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Territorial competitiveness

Creating a territorial development strategy
in light of the LEADER experience
[Part 1]

[ Index ]


Chapter 1
The territorial approach in rural areas -
lessons learned from LEADER


1.3 The local territorial approach: lessons from LEADER


The local territorial approach based on the definition of a “territorial project” is the cornerstone of the LEADER Community Initiative. By inviting public and private figures to become part of a local partnership to design a development programme for their area, that has been broadly negotiated with the competent regional or national authorities, the LEADER Initiative led to the creation of 217 territorial projects during its first phase (LEADER I, 1991- 1994) and around 1,000 during its second phase (LEADER II, 1994- 1999).

These LEADER “territorial projects” made it possible to introduce a territorial approach into rural areas which hitherto had either been unaware of this approach or were acquainted only with highly sectoral development policies (agriculture, tourism, community measures, etc). In 1999, ie, eight years after the start of LEADER I and four years after the start of LEADER II, a number of fundamental lessons had been learned by the many players and institutions involved in the Community Initiative. Below are six lessons of specific relevance to the territorial approach.

Lesson 1: the introduction of the territorial project concept has made it possible to progress beyond the concept of an area as an administrative unit.

The search for some form of coherence, or sometimes simply the need to achieve the geographical dimension required for LEADER, have led to the definition of new territorial entities serving as a reference. The idea that the area is the basis and the core structure for any development strategy has gradually gained recognition.

The LEADER territorial approach is not unrelated to the more general trend in national planning and development policies towards new types of “territorial geometry”, defined on the basis of specific development needs rather than solely on administrative considerations. These new policies promote the concept of identity (cultural, historical, and geographical). They also respond to the demographic changes that have occurred over recent decades by allowing local public authorities to regain their proper role. In any case, they reflect a different perception of space, facilitating links between the institutions and players concerned on the basis of new conceptions and new challenges.

Lesson 2: local identity, which sometimes needs to be reinvented, is at the core of the territorial strategy.

Many areas have sought to reinforce their links and coherence by focusing their development project on a strong element of local identity. Areas that were formerly anonymous have now become “unique” areas with a strong identity, such as: the Antico Frignano area in Emilia-Romagna (Italy), the Pays Cathare area in Languedoc- Roussillon (France), the Terras do Cante area in Alentejo (Portugal) (1) and “RaJuPuSu” (2) in Finland.

LEADER has shown that the power of expression of an area that has emerged from anonymity changes the way people see the area: its image and uniqueness increase the area’s appeal and its products become more desirable.

Also, placing an element of local identity at the core of a territorial strategy has made it possible for unused, neglected or even forgotten resources to regain their value and to give rise to unique products resulting from unusual combinations of different elements and sectors. In some cases, the launch of an image or slogan associated with one of the area’s identity components has made it possible to bring scattered products together and to create new product ranges. This strategy is increasingly taking shape in rural areas, even in areas where LEADER has no involvement.


“Village du Pain” [Village of Bread] was the theme chosen by the inhabitants of Bovenistier (Waremme, Wallonia, Belgium) to revive their social and cultural life and redevelop this little village of 370 inhabitants. After taking stock of the human and physical resources available so as to decide what was feasible to achieve locally, a local group chose to adopt the “theme-village” strategy, which consists of grafting a variety of projects onto a single theme. Bread was the chosen theme, in view of the importance of wheat growing to the region and the existence of a school of traditional bakery at Waremme, as well as a traditional bakery in Bovenistier itself.

The first Bread Festival was organised in 1993. In view of the success of the event which grew year by year, the public authorities redeveloped the village (public facilities, green areas), the bakery sector flourished once again with new shops opening in the towns of Waremme and Liege, studies were undertaken with a view to developing craft industries, children’s creative workshops were set up, etc. Jobs were created, attracting new inhabitants: in 1996, the Bovinestier school catered for nearly 70 children, compared with only 23 nine years previously.

An area’s identity is made up of all its inhabitants’ collective perceptions of their past, their traditions and their know-how, their production structure, their cultural heritage, their material resources, their future, etc.

It is not a monolithic identity, but a complex whole integrating a multitude of identities specific to each social group, each place, each specialised production centre, etc. This “plural” identity is not static; on the contrary it can change, grow stronger, and modernise.

