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Do we have the evidence to support place based policies?

Do we have the evidence to support place based policies?

This is the second of two blog posts about place-based rural policy. In this blog post on this topic, we are pleased that Jonathan Hopkins, James Hutton Institute is able to explain more about the evidence needs to support place-based rural policies. The previous post can be accessed here and explains what exactly is place based rural policy. 

Many would argue that it has never been easier to access numerical data about people and places in Scotland. Partly because of OpenData principles, public bodies release large volumes of freely accessible data via online portals such as and Many datasets are frequently updated: population estimates for small areas, for instance, are published annually. Additionally, several widely-cited ‘official’ indicators provide helpful insights into different locations. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, for instance, can be used to identify highly deprived locations; while the Urban Rural Classification combines important information on settlement size and, for rural areas and small towns, remoteness from urban areas. These data resources are potentially a major asset in the context of place-based policies in Scotland: those focused on local areas, and tailored to their particular characteristics and issues. It might be tempting to assume that stakeholders in the public, private and third sectors, and local residents and community groups, can easily find data for their local area on a range of important issues, and effectively use it for different purposes.

However, the reality is less simple: the size of the ‘evidence base’ required for policy in Scotland could be very large, covering a diverse range of topics. This is partly because a very wide range of issues affect people and society: wellbeing is a product of economic assets and several factors related to quality of life. In Scotland, the National Performance Framework defines eleven ‘National Outcomes’ covering diverse aspirations (including community strength, creativity and diversity, health, human rights, education and skills and environmental quality) which are monitored nationally by 81 indicators. The topics and issues perceived to be most important in different locations, and by different groups, may also vary considerably.  

Furthermore, to provide evidence for, and effectively implement, place-based policies, data needs to be available for small areas (such as Data Zones), relatively up to date, and be relevant to important issues and topics. It is clear, though, that not all types of wellbeing, or policy areas, are quantified at the small area level. Our research has found that small area-level data is available in Scotland for economic characteristics (e.g. jobs) and areas of high policy interest, such as health and education. By contrast, for several important aspects of life (including civic engagement, life satisfaction, and the environment), little or no ‘fine-grained’ data is available. In these cases, there may be a need to derive small-area data from other data sources, potentially involving more complex and time-consuming data collection and analysis, and/or accept proxy indicators which are less relevant to the issues of interest. 

There is a clear need for researchers to consult practitioners, policy makers, community groups and several other stakeholders to identify the most important issues and subjects which affect Scotland’s rural areas and small towns, and to assess whether relevant small-area data are available to measure them. In addition to identifying priority topics and data gaps, it is also crucial for those who produce data and information to make it available in a format which is useful to the people and groups who need it. Therefore, we need to learn from others about how data should be published and presented for best effect, how ‘end users’ prefer to use and analyse data, and the types of resources and ‘tools’ which would best meet their requirements. If you’re at the Rural Parliament, and are interested in this subject, please come along to our workshop.

Jane Atterton and Jonathan Hopkins will be hosting a workshop on place-based rural policy and the required evidence base at 13:30 and 14:50 on the 15th November at the Scottish Rural Parliament meeting in Stranraer, Dumfries and Galloway.