European Rural Parliament 2017 – Venhorst, Netherlands
The village of Venhorst in Noord-Brabant did not exist until the early 20th. century when the municipality sold seven hectare plots to families wanting to settle and make a living. The nearest school was an hour’s journey away.
The first school, the Saint Cornelius School, was opened in 1932 with 80 children. By 2017 the school roll numbered 187.
The community is now expanding further with the integration of migrant and refugee families.
Bottom-up, not top-down
The key European Rural Parliament (ERP) message was bottom-up, not top-down – how self-governance enables the communities to direct public policy from kitchen table discussion. The Parliament offered a variety of expeditions and workshops which helped us to understand the application of this principle across Europe.
At Kessel Castle the restoration and development of a sustainable gathering point and symbol of the community has been assisted by a decentralised governance system. The project benefitted from clear-cut guidance as to which decisions are made at national level and which can be decided independently by local communities. But we heard warnings not to always take the voice of the NGO as the voice of the local community.
A workshop on creating a rural development movement in the Western Balkan and the Black Sea region raised the leading role of NGOs in community initiatives and bottom-up processes. Some countries may be more likely to view rural development as lucrative business, thanks to abundant EU funding, without empowering the rural community. However the Western Balkans seem to be active in community empowerment. Perhaps political instability in the recent past makes people rely on one another and work together. Their motivation may also be partly related to their future accession to the EU, energising them to act in a dignified manner for the building of resilience and pride.
On the eco front we heard of schemes to rejuvenate exhausted land and met a local volunteer developing an eco village reminiscent of Findhorn. These projects are no longer “different” or “alternative” but fundamental to sustainable living. In combating the effects of climate change however we were left with the impression that more focus is placed on mitigating the immediate effects of severe weather conditions and natural disasters. Bottom-up efforts and resilience are often side-lined when action on food securities, the community’s own resources and ability to act may be a stronger solution than waiting for salvation from the top-down.
How Scotland is seen
Scotland is seen as a modern European nation with significant assets and opportunities. But we know how out of kilter the local government structure is in Scotland compared to our European neighbours. Have we become too complacent and accepting of perceived inaction by those who can make the fundamental changes needed?
Despite Brexit Scotland will still be in Europe and contributing to its rural voice. Building on our own Scottish Rural Parliament experience we should now bid to host the next ERP here.