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The (re)population of rural areas

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New inhabitants in rural areas:
Helping people make the move

by Corinne Legrand


Many rural areas are witnessing
population decline and an ageing of
their population. But city dwellers
are also showing renewed interest
in moving to these areas. Across
Europe, rural areas are coming
up with all kinds of ways to cope
with the arrival of these newcomers.


"We had to save the primary school of our three villages,” recalls Ann-Christine Andersson of Sweden who explained what motivated her area to encourage people to move to the area. For Jim Connolly in Ireland, “the countryside is an opportunity to deal with urban problems like unemployment.” In France, in the Region of Limousin, “it is the arrival of new inhabitants that can enable us to keep our villages alive,” says an official in charge of helping new inhabitants to settle in. Across Europe, for various reasons, more and more rural areas are taking steps to attract new residents. And more or less everywhere, there are people in the city in search of better living conditions who are contemplating moving to the country.

However, the fact that there are so many different socio-demographic and cultural contexts makes a comprehensive approach to the issue of rural repopulation difficult. This was the topic of a seminar that was held in Eymoutiers in Limousin (France) from 10 to 14 November 1999.


Limousin takes decisive steps to encourage repopulation

To tackle a worrisome demographic situation - its population hac been rapidly declining, falling by over 25% in less than a century, and is steadily growing older, the average age being 43 or 5 years more than the national average - the Limousin Region introduced a voluntarist policy to attract newcomers. The Regional Council has made repopulation one of its priorities and has set up a “Repopulation Unit” responsible for providing information about moving to the country and providing guidance and assistance. “Although a survey of the inhabitants of Limousin reveals that 80% of the local population is today convinced that people have to be encouraged to move to the area, it was an uphill battle to make rural people aware of the problem.” However, it is difficult for rural people who were unable to keep their own children in the country to acknowledge that their region can attract city dwellers. The region gained 15,000 new residents between 1990 and 1999, but it is proving difficult to offer a precise explanation for this; could it be down to the housing policy or the encouragement and assistance provided or the regional authority’s efforts to promote the region?

Since 1997, Limousin has been working with several national media, including the “Village” magazine and the television channel “Demain!” (1). A direct result of this partnership has been numerous requests to move to the country, and in some cases projects have materialised (reopening of a hotel-restaurant by a couple from Paris, creation of a tile business, opening of a cocktail bar-pancake restaurant, etc). However, there is still a long way to go. The Region would now like to have a better picture of these migrants in order to satisfy their demands, to understand why some municipalities far from the main roads are gaining in population, and to mobilise everyone in Limousin, “especially the elected officials in rural areas many of whom are still not aware of this migratory phenomenon and who need to understand the positive impact that it can have on their area if it is supported,” says Robert Savy, president of the regional council. “Although people have accepted the idea, more are preaching it than practising it.” The next step therefore is to structure the process of attracting newcomers and helping them to settle in. The idea is to set up a regional network involving local development practitioners and other players from the different areas. This way, the entire region can benefit from a coherent dynamic and some of the more noteworthy experiences.

The Millevaches Plateau, one of the LEADER areas of Limousin that started up a local development process more than ten years ago, is today reaping the benefits of this local mobilisation. It has rehabilitated 564 dwellings, half of which have been rented by people from outside the Plateau. This type of action could become widespread and carried out in other areas of Limousin. To accomplish this, the Region has also joined forces with the “Collectif Ville-Campagne” association (2). This has enabled it to be present at trade fairs, information sessions and annual conferences addressing these issues and to come into contact with a larger number of city dwellers who want to leave the city. A genuine repopulation dynamic has been created that includes assistance and follow-up for those who want to move. “We must take in the number of people we are capable of absorbing and not encourage an uncontrolled arrival of new residents,” adds the president of the regional council.

In France, other rural areas of a smaller size are trying to implement the same dynamic, but Limousin seems to be the only region so far that has taken action in such a voluntarist fashion.


In comparison

In Ireland, on the other hand, “Rural Resettlement Ireland” (RRI) has been successful in introducing a national policy. In 1990, Jim Connolly decided to create an association to improve the situation of urban families in difficulty and to contribute to the population growth of rural municipalities.

“The rural environment is an opportunity,” says Jim, “it offers disadvantaged families low-rent housing.” Since then, the association has opened offices in the city in order to provide information and advice to people interested in moving. In the beginning, all the rural government agencies were far from convinced of the relevance of this project. Jim Connolly therefore took action at the national level and in 1996 signed an agreement with the government and the Bank of Ireland.

What is new is the opportunity unemployed people are given to become homeowners. Today, Jim regrets that these measures only apply to new homes and not to the restoration of existing houses. “It is by pressuring the national authorities that local volunteers will obtain recognition leading to a genuine resettlement policy in rural areas,” believes Jim.

The RRI experience has inspired a pilot programme, which is co-funded by the European Union and is being implemented in nine rural areas of Ireland. Its aim is to better understand the phenomenon of resettlement in rural areas and to define a genuine national policy for the matter. Unlike the experience of the RRI association whose target public is first and foremost disadvantaged people, the pilot programme, which is coordinated by ADM (Area Development Management) is targeted at people with a more “solid” economic base, such as professionals or emigrants wanting to return home, etc (see article by Jean-Luc Janot ”The Irish Way to Rural Resettlement”).

In Finland, “there is no specific national policy, but certain local initiatives (particularly in the context of LEADER) tend to encourage families to move to the country, but not necessarily to isolated areas,” notes Pentti Malinen, an academic in Oulu (see Minna Silander’s story about the village of Kamppi).

