge Economic Associates, in association with Research for Real, to undertake a review and evaluation of Initiative at the Edge ( IatE)/Iomairt aig an Oir.

2. The purpose of the study is to: review the performance of IatE against its objectives; assess the impact of IatE on the designated areas; understand the extent to which IatE stimulates a more sustainable future for the designated areas; and compare the approaches across the designated areas with a view to identifying elements of best practice.

3. The study methodology involved desk research of programme documentation, interviews with members of the National Steering Group, an online survey of LDOs from all IatE areas and an intensive programme of fieldwork in four case study areas (Ardnamurchan, Colonsay and Uig & Bernera (pilot phase) and Northmavine (main phase)). The case study research included a sample survey of households and face to face and telephone interviews with the Local Development Officers ( LDOs) and a sample of community development group members and partner agencies.

Initiative at the Edge

4. IatE was established in 1998. It empowers communities in some of Scotland's most remote and fragile areas to identify their needs for area regeneration, consider what actions might be appropriate, and develop relevant projects in partnership with public sector agencies. One of the distinctive features of IatE is that there is no central source of funding and its success depends overwhelmingly on the refocusing of the support given by public sector agencies working in partnership with community groups within the IatE areas.

5. Another feature of IatE is the clear timescale that has been imposed to act as a catalyst to focused and energetic commitment by all parties to achieving the aims and objectives of the Initiative. With this in mind, there are two distinct stages currently extending in total for up to five years. The first stage, lasting for up to three years, carries the IatE badge/designation. It is then expected that areas will continue to be supported for a further two years by IatE partner agencies but with a less intense input.

6. The intention of these arrangements has been to ensure not only that the selected areas would benefit fully from IatE designation, but also that the Initiative could roll forward into new areas within a reasonable timescale, thereby maximising the impact of the Initiative over time.

7. So far, 18 IatE areas have been designated. In 1998 a first phase of eight pilot areas were identified. The programme continued with ten further areas identified in 2004. Table 1 on the following page details the designations in each phase.

Table 1 The IatE designated areas (and their dates of designation)

Pilot Phase

Main Phase

Bays of Harris

(March 1998)

Eday and Stronsay

(April 2004)



Glenelg and Arnisdale




Isle of Jura


Uig & Bernera





(June 1998)





Barra and Vatersay

(October 2004)

North Sutherland


Caithness Southeast


Westray/Papa Westray


Isle of Coll


North Isles (Unst, Yell & Fetlar)


Sanday and North Ronaldsay


Policy framework

8. There is an array of agencies and others already tasked with the delivery of an assortment of programmes and initiatives designed to address the disadvantages endemic for communities resident in the fragile peripheral areas of the Highlands and Islands . It has become increasingly evident that area regeneration of marginal communities that is sustainable in the longer term cannot rely simply on the input of public resources to meet particular problems. The "top down" approach has been less successful than had been hoped and for many communities within the fragile areas their problems remain. For them, we are in no doubt that what is needed is a fresh look at area regeneration and community development and how they can best be addressed within a context set by limited financial resources.

9. We find that the thrust behind IatE is entirely in tune with a growing consensus on how the process of sustainable community development can contribute to area regeneration. It provides a helpful demonstration of how arrangements can be put in place within a context in which institutional arrangements are well developed but public funds are limited.

Findings on delivery performance

10. Feedback from LDOs, community development group members and agencies suggests that the objectives of IatE are fairly well specified given the needs of the designated areas. However, the level of awareness of the programme objectives amongst these key participants in the IatE process is lower than it should be for an initiative that has been running for almost a decade. The lack of an overarching, and consistently delivered, communication strategy has held back the Initiative in some of the designated areas. Expectations about the IatE's purpose and ways of working could have been managed better.

11. A key element of IatE is that a community development group should set the agenda and this aspect has worked very well. "Communication", "perseverance", "respect", and "early success" were all aspects emphasised by the LDOs who responded to our survey.

12. Another consistent feature of IatE is that every community development group is now expected to prepare a development plan for its area. Considerable effort has been devoted to identifying local issues and prioritising these as part of the plan-making process. Plans have typically tackled a mixture of new issues as well as accommodating some that had been debated before IatE designation.

13. Although IatE community development groups have been actively involved in development plan preparation, feedback from the four case study consultations suggests that typically wider community awareness of group activities and discussions has been limited and that the extent of engagement efforts has varied. This finding is supported by evidence from the household surveys which reveals a low level of awareness of development plan content and mixed support for the proposals across the four case study areas.

14. Turning to content, the development plans were intended to be the communities' own documents, representing their aspirations for change which had been formally recognised by local agencies. They were not intended to be technical reports and we are in no doubt about the usefulness of the documents. However, as advocacy for change their weight could have been enhanced through some greater use of data on local conditions and trends, evidence of particular need (e.g. from existing surveys), analysis of measures already in hand by different organisations, and identification and justification of gaps that still required attention. Some LDOs responding to our survey were critical of the lack of prioritisation, especially in view of the limited period of IatE designation.

