How can general-interest services be maintained in rural areas? Cross-commentaries from an NGO elected representative and a regional elected representative
Patrice Collignon (Belgium), Chairman of the "Countryside and environment" grouping of the Council of Europe's Conference of INGOs, and Claude Trémouille (France), a member of the Limousin Regional Council, point out that preserving and developing general-interest services in the countryside is essential to the survival and the promotion of Europe's rural areas. They present their actions and projects in this field.
Question: Claude Trémouille, as a regional elected representative what are you doing to further service development in rural areas?
Claude Trémouille: We are fighting to ensure that rural areas have the same resources and the same services as urban areas, above all at a time when they are again attracting incomers. This means adopting a legislative framework for rural areas but also giving them practical help to diversify, for example in terms of jobs, agricultural crops, tourism or innovative social or educational projects. Our region supports many initiatives, not least for the promotion of retail and craft activities.
Question: And you, Patrice Collignon, as a citizen what are your expectations of local and regional authorities concerning the preservation and development of general-interest services in rural areas?
Patrice Collignon: For years we have been calling for rural areas to be recognised as genuine "poles" and territories, with their own development approach and tangible projects. Rural development poles are full participants in the European economy and the services they deliver contribute to European economic development. Local and regional authorities must help us give tangible form to this concept of poles, both on the ground and through their European representatives. The regions must also assist us in developing training possibilities, economic activities and "territorial projects", notably in tourism and agriculture. The Council of Europe's Congress is also a preferred channel for making ourselves heard and stimulating rural areas' development potential.
Question: At local level what do you consider to be the most effective means of maintaining general-interest services in rural areas?
Patrice Collignon: It is necessary to pool strengths and resources at local level, especially by establishing service platforms, or multi-service "one stop shops". For example, Scandinavia has adaptable "multi-service buildings", which can be used as a school by day and a theatre by night, but which can also house a health-care surgery. Another example is post office "outreach service points" in shops or banks and also virtual "one stop shops". Via a "video conference kiosk" service-users are in contact with a real person, whose office is in another location, and can deal with all their administrative needs, sending and receiving documents by email.
Claude Trémouille: In Limousin, a project named "Dorsal" has made it possible to ensure broadband network coverage of the region, essential to attract businesses and breath new life into rural areas. The current priority is health-care facilities, with the creation of medical centres to guarantee local care delivery for rural populations. We are also seeking to attract dentists, of whom there are too few in remote, less easily accessible areas. As regards small businesses, we have set up "short supply circuits" bringing together local small farmers and shopkeepers. This makes it possible to prevent the disappearance of butcher's, grocer's and baker's shops at village level, while improving the quality of the products for sale. We encourage local farmers and livestock breeders to sell their production on the spot, and we help those of them who opt for this solution. However, there are also other measures that must be taken, for example regarding post office or train services, but these depend on central government and, unfortunately, we regional elected representatives can only protest against the dismantling of public services but have no concrete means of intervention.
Question: If a choice had to be made among a number of essential services to be preserved in rural areas, which would you choose first?
Patrice Collignon: I don't like this idea of selecting services, since I believe it is better to keep a minimum cross-section of accessible services, rather than preserving certain services to the detriment of others. An area's attractiveness depends on its ability to preserve a real services offer. Families will not return to rural areas if there is no school or doctor, nor will there be any service-sector firms if there is no high-speed Internet access. Rural areas' survival requires a global, cross-sectoral approach. That is also why rural areas must be regarded not as a secondary concern, but as essential components of the life and functioning of our societies.
Claude Trémouille: I would say that it is important, first and foremost, to support local shops, and also schools, without which families with working parents will leave rural areas. At the same time, re-opening schools brings the young people back! For that very reason, we have pooled teaching resources among many village schools, thereby making it possible to preserve teaching posts. Then there are of course health-care facilities and post offices, which are essential for the rural population. However, I also wish to stress the importance of rail links, which are of vital importance to rural areas. There is no point in encouraging people to adopt environmentally friendly habits while continuing to do away with rail services!