In Sweden, it was the threat of the primary school closing that made the inhabitants of three villages of Jämtland react. In 1984, they decided to join forces and set up a cooperative, "Byssbon" (“The Villagers”). After an analysis of the area, the fifty members voted to organise actions for housing, community services and employment. Here too, a communication strategy was implemented in partnership with the press to advertise the area. Looking back these past fourteen years, Ann-Christine Andersson singles out among the successes the rescue and renovation of the primary school, the opening of a creche and a home for the elderly and the creation of a teleworking centre. However, difficulties remain. “All the actions undertaken receive no political support, but are carried out exclusively with the funds of volunteers, with loans taken out by the cooperative, with funds generated by certain activities like the nursing home and with some contributions from the municipality,” points out Ann-Christine.

In Spain, whereas the region of Aragon whose rural areas are for the most part experiencing serious demographic problems (densities often less than 10, or even 5 inhabitants/km²) would like to see outsiders settle in the region, this was not the case in Sierra Norte de Madrid. This area, also called "Sierra Pobre" (the Poor Mountain), has a depopulation problem, particularly in the small villages, despite the fact that it is just fifty kilometres away from Madrid. The idea of repopulation is gradually gaining ground, in particular at the initiative of the LEADER group and in collaboration with the regional authorities. Nonetheless, the local people have certain reservations, they are afraid of seeing disadvantaged persons arrive from the city and more generally do not understand the importance of encouraging “outsiders” to move to their area. These contrasting positions can be found throughout Europe.


Defining a strategy

The fact that each area has specific features of its own makes it harder to define a general policy to support repopulation. Nonetheless, in the beginning, it should be possible to draw up a five-point list: definition of needs, target group, obstacles to be overcome, actions to be undertaken and key people to be mobilised.

In France, some have reservations about the importance of drawing up a list of the needs to be covered. This technique can ignore the innovative projects that are not the result of a formal request. ”The countryside has to promote innovation. Rural actors have to go on the offensive and not just defend what exists,” insists Mohammed Chahid, of the Association régionale des Pays d'Auvergne (ARPA - Regional Association of the Pays d’Auvergne).

The views are also divided about the people to be encouraged to move; some talk about the right of rural areas to choose the people they help resettle. Others are trying to ensure a better match between the project and the area. This means communication between the city dwellers and the rural inhabitants in order to dispel any mistaken ideas either side might have. A number of examples in France (Plateau of Langres, Plateau of Millevaches, village of Voivres in the Vosges) show that by not targeting a section of the population innovative projects can be developed that otherwise would not have been possible.

Everywhere the diversity and magnitude of the obstacles to be overcome prevent people from moving to the countryside. Such obstacles may be of a cultural nature - the most common expression is the resistance of rural communities who are afraid of the newcomers (prejudices, negative experiences in the past, poor knowledge about one another, negative self-image); an economic and financial nature (lack of knowledge of existing job opportunities, partitioning of sectors of activity, cost of moving, difficult access to credit and land); an administrative nature, due to a lack of coordination between sector-based technical sectors and local services; or may relate to the living environment (lack of housing, community services and recreational facilities for the young “neo-ruralites”), and finally, last but not least, may be linked to political obstacles.

If a policy of supporting repopulation is to be successful, local mobilisation is essential. With the exception of Ireland, national political mobilisation is still lacking, even in France where the “Collectif Ville-Campagne” association has been working on this problem.

Improving the settling-in process areas means involving the local community, elected officials, private and public figures and associations. The target group has to be reached; the “newcomers” and the “existing inhabitants” have to be involved as do the other rural areas that are looking for new residents and the partners doing research, such as universities; the government agencies and all the local actors (development agents, housing professionals, financial institutions, etc) have to be made aware of the issue.

Opinion is more divided as to whether or not the “exiles” should be mobilised. People who left the area several years ago sometimes have a distorted image of the local reality. As for the actions to be undertaken and the actors to be mobilised, everyone agrees that an area cannot be developed without the injection of new human resources. This awareness is only possible if the people living in the country are informed about the challenge of repopulation. “Media coverage helps when it comes to informing the local community,” says Jim Connolly. The local officials have to be informed and trained, successful cases of resettlement have to be held up as an example, young people have to gain more knowledge about their area, the negative view the inhabitants have of the place where they live has to be reversed, and even second home owners have to be made aware of the problem. It is important for the repopulation scheme to be made an integral part of a local development programme. In the same way, by having a place where people can obtain information, ask questions and seek guidance, by organising information days, and by putting people wanting to move in touch with local inhabitants who can lend them moral and technical support, the right conditions are created for a genuine policy of repopulation.


        Corinne Legrand is a journalist for the “Village” magazine. Created in 1993, Village is published every two months and distributed throughout France and is devoted to the creation of activities in the countryside. It contributes to a better understanding of the challenges facing rural areas.


(1) Launched in 1997 by the French group CANAL+,
"Demain!" is a TV channel devoted to employment
and business takeovers in particular.
It has set up a local office in Limousin.

(2) “Collectif Ville-Campagne” is a French
association set up in 1995 and has 16 members,
including academics, professionals from the
public, private and non-governmental sectors,
and the media. Its aim is to create a bridge
between city dwellers who know little about
the set up of rural areas and the rural areas
which do not know how to organise themselves
to attract newcomers.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.22 - Spring, 2000

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