15. In relation to plan implementation, case study evidence demonstrates that the IatE areas have made very good progress in assembling funding to deliver a range of development projects valued by local communities. There was clear feedback, including that from LDOs, that grant awarding bodies recognised the " IatE badge" by allocating higher priority to applications from these areas. This was a particular feature of discretionary funding by local authorities or local offices of national agencies.

16. Encouraging evidence from our case studies shows that over half of community development group respondents could identify examples of where public service agencies involved in the IatE had contributed more resources to the IatE area, and almost two thirds said that there were examples of where public service providers had allocated a greater priority to IatE areas.

17. Notwithstanding these positive findings, our general conclusion from the fieldwork was that agency commitment has been very much weaker than that which was originally anticipated. There was more success in funding specific capital projects than in securing changes to service provision that required an ongoing funding commitment. Thus, for example, of the community group members we spoke to in the case study areas, less than a tenth believed that public service agencies had reviewed their activities, established priorities, provided support and guidance on a one-to-one basis or facilitated public meetings in the IatE area.

18. The general feedback is that public bodies and the key national spending departments have not given the IatE areas sufficient special focus and priority in their mainstream (as opposed to discretionary) activities. Noticeably higher levels of agency engagement seemed to have occurred between IatE groups and local authority central/corporate services, HIE and the local enterprise network, Communities Scotland and the Crofters Commission. By comparison, engagement with health boards, certain other local authority departments (such as education), public transport agencies and ferry services was noticeably weak or absent. Amongst the partner agencies, there was little evidence of systematic sharing of good practice between agencies that has been learned from IatE areas. If IatE had really penetrated the mindset of mainstream delivery this would be expected to be a prominent feature of activity on the ground.

19. Some of the key successes and weaknesses of IatE which emerged from the evaluation result from structural aspects of the delivery of the Initiative. Taking the positives first, there was almost universal praise for the LDOs who had played a pivotal part in helping to support (and often initiate) community development groups - themselves considered to be a critical function - as well as acting as a bridge between communities and public sector service providers. However, all of the survey feedback suggests that, if LDOs were to have maximised their effectiveness, more resources should have been available to provide training, administrative support and suitable office based working conditions. Feedback regarding the National Co-ordination function was also positive. We take from this analysis that much of the "operational" structure for the delivery of the Initiative is sound.

20. The structural weaknesses of IatE relate to its direction and strategic management at the national level. The 2001 evaluation was critical of the leadership role played by the National Steering Group. Five years on, those concerns appear just as valid, if not more so.

21. At its inception, IatE had both a National Steering Group ( NSG) (comprising Chairs, Chief Executives and Convenors from the IatE partners, and chaired by the Minister) and a Management Group ( MG), comprising senior managers from the partners. In November 2004 the National Steering Group took the decision to abolish the Management Group. From our analysis of the NSG and MG minutes and from interviews with NSG members we are not convinced that the national level structures were ever fully effective, but there can be no doubt that the abolition of the MG significantly weakened strategic leadership, the co-ordination of endeavour, and - critically - the Initiative's influence on the organisational behaviour of member departments and agencies.

22. Drawing together our overall findings on the IatE approach to delivery, its key strengths were identified by respondents as its tailored, flexible, community-led approach to improving the quality of life in remote and inaccessible rural areas. Weaknesses were identified to be a lack of strategic positioning of IatE with other initiatives, a tendency for priorities to be stretched too thinly and for the opportunities for inter-agency working not to be realised.

Findings on impact and the IatE legacy

Development focus

23. One of the key successes of IatE has been the identification of important development projects by communities and the ways in which LDOs have pursued agency commitment and funding to deliver them. A review of the IatE development plans suggests that, in the main, the focus of attention has been on well established central themes including:

  • Business development and employment creation, including the survival and, where possible, growth of crofting, aquaculture, fishing and forestry industries. Support for new business start ups and skills and training in key sectors also featured;
  • Tourism development and promotion, including accommodation, improvements to trails and access to water, community websites, area marketing and signage;
  • Land use, infrastructure and the environment, including road improvements, land for housing, renewable energy, and measures to protect and enhance the local environment;
  • Local services, particularly for young people but also for the elderly and those without transport. There was also a focus on local retail provision and, in two areas, fuel provision.

Community awareness and perceptions of development projects

24. In our household survey levels of awareness of 16 named projects taken forward as part of the Initiative were found to be generally high. Of greater significance, 14 of these projects were felt to be making either some difference or a critical difference to the local community by sizeable proportions of those who were aware of them. Based on the case study evidence, road improvements and community fuel pumps made a particularly positive difference to the local community.

