Vision and leadership are the most important conditions for rural development. Targeted, easily-managed public support schemes will ensure its success. This was the most important lesson of the hearing on "villages and small towns as catalyst for rural development – challenges and opportunities", organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 14 February in Brussels.
For the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) the revitalisation of rural areas is one of the major projects which Europe must achieve through a common effort. The main findings of this hearing will feed into the EESC own-initiative opinion being drawn up on this topic. "The countryside belongs to all citizens; therefore the involvement of all is necessary. We want to develop the right concepts with the people on the ground and to raise the profiles of villages and small towns", said Tom Jones, rapporteur of this opinion at the outset of the meeting. Mrs Piroska Kallay, President of the EESC study group, added: "Villages are social hubs where social values and skills are taught and cohesive society is demonstrated".
The challenges are great: rural areas have been facing decline during the last 30 to 40 years. The consequences are serious: poor infrastructure, not least for basic needs, such as food shops, schools, health care facilities, etc., few job opportunities, underdeveloped public transport systems and consequently high dependence on cars, an ageing population, etc.
However, for nearly all problems solutions can be found by innovative people: the EESC hearing started by presenting solutions with two "best practice" examples – one from Wales/UK and one from Hungary:
The bottom-up approach – a concerted effort
The village of Tre'r Ddol in Wales experienced what many others in Europe are facing: factories close or move away, enterprises shut down, farmers give up, shops are no more profitable, young people move away, schools close and even churches are neglected. But this Welsh community of Tre'r Ddol would not accept its decline and volunteers started to revitalise the former "Clettwr Services" outlet, starting with a café and shop. The enterprise has now generated 9 part-time jobs and there are 50 volunteers, providing cleaning and other services. The business is already making a profit which is reinvested in providing more services and a new building. "But more important than money is the social impact on the village and its people which is manifold: young people can earn their first money, they learn discipline and make their first working experience, elder and lonely people have a place where they can come together, local jobs are created for local people, money circulates locally, and last but not least also the local culture experiences some resurrection, in particular the cultivating of the Welsh language", explained Mr Callaghan, one of the founders of this local service centre.
The bottom-up approach – having a vision
The "ingredients" for the development of the Hungarian village of Kozard, in one of Europe's ten poorest provinces, are a dynamic mayor with a vision to care for citizens, improve their livelihoods and foster businesses, involved citizens, willing to invest in their region, and last but not least cooperation with the regional, provincial and national governments, together with the related funding, also from the EU. Kozard has followed a path of revitalising traditions in a sustainable way. It redeveloped its local agriculture – mainly fruit orchards and crop farming - also processing local products and developing the village for rural tourism. Concepts included the renewal of local customs, reviving and promoting local events. The mayor is now in in her fourth government period and Kozard has grown into a village where the University of Debrecen has opened a department, where congresses are held, and which has won several prizes. The village has a further 13 projects in the pipeline which it will implement with its neighbours, and offers jobs not only for the local people but also for commuters from surrounding villages. For Dr Hajas, who is the mayor's husband, it is important to start with education. "It is important to already teach children what it means to be in a rural area and to make them sensitive to nature."
The top-down approach – encouraging and teaching people
The bottom-up approach as shown in the two first examples does not work everywhere. Sometimes incentives are needed in order to start a project. This is when organisations such as ECOVAST come in. Ecovast organises workshops with the rural population in order to develop concepts for the revitalisation of their villages, but also to protect landscapes, preserve heritage and safeguard or revitalise local customs. Good examples exist all over Europe – Ms Fabijanic from Ecovast Croatia mentioned examples from German and Austrian cities along the border of the former Iron Curtain, and from Croatia. She emphasised that the challenges in former "Eastern Europe" were different to those in Western Europe and funding programmes should consider this difference.
The top-down approach – having partners
"Villages need partnerships" is the approach of Austria's rural development policy and Austria –unlike other countries - is channelling much investment to the 2nd pillar. Mr Fankhauser from the Austrian Chamber for Agriculture underlined the importance of a strong focus on rural development - one of the reasons why in Austria 20% of agriculture is already organic, and around 70,000 rural jobs have been created. Austria's focus is on comprehensive and competitive agriculture. This policy is also the reason why in Austria villages have grown more than cities. The challenges ahead are similar to other rural areas in Europe:
- better infrastructure, and
- increasing regional and local added value, for instance by direct marketing concepts.
CAP needs to play a decisive role for sustainable rural development
Mr Scheele from DG AGRI emphasised that rural development does not mean agriculture alone. Nevertheless, 77% of the allocated funds goes to direct payments and 23% is invested in rural development. "This is the decision of our Member States", Mr Scheele stated. The ongoing debate on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) also includes criticism of the distribution of the direct payments. There is also a need to increase farm resilience, a need to facilitate conditions for young farmers, a need for climate action and a need to build coalitions for agriculture and rural development (Cork).
Quoting President Juncker, Mr Scheele said that the CAP must provide farmers with a basic security net, it must respond to the challenges faced by society – food safety, environmental protection, and climate change. And it must contribute meaningfully to the Commission's priorities such as the Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
More information on the described projects and contributions can be found on our website.