Rural communities have a central role to play in the smart, sustainable economies of the 21st century. New and better ways must be sought to empower rural communities to play their full part in addressing vital policy areas such as food security, renewable energy, environmental protection and job creation. Provision of connectivity via broadband is, however, one of the key prerequisites that are needed to make villages and small towns full partners in the modern economy. Villages and small towns are hubs which sustain community development in rural areas. They are under increasing pressure from centralisation of services, e.g. schools, health, social and transport services. Rural communities are afraid that their loss of services is being ignored. Declining population reduces small businesses while house prices are inflated beyond the reach of young people by the dormitory effect. This opinion considers the root causes, the negative impact on rural areas and highlights best initiatives to re-energise communities through the RDP and other support measures. An EESC opinion will add momentum to the need for strong institutional intervention.
- The EESC fully supports the European Commission's Smart Villages Initiative, especially because of the promises made regarding cooperation between Directorates.
- Fast broadband is crucial for intelligently developed villages and towns to have any hope of economic and social development, and must be fully accessible, as guaranteed under the rural proofing highlighted in the Cork 2.0 Declaration of 2016.
- Public services in education, training, health and social care should be integrated, clustered and be innovative in using technological advances.
- Planning authorities in rural areas should champion an enabling process for renewing redundant village and small-town buildings, ensuring low business rates for starter businesses and compensatory contributions from edge-of-town retail projects.
- Poor transport connectivity is another challenge and transport sharing, community-owned buses and cars are recommended where the private sector withdraws.
- Where possible, employers should be encouraged to support distance working, and to realise the potential benefits of rural/urban partnerships.
- Both agri- and rural tourism, health-related activities and the branding of local farm and craft products, as well as increasing the cultural and historical catalogue of events is very important. Through the enabling support of the RDP, there is scope for business entrepreneurs to attract inward investment and to develop and market added-value products.
- Villages and small towns need empowering with greater powers and access to financial resources to lead and support the wishes of their constituents.
- LEADER and Local Action Groups should be fully supported in their efforts to promote local development - by encouraging businesses, both private and not-for-profit to start and grow - and to ensure an engaged and supportive community spirit. With improved cooperation, these efforts could be expanded through Community-led Local Development (CLLD).
- People in villages and small towns should commit to a sense of community that encourages leadership from within. Schools and local mentors should promote leadership.
- The EU institutions and their stakeholders should organise an annual celebratory day, to promote successful, cohesive village and small-town communities.
- The EESC recommends that the European Investment Bank constructs tailor-made support schemes for small rural businesses, both private and social enterprises, as promised in its 2017-2019 programme.
- Youth representative bodies should be supported to create a pathway for youth forums in local communities which will galvanise action on their needs and aspirations.
- The cultural values to be found in villages and small towns should be given a prominent place in the publicity for, and initiatives during, European Cultural Heritage Year 2018.
- The Committee recommends "good practices" to be shared at all levels.