4 mins

Which future do you want for rural areas?

Marion Eckardt

Last year, the European LEADER Association for Rural Development (ELARD) conducted a survey; its main question was which future do you want in your rural areaThe survey was open from May to August 2020 and was translated into 20 languages (this was the limit of the programme). ELARD received answers from 3 436 people across 26 countries.

It was possible to get so many answers in such a short time and with limited resources because ELARD works with and supports local action groups around Europe. The response rate showed where the action was, namely at the local level.

Three conclusions were drawn from the results.

The first conclusion is that rural citizens ask forbasic services and employment opportunities.

In the overall survey, 80.2 % of respondents chose greater job opportunities and decent employment when asked Looking 15 years ahead... what three things would you like to see happen?'. In second and third place came accessibility to services comparable of those in cities and 'transport', respectively. Interestingly, when asked which services are asked for most, basic, public services, and not consumer services, are the ones that rural citizens still require. When asked about the most valued local services, the following, in order of priority, are what rural people need and value the most:



 care services for the elderly and dependents


 affordable housing

The absence of these services is most probably what makes rural people feel left behind. Taxes are paid just the same in rural areas, but what happens to our societal contract when services are not delivered to the same extent  Hopefully, digitisation will help us to overcome some shortages of public services in rural areas. Combinations are possible, but there will always be a need for the presence of real people, for example those providing care services.

However, the feeling of being left behind is obvious. The second conclusion of the survey is that it is time to change the narrative.

Rural areas are not dependants of urban areas. On the contrary, both urban and rural areas are necessary to create a viable Europe, and it is important to engage with those involved rurally to understand and describe the reality of rural areas.

"We believe that a rural semester can provide a new, holistic development for all areas."

We believe that the pandemic has shown, with desired clarity, that we live in functional territories in which all players and geographical areas are equally important for our resilience.

However, we have not been able to turn this into policy that invests as much in rural citizens and places as in urban ones. It is time for change.

ELARD's vision is "a viable Europe through local democracy and participatory approaches in all rural areas and beyond.' Over the past year, we have therefore been active in developing Europe's long-term vision for rural areas. It has been a fantastically rewarding process that has generated many good ideas that can be built on.

We from ELARD would especially like to highlight the paperRural Semester as a Tool to Deliver a Truly Holistic Policy to Rural Areas, which we and others involved developed with the Jacques Delors Institute.

We are proposing a rural semester for the following reasons.

Rural areas are the basis of our resilience, collectively and individually. They shelter resources that will become more and more precious.

Most Member States focus on spending European funds (European Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund, Cohesion Fund or European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development) in rural areas, but not on designing specific measures or regulations for people, enterprises or services fit for low-density places.

"Taxes are paid just the same in rural areas, but what happens to our societal contract when services are not delivered to the same extent?"

There is a weak coordination between national and sectoral policies for rural areas.

There is a lack of suitable and common criteria for success.

We believe that a rural semester can provide a new, holistic development for all areas

The only holistic methodology so far has been the community-led local development (CLLD) multifunded approach. Survey responses signified an immense support for LEADER/ CLLD as a tool to deliver on the needs and possibilities of each rural areas; therefore, the third conclusion is that the LEADER method should be used as the multilevel governance tool it is.

Some 97 % of the survey participants were very positive towards LEADER and CLLD, and those included not only people working in local action groups. Survey respondents were mostly from civil society, the private sector and the public sector, even if around 20 % were working in a local action group office. From this we can see that LEADER/ CLLD reaches all the way to our rural citizens, and brings Europe closer to its citizens. We should invest more in this possibility.

Our proposal is to seize the opportunity that the pandemic has given us, use the new awareness of most decision-makers and citizens that functional rural-urban areas form the basis for resilience of our union, and start working towards implementing a rural semester.

Meanwhile, in our local areas we will keep building the European family together with our colleagues.

Marion Eckardt is President of the European Leader Association for Rural Development (ELARD)

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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