Jessica Morgan and Liz Bickerton argue Wales needs a stronger rural voice
Delegates from 40 countries across rural Europe gathered in the village of Venhorst, Noord-Brabant,Netherlands from October 18th – 21st. The meeting of the European Rural Parliament brought together over 250 representatives from countries both within and outside the European Union, stretching from Iceland in the north to Georgia and Armenia in the east.
The European Rural Parliament is a long-term campaign to express the voice of rural people in Europe. It aims to promote self-help and action by rural people, in partnership with civil society and governments.
The first European Rural Parliament was held in Brussels on 13 November 2013. Here delegates learnt how countries were supporting and developing their own rural parliaments or networks. A European Rural Manifesto was adopted at the second European Rural Parliament, held in Austria in 2015. The manifesto was a statement of the aspirations, commitments and demands of rural people, drawing upon meetings in many countries.
The concept of a European Rural Parliament builds on a tradition of national rural parliaments, first developed in Sweden with the inspiring slogan of “All Sweden Lives”. Rural Parliaments are open to all rural residents. They are truly participative events, giving people the opportunity to voice the issues, challenges and opportunities that matter to them.
Rural parliaments are now found in a growing number of European countries. Delegates to Venhorst heard from new rural parliaments in Albania, (September 2017) and the first European Rural Youth Parliament held in Latvia (August 2017).
Scotland is the only home nation to have established a Rural Parliament, under the leadership of Scottish Rural Action, an independent not for profit organisation.
All four UK home nations were represented at Venhorst. The Wales delegation was coordinated by PLANED, an independent community based organisation with a long and proud history of nurturing and supporting innovative community based activity in a truly participative way.
More than ever it is important to come together as a collective voice to highlight the issues and challenges facing rural communities and to listen and learn from our European neighbours about ways in which we can work together to address the needs and aspirations of our communities.
The six leading themes of Venhorst are all relevant to Wales: creating future-proof communities, optimising community infrastructure and services, caring together and including others, developing the community’s economic base, making decisions together, and welcoming new people in the community. Yet how are we, outside of government structures, creating a Welsh perspective on these and other challenges and opportunities for rural areas?
The plain fact is that it is either government led or fragmented across the nation. There is no pan Wales, independent rural voice and therefore no obvious organisation speaking across public, private and voluntary sectors on which to build. Since the demise of the Wales Rural Forum, a coming together of mainly (but not exclusively) voluntary and academic institutions, this has been a real gap.
We still struggle with some of the basic questions. What is “rural” in a Welsh context? Some of the post-industrial communities share many of the common characteristics of isolation, ageing populations, lack of private sector investment that are associated with the “rural”. What is “community” in the context of place based working? This has been discussed in WCVA’s recent discussion paper, “Resilient and Empowered Communities”. Then there is the perennial question, which many of these debates end up touching, what is the role of Town and Community Councils? This issue was debated in depth as long ago as 2003 in the Aberystwyth University report, “The Role, Functions and Future Potential of Community and Town Councils in Wales”.
Some may question why does this lack of a Welsh focus matter?
The danger is that we are dragged into a conceptualisation of rural on a UK level that is far removed from the cultural, social, economic and environmental reality of rural Wales and totally sidelines Welsh frameworks such as the Well-being of Future Generations Act within which we operate.
This may be as mundane but potentially insidious as terminology. The idea of “village “for example does not sit easily within the reality of much of Wales rural space. Lack of understanding of the cultural bedrock is more concerning and can be easily ignored or dismissed.
As we move to a post Brexit era, how much of this Welsh perspective will be lost if coordinators of citizen led movements, such as the partners behind the European Rural Parliament, default to a single UK point of reference? When some of these partner organisations only work with non-governmental organisations, how will Wales be represented? These are big questions but for many simply sideshows in bigger concerns.
The European Rural Parliament 2017 ended with the Venhorst Declaration: refocused priorities of infrastructure, services and connectivity; tackling rural poverty and social exclusion; strengthening local economies; welcoming new people into the community; youth and finally the importance of bottom up, place based development. Inside or outside the European Union these are some of the challenges for Rural Wales. We need to find a way of responding to them.
PLANED is the ERP national partner representing Wales which takes responsibility for the flow of information and ideas among the rural people in the country. As part of this responsibility we are talking to interested parties about how to strengthen the voice of rural Wales locally, nationally and internationally. If you would like to get involved in this work please contact Jessica Morgan firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared on the IWA Click on Wales site on 1 December 2017.