Lesson 3: the territorial approach has shown that the decline of certain areas, even where this is advanced, is never terminal because the territorial approach makes it possible to explore new avenues of development.

Participating local players are once again able to “imagine” a future. In some cases, an effort is being made to enhance and restructure existing activities, but in other cases, because the situation has deteriorated too much, a completely new project has been envisaged in an area for which a new identity and image has to be created.


The upper Loire valley (Rhône-Alpes, France) has an exceptional archaeological heritage which, since 1973, has been the subject of archaeological research but has had no direct spin-offs in terms of local development: for nearly 25 years, researchers and local players were blithely unaware of one another’s existence. The launch of the local LEADER II programme in 1996-97 marked a new milestone: the aim now is to build bridges between research and territorial development by creating a product that is totally new to the area - “volcanic tourism”.

A meeting between scientists and the LEADER group provided an opportunity to discuss their respective views and wishes. The scientists wanted logistical resources in order to examine in more depth, define and assess the research results amassed over their 25 years of work, whilst at the same time expressing their willingness to seek the means to publish the knowledge they had acquired. With this knowledge, the LEADER group expected the scientist to help redefine and promote a territorial identity.

An agreement was reached, as a result of which a series of scientific activities has now been organised, including the preparation of monographs of prehistoric sites, the organisation of permanent and travelling exhibitions, the organisation of guided tours and introduction/demonstration days for groups on request, and publications, brochures, films, etc, for both scientists and the general public.

These activities have provided the momentum for a territorial development process based on scientific and cultural tourism on the theme of early history and volcanoes.

As both the catalyst and the product of learning processes, the territorial approach makes it possible to foresee what an area, its players and its institutions wish to become, the aims which will help them to cope with the challenges of globalisation, the new or renewed identity that they wish to adopt and the image that they wish to portray to the outside world.

The territorial approach leads institutions and players to discover a host of different, often unexpected, potential ways to inject new dynamism into their area. Furthermore, the exercise of developing alternative scenarios provides clues about long-term risks and opportunities, highlighting several possible courses of action. Capitalising on existing initiatives makes it possible to pave new ways forward, to identify foreseen or unforeseen results and to take advantage of them. Development comes from a series of “minor victories”, each one giving rise to new ideas and activities.

Lesson 4: the territorial approach has enabled the players involved to express not only their knowledge, expectations and conflicts, but also their ability to build collective initiatives and to organise themselves around new ideas.

Listening to the concerns of the players involved and putting oneself in their place has become a prerequisite for constructing a territorial project.

In this sense LEADER has served as a test bed for “animation” tools designed to help local players to express their points of view and expectations. It has opened the way for ideas and concepts that would not normally come to light, since the players concerned are rarely asked to express their individual concerns and there is no forum for gathering them.


The Serrania de Ronda area (Andalusia, Spain) relies on small-scale farming for much of its livelihood. Some of its products, like chestnuts and meat, are exported, but the different sectors are very poorly organised at local level. The area suffers from high levels of emigration. However, its proximity to the coast and the cultural heritage of its administrative centre, Ronda (which attracts thousands of visitors every year), have given rise to opportunities in the tourism sector. A group of inhabitants created a local development association. This became a place for discussion and confrontation and gradually came to involve the population, transforming social relations by means of two principles: clarifying strategies in advance through debate within the association and giving priority to collective projects. One of the chief effects of this method was to create collective and professional organisations in a hitherto very poorly organised area.

Pooling the diverse and sometimes conflicting ideas of the different players leads to a more complex, richer and more coherent interpretation of the reference area.

  • More complex, because it reveals that existing deadlocks are often attributable to sections of the population whose opinion is rarely taken into consideration, thus highlighting the existence of human resources and innovative ideas that had formerly been ignored.

  • Richer, because recognising the diverse viewpoints makes it possible to break away from attitudes that have been handed down from generation to generation. In rural areas, such attitudes mainly revolve around “what isn’t done”. They reflect the centuries-old reserve of the rural world, which is guided by a concern for survival. However, the drawback of such attitudes is that sometimes they prevent an awareness of change in the outside world and the need for openness, in some cases even legitimising the exclusion of certain players. This often makes it difficult for such players to trust local development opportunities despite this being one of the first phases in the renewal process.