Additionality of IatE

25. Key to our evaluation is an assessment of the extent to which the achievements directly brought about as a result of the IatE operational framework, or otherwise associated with IatE, would have happened at all by now, or would have happened earlier.

26. Our overall assessment of the additionality of IatE is that the majority of the activities pursued under the IatE banner were either brought forward significantly in time (between 3 and 5 years) or were enabled to happen at all by the IatE processes that were put in place.

IatE influence on agency engagement

27. Although agency and service provider engagement has not been as extensive as expected, over three quarters of agency respondents said that they had contributed more resources to the IatE case study areas. Our clear impression is that the IatE badge had played a significant role in prioritising the needs of the designated areas in the allocation of discretionary funds. Some two thirds of agencies were also involved in softer forms of involvement, including attending local meetings and advising on technical matters relating to project proposals.

28. Only a little over half of the agency respondents in our case study areas said that their organisation had reviewed its delivery in the IatE case study areas, established formal priorities for the area in terms of service delivery, or piloted new ideas and practices in the areas. Moreover, the evaluation found fewer than a quarter of agency respondents who said that fundamental issues affecting the delivery of their service in rural areas were being actively debated or addressed as a consequence of IatE.

Impact of IatE on community confidence

29. The household survey found that the confidence of respondents about the future of the four case study areas was higher now than it had been a year before, and higher still compared with three years before.

30. For the three case study areas that were IatE pilots (Ardnamurchan, Colonsay, and Uig & Bernera), we were able to compare levels of community confidence with the results of the Community Confidence Surveys conducted by Highlands & Islands Enterprise in the same areas in 2000. The results are universally positive with increases in all three areas compared with the 2000 results. In Ardnamurchan, the proportion of respondents expressing the two highest optimism scores was 42% in 2006 compared with 32% in 2000. In Colonsay (from 10% to 33%) and Uig & Bernera (from 18% to 34%) the results are even more encouraging. In short, our respondents in these three areas are now more hopeful about the future than they were in 2000.

Impact on local conditions

31. The evaluation household survey asked residents to identify whether particular aspects of their area were a problem, and whether these aspects had improved, got worse or stayed the same over the period 2003 to 2006. Looking across the four case studies, residents were most likely to flag up issues relating to affordable housing, the condition of the roads, the lack of job opportunities, the lack of opportunities to retain young people, and activities for young people as problems for their area.

32. Positive change was recorded in relation to local shopping, primary schools, access to GPs, access to council services, public transport, activities for young people under 16, community leadership, acceptance of newcomers and influencing service providers.

33. Given our appreciation of the local development plans in these areas, the issues that may have been influenced by IatE are more likely to have been local shops, activities for young people, access to services and influencing service providers. The survey evidence suggests that, of the range of improvements over the last three years, many of these issues are judged to have made the biggest difference to respondents' quality of life.

34. The survey data reveals a strong relationship between the activities delivered in each area under IatE and resident perceptions of positive change in relation to roads (Ardnamurchan), local shops (Ardnamurchan, Colonsay, and Uig & Bernera), employment (Colonsay), and activities for young people (Ardnamurchan and Uig & Bernera). The findings are sufficiently clear for us to conclude that activities encouraged by way of IatE have played an important role in bringing about these improvements in resident perceptions.

35. Positive though these findings are, the most pressing issues - of affordable housing, jobs, roads and retention of young people - were matters that respondents felt had got worse over the last three years. This is particularly striking in relation to housing (30% saying it had got worse, compared to 16% saying it had improved), jobs (28% "worse", 8% "better") and retention of young people (29% "worse", 6% "better").

Securing the IatE legacy

36. The majority view from the respondents we interviewed was that the objectives of IatE had been partly met, while a significant minority expressed the view that the objectives had only been achieved to a very modest extent.

37. Feedback from those involved in IatE delivery in the four case study areas suggests that the activities taken forward will, for the most part, have a long-term life of five years or more. However, there is evidence that some activities will need ongoing funding support if they are to be maintained and the longer-term sustainability of such revenue-reliant measures is not certain.

38. The physical progress in IatE areas may be long lasting. However, it is quite clear from our case study work - particularly in the three pilot IatE areas - that momentum has been lost after the formal period of designation. The short life of the formal designation, followed by the loss of the IatE badge and the designation of further IatE areas is judged by some to have had a rather damaging effect on momentum.

39. Our surveys also revealed a lack of certainty regarding the exit strategies following IatE in many of the areas. Only half of LDO respondents and community development group respondents in the case studies said there was a forward strategy in place for the post-designation period. Of the 13 LDOs who were able to give a definitive answer to the question of whether funding had been secured for an LDO post going forward, only three were able to confirm that it was in place.

