Country policy: joining local forces

For this Leader special, the authors working for the Rural Areas Network have interviewed three country experts about the meaning of LEADER for the country policy.

TEKST
Rob Janmaat

According to Ali Edelenbosch, things are going well in the north of the Netherlands. ‘There are quite a few differences among and within the provinces, but the developments in agriculture are favourable: the land prices are holding up, prices within the sector keep rising, and there are opportunities for producing biomass as a source of energy. This will create new dynamics in the countryside.’

Rural land for living

Dirk Strijker: ‘Those dynamics do not show up in all areas. On the clay grounds along the coast of the Wadden Sea, if not used for recreation or harbour activities, the situation is not as rosy. But most other parts are doing well: villages are building new residential zones, local authorities are concerned with conservation issues, businesses are moving to the area, and people are migrating or establishing estates. However, one should not overestimate the developments in the agricultural sector. Also in the north of the country, even in the peat areas, the economy depends for only eight or nine per cent on agriculture and the agro industry. Economic activities do not take place in the country. Our countryside is mainly ‘rural land for living’ with limited room for working.’
‘We are dealing with rural land for living indeed’, responds Siem Jansen. ‘But I am worried about the north-south differences. The emphasis in the northern part of the Netherlands is within the Groningen, Leeuwarden, Assen-Emmen triangle. Within this region, things are going well as people are prepared to commute between their home and their work. But outside this perimeter problems are coming op, especially in a demographic sense and focussed along the coast of the Wadden Sea. People are moving out of this area. In the past, young families replaced the older folk moving to town, but this trend has ceased. There may be new economic activities such as tourism, and the agricultural sector is also keeping well in an economic sense, but the downturn in population does create some difficulties for the social cohesion and for the facilities.‘

From big shots to action groups

Edelenbosch believes the country policy has had a positive effect. ‘The European rules encouraged us to get started with the population in a bottom-up, multifunctional and innovative fashion. In practical terms, the integral area development was not always easy. In some cases, regional councils rather stayed away from the Leader approach. Until they discovered how it worked: that developments can be set in motion together with all other partners in the area. Jansen speaks enthusiastically about a recent publication of the Leader programme in East Groningen. ‘Eighty per cent of the booklet has been written by local groups working together with the authorities in one form or another. The situation was quite different at the time we first started the Leader projects. Chairman was the member of the Provincial Executive, surrounded by the big shots and local action groups. Things have changed. The action groups have developed a strong movement, forcing the authorities into the role of participating. Once being driven, the authorities should wash its hands of the matter and play a different role: make sure it keeps happening.’
Edelenbosch: ‘Exactly! But the authorities must remain in charge and monitor progress. At first we said: ‘This is the area and you may tell us what you want.’ That gave the impression that rules and regulations did not exist. The coordinators waited for matters to emerge from the area. But things do not happen by themselves everywhere.’ Jansen: ‘As soon as people realise they can really make a difference and are given more responsibilities, they will be prepared to commit themselves. And the Leader programme has made an enormous contribution to the organising powers of the region.’

Country policy with no effect?

Strijker: ‘Never overestimate what the authorities can and may do. I am convinced that without country policy, the country would look just like it looks now (with the usual town and country planning, public transport policy, etc.). But the incentive that came from the country policy strengthened the self-organising power and made sure that work was done. Sometimes there are small successes. But take the area around Havelte. An area under heavy pressure. An area where everyone wants all kinds of work done in opposite directions. The authorities must pursue a policy, but no incentives are needed.’
Jansen: ‘Your suggestion that everything would have been the same without a country policy is unproven. Also in Havelte, people are talking not only about spatial matters. It is just about the playgrounds of the village, or the community centre. Part of that is no country policy, but these are matters that play in people’s minds and get them going.’ ‘But would you call it country policy?’, asks Strijker. ‘Isn’t that what one should try to achieve all over society: encourage people doing things together and create the right conditions?’ Jansen: ‘In the late 1980’s we did not see it that way. It is a merit of the country policy for us to rekindle our interest in small matters. Because, when we first started the country policy we just looked at the big picture, but from the villages emerged all kinds of small projects, like repairing the footpath to the church. And all those small projects have certainly contributed to the policy. It is the kind of policy that appeals to people and gets them out of their chairs.’

Holding on

Jansen believes the country policy should be further pursued. ‘The local action groups are active and many people are passionate. If we don’t carry on, it could mean the downfall for the rural regions: ‘At first we teach you how to ride a bike, and once you’ve got the hang of it, we take the bike away from you.’ Perhaps the time will come for them to buy their own bike, but don’t take it away from them now.’ ‘Country policy is a matter of holding on’, says Edelenbosch. ‘When we first started, people came to the meetings with distrust. Today, people are keen on doing things together, they believe in their own power and enjoy the confidence of the municipal and provincial authorities. Throwing in the towel now would mean a return to disbelief, and all work has been done for nothing.’
According to Strijker, rural societies are based on the fact that residents maintain their own goods. ‘Sometimes slush money is needed to make sure that things are done by the people themselves. But the underlaying discussion is: would that be country policy or the common duty of care by the authorities? It remains a strange matter for the country policy to be dictated from the high European level. We must be able to do it at regional level and set our own priorities.’
Edelenbosch: ‘In fact we agree that we should leave it in the hands of the region. In that case, for politics it becomes most important to let go and work on the basis of confidence. Many executives are simply unable to work with a bottom-up regional approach. And in the country we are often dealing with very small matters. Put all those small matters together and you will have one big, substantial matter. Many people believe that matters can be resolved with one big investment. But I don’t think that will work.’
Strijker: ‘The art of letting go does also apply to the action groups within LEADER. One must be active to keep people going. LEADER also runs the risk of institutionalisation. Ideas from an area are picked up, and sometimes it appears to be hard to give them back to the people in the area. One has to keep communicating.’

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The impact of LEADER

From her daily practice, project acquirer Nynke van der Hoef from Fryslân says she cannot be absolutely sure whether or not it was the influence of LEADER, but she can clearly see changes in the culture. ‘I believe that, once again, we like to stand up and say we are proud to be living and working in the north of the Netherlands. Such a change in thinking and acting is very important, because things are known to work better from the power of one’s own region. An important addition to the projects, if you are able to bring the identity and commitment of the residents and participating organisations from a region with those projects. It has been a long-standing habit of being the underdog and claim funding for new developments in the north of the Netherlands. We would rather soon forget about this period and now focus on working with positive energy and opportunities for the regions.’
‘Today’s young people were also raised on the idea that northern regions are not quite up to the mark. It is about time we make young people aware of the qualities and opportunities offered by their own environment and have them involved in new developments. In spite of the fact that ‘young people’ has been one of the spearheads in the LEADER programme, little has been done about this target group. A great challenge to change all that in the next period!’

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