  • More coherent, because the expression of different or even divergent viewpoints, despite being an irritant at first because of the latent conflicts which they bring to light, is essential for constructing new identity-based references. It is through action, by developing a collective project, that any conflicts which appear during the initial consultations can be overcome and earlier concepts are modified and thereby enhanced.

    Lesson 5: the success or failure of a strategy depends on how the interests and relations between players are structured, ie, on the collective ability to examine the local situation, to define priorities and to agree on how to organise available resources.

    Often conflicts of interest reflect divergent strategies. They also reflect the differing views and expectations of the local players involved. However, in order to reconcile diverging positions or to solve conflicts that have been deadlocked for far too long, common viewpoints also need to be found.

    In LEADER areas, the establishment of local partnerships has played a key role. The various players involved refine and broaden their skills as well as their ability to act as part of a public/private partnership.

    LEADER has shown that the interaction between institutions and the representatives of local interests within a decision-making partnership has “redefined” the role of both sides and fostered the gradual emergence of a collective perception of the present and future of the area. This combination of interests and skills also leads to the emergence of innovative ideas.

    Lesson 6: exchanges between rural areas have intensified and raised awareness about the importance of the transfer of know-how and cooperation between areas in order to define new paths of development.

    Cooperation between areas has fostered the introduction of forms of exchange, the search for forms of complementarity and the transfer of knowledge in a wide range of fields, including: developing archaeological sites, bottom-up evaluation methods, protecting and supporting animal species faced with extinction, teleworking, local products, traditional building techniques, “green” architecture, etc.

    The new economic structures that have emerged from developing an area’s specific resources - even those areas suffering severe decline and where resources have been neglected - have had to be checked, compared and consolidated through exchanges with the outside world, which quite naturally led to the creation of transnational thematic networks.

    Cooperation has overturned local perceptions about the relationship between the centre and outlying areas. The strongly ingrained idea that outlying areas always depend on the centre (more highly developed regions which are more often than not urban) for transferring knowledge, innovation, etc, is now being called into question. New forms of solidarity have been created.


    In 1991 (start of LEADER I), the LEADER groups situated on either side of the Spanish/Portuguese border considered their geographical remoteness from the major development centres of their respective countries to be a serious handicap. The cross-border cooperation set up between these groups in 1993 radically altered their point of view: the comparison between two different cultures and national contexts was such a source of mutual enrichment that some of the groups began to speak of a “new centrality”, because of the clear lead they had gained over regions unable to benefit from similar local cooperation. The Portuguese municipalities were able to benefit from the experience of their Spanish counterparts in matters of coordination and the professionalisation of the local economic fabric, enabling them to move beyond their traditional role as mere administrators of public facilities. In return, the Spaniards acquired Portuguese know-how regarding the production and presentation of local traditional products such as cheeses.

    In conclusion, LEADER has led to the emergence of a new rural development scenario in which rural areas are redefined in terms other than administrative units; new avenues of development are promoted on the basis of adding value to the area’s distinctive features, to local identity and to the coordination of actions; the concerns of the players involved are taken into consideration; local cooperation and local decision-making empowerment are sought; and areas are organised into networks. All are key elements of the new scenario and all are essential “ingredients” for acquiring territorial competitiveness.

    However, LEADER is just a pilot experiment:

    • the territorial project concept launched by LEADER is still a “testing ground” because of the relatively small quantity of resources mobilised;

    • the integrated approach has affected only certain rural development sectors (tourism, handicrafts and produce, in particular), with the other sectors continuing, for the most part, to depend on sectoral approaches adopted at central level - especially anything to do with infrastructure, spatial planning, large-scale agricultural production, service provision, social policies, etc;

    • partnership working is often confined to the local level, with only limited impact on major national and regional policies;

    • the programme has not yet been operational for long enough to allow us to monitor the expected medium and long-term effects.

    These limitations explain why local LEADER programmes, whilst allowing a new development dynamic to be initiated, have in general not yet had sufficient time or resources to offer real and renewed competitiveness to rural areas, except in those areas already engaged in this process for some time.

    Nonetheless, as a pilot experiment LEADER has helped to trigger a process which, in some cases, is developing and establishing itself around an even more integrated territorial project.


    [1] see LEADER Magazine n°4 (autumn 1993).
    [2] see LEADER Magazine n°18 (autumn 1998).

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