Conclusions on rationale and delivery performance

40. The evaluation has found that the rationale for the Initiative is well founded and places it within the mainstream of current thinking on area regeneration and community development. The fragile and remote areas of Scotland need to be supported in this way if they are to realise their potential and retain population and their economic vitality.

41. The Initiative has the potential to fit well within the evolving approach to area regeneration and community development within Scotland. IatE has tested an innovative approach to area regeneration and community development and many aspects of the IatE operational framework have been successful. The evaluation findings clearly indicate that, with a few exceptions, IatE has harnessed individual initiative, leadership, skills and enterprise all to the community good. Moreover, as an operational framework, rather than a specific programme of projects, IatE requires only modest dedicated expenditure.

42. The evidence suggests that the key success factors widely associated with the IatE approach to date have been:

  • the active encouragement of IatE communities to articulate the needs of their area;
  • the flexibility to identify issues and priorities across a very broad spectrum - much broader than specific expenditure programmes;
  • the dedicated support available to communities in the form of a Local Development Officer;
  • the IatE badge and the promotion of its policy significance among key public service providers;
  • the development plan, and the associated process of communication, consensus building and prioritisation;
  • The availability of seed corn funding to assist with development planning.

43. The evaluation findings also indicate that five other ingredients are necessary for the benefits of the IatE approach to be maximised:

  • strong leadership and firm co-ordination at the national level;
  • acceptance that these most fragile of fragile areas are likely to present an ongoing regeneration and service priority - there are no quick fixes;
  • clear and well-managed arrangements for transition following a period of designation;
  • a clear and explicit relationship with community planning arrangements;
  • stability and continuity in delivery arrangements and personnel;
  • a process of ongoing learning and evaluation.

44. Our conclusion is that IatE has lacked the consistent application of these ingredients and that this has held back its delivery performance:

  • The National Steering Group has found difficulty in executing its strategic leadership role. This, combined with its decision to disband the Management Group, has constrained the Initiative's ability to bend mainstream services (as opposed to discretionary capital funding) towards IatE areas;
  • With the benefit of hindsight, the withdrawal of the designation from the pilot areas was premature. There is clear feedback from these areas that the momentum has been lost as the focus of IatE attention has moved on to other areas. The fundamental underlying area regeneration needs of these of the pilot areas have been ameliorated, but not solved.
  • There is a lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities for exit planning for the IatE areas as their designation period ends. Too much appears to have been left for local community groups and LDOs where their posts remain.
  • Feedback suggests that the success of IatE is heavily dependent on the community planning arrangements which are intended to be the main vehicle for implementation. In those local authorities with well-developed arrangements IatE has had the opportunity to work well and actively address the needs of the most fragile areas. In those where the arrangements are less mature the problems of implementation have apparently been that much harder.
  • The LDO function has rightly identified as critical to the implementation of the Initiative. We have already reported that the withdrawal of IatE designation from the pilot areas appears to have been premature and, related to that, a fundamental difficulty is the placing of support staff on short-term contracts. The latter is an unhelpful feature because it creates instability and inefficiencies in the development process.
  • Finally, IatE has been formally evaluated twice in the decade since the Initiative began. The findings of this evaluation, reinforced by current evaluation best practice, suggest a more formative approach to evaluation would be beneficial, both in terms of capturing relevant data on progress and performance, as well as ensuring that key areas of delivery performance are kept on track and evolve further as time goes on.

Conclusions on impact and the IatE legacy

45. Our evaluation of the Initiative including feedback from those involved and further informed by the detailed case study work points to some solid achievements by IatE since its inception. Sizeable proportions of residents are not only aware of development projects taken forward via IatE, but positively perceive the impact on their area. There are useful examples within the designated areas, past and present, where more has been achieved more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

46. Overall, the Initiative has had some success as a catalyst to achievement, but in its present form it has had limited success in addressing deep-seated underlying problems that demand a long planning horizon for their solutions. Community strengthening and development are desirable and provide a necessary underpinning for long-term sustainable regeneration. However, they are not sufficient, by themselves, to achieve the objectives of the Initiative.

47. Looking to the future there is still much to do. However, we have found that the policy framework is largely benign, and there is no shortage of institutional arrangements to take matters forward. Our findings indicate that the main components of a successful Initiative at the Edge are all in position and they suggest how these might be evolved to secure a more efficient and effective achievement of desirable outcomes. In short the ingredients of future success for a mainstreamed programme are all there.

48. However, we are in no doubt that the future of the Initiative depends critically on a change in the level of commitment of the key agencies at all levels and their approach to the allocation of resources to the needs of what have been identified as the most fragile of the fragile areas in the Highlands and Islands. Without more in the way of strategic direction and focused attention by key agencies we conclude that sustainable area regeneration and community development of the IatE areas is unlikely to be secured. That would be a missed opportunity.