“Local communities have become incredibly important, they are on the front line and are doing a lot of work to support their community”


Honorary President of Scottish Rural Action (SRA). Member of the Steering Group of the European Rural Parliament (ERP). Co-coordinator of ERP2019

What evaluation can you make of ERP2019, what experience do you remember?

The 4th ERP was exceptionally good. It was a huge feat of planning and organisation and it worked extremely well, despite the bad weather. I found the Asturian Network of Rural Development (READER) team a real pleasure to work with, efficient, focussed and very committed, and just really nice people! I was also very impressed by the commitment of the Asturian and Spanish authorities to supporting the event, well done for gaining that commitment! Asturias itself, despite the bad weather we had, is an incredibly beautiful and fascinating region and I think everybody really enjoyed the Field Visits and the opportunity to sample what Asturias does best.

I was very pleased that we had the addition this time of the European Rural Youth Parliament immediately before the ERP, I thought it worked really well, together with the main event and not separated, to allow closer communication between the two events. The European Rural Youth Parliament is now doing very well and is being involved in various events which have been run recently by the European Commission. That, in part, was due to the event in Asturias giving it a platform and recognition for their great work.

The ERP in Spain had all the same elements as the other ERPs, but there were some very special and also unique elements. We had more workshops this time and they appeared to be very well attended and well received and were well reported. Thematically we covered a lot of ground, there are reports of those workshops on the ERP website and it is possible for people to follow up on them. The cultural events were fantastic, you really exhibited the Asturian culture in a very colourful and vivid way. The venues you chose were excellent, particularly I liked the Old Factory, it was a great idea having this big informal space where lots of things could happen: music, stage events, meals and people mingling, etc. The Market place was all in the same place and I think that worked very well, it was a lovely atmosphere in there.

In summary, I think it was a very successful Rural Parliament, very colourful, very energetic, very organised and I believe that everybody felt the same, we had very good feedback about it. You set a high standard for other people to follow.

At what point are the Steering Group of ERP working now?

Since the ERP, we’ve basically been doing most of the things we normally do between the big events. We’ve applied again for funding from European Commission, but won’t know the result until January, a lot later than we normally have the decision and, of course, we might not succeed. We are at the moment organising the 5th ERP in Poland, probably in September next year.  We are also planning our Mid-Term Event, early in 2021, which is normally held in Brussels, but this time it will be online. We are also holding virtual ERP Partner’s meetings to prepare for these events.  Until we have the result of the funding application, we are not in a position to run our usual multi-national projects. We are trying to keep up with our communications – website, social media, newsletter, etc. to keep the ERP in the minds of people. We always want to do a lot more and we are always limited by lack of funds, but we do a lot with volunteers anyway.

In terms of the organisation of the ERP, it is still run by the three co-initiating organisations: ERCA, PREPARE and ELARD, each of which is now taking on different responsibilities for the ERP. For example PREPARE is responsible for working with the Polish organisations on the 5th ERP and ERCA (my organisation) has applied for the funding, is running the ERP Partners meetings and the Mid-Term Event. We’ve slightly changed the way of we are doing things, but at the moment it seems to be working quite well. One thing I want to clarify, ERP is not an organisation, it is a partnership project.

The big ERP events are very important and valued and we do get good advocacy material from them, reported in the Manifesto and Declaration, which we always take to Brussels. But, due to resource and manpower limitations, we sometimes find it hard to live up to the sheer wealth of ideas and thematic potential that is generated at each ERP event. We would welcome ideas on how we can realise more of that potential. We have tried to involve our National partners more actively in the work, but they also have time and resource constraints.  

I’ve been personally involved since the beginning of the ERP in 2013 and I’m very pleased that we’ve now had four ERPs (soon to be five), eight years of successful work. As one of the initiators, I’m very pleased with this outcome, due in great measure to the great work of places like Asturias and the people who really want to participate and make it successful.

The 5th ERP already has a new location for 2021 in Kielce (Poland), but this city is bigger than Candás, with about 200,000 inhabitants. It does not look very rural.

I don’t know a lot about the town, I think it will be located there because it is a centre for a rural region, and has the venues needed, as well access to countryside all around.

The organisation of the 5th ERP is more difficult because of Covid-19. It depends on how the whole Covid situation goes by next September, so we agreed that it will be planned as a hybrid event – part will be face to face if people can go, and the other part will be online if people cannot go to Poland.

What are the advantages or benefits of having a National Rural Parliament?

It’s a very interesting question. Obviously a lot! There are fourteen National Rural Parliaments now in all of Europe and in different parts: France and Finland had their first last year; Kosovo had their first this year, just a few weeks ago; Slovakia had one this year. There are others, for instance within the Balkans, that have recently started to run Rural Parliaments, and there are other countries that have run them for many years. Every year there are more Rural Parliaments happening in more countries, so I think it’s a model which has been recognised as successful. They strengthen the whole rural movement at national and European levels and are becoming a critical part of the rural calendar. In my organisation, Scottish Rural Action (SRA), we started our Rural Parliament in 2014. In doing this we took a lot of advice from Sweden, where the Rural Parliament model began. We follow a model very much like the European Rural Parliament, but at national level. Early in 2021 we are planning our first completely online Rural Parliament, it will be interesting to see how that works. It’s probably the biggest gathering of rural activists in Scotland now, I think it’s very well and liked and is a very useful event for rural people, enabling them to have a more powerful voice in terms of advocacy. It is also well recognised and supported by the Scottish Government.

In terms of the ERP, it is colourful, diverse and very intense, it’s extremely good for networking across 40 European countries and with the European Institutions, and it’s just a really exciting and full three-day programme. We move it around to a different country each every time and it gives a lot of benefits to the host region and community, it puts a spotlight on that place and leaves a legacy in the areas where it has been run. This is also true of the national Rural Parliaments.

Basically, it brings together people from rural communities with decision-makers for three days: exploring what they are, who they are, and what their issues are, in a form of participative democracy. It provides opportunities for people who may not normally have a big voice, but have a strong interest in their rural communities. They share ideas, look at issues, debate solutions to those issues and agree common advocacy positions. In this way, people gain added, collective strength than they may otherwise have in their own villages and communities. It’s also a way that we can work side by side with decision-makers to look at priority issues and to help develop new and creative solutions and there is no limit on the number of issues that can be raised. Overall it’s transferring the voice of rural communities to influence decisions that affect them. It is also a really important way to celebrate rural in a society where the urban dominates, something that is not very obvious to the majority of the population. It’s great and people love it!  So, yes, definitely Spain needs a Rural Parliament.

How has the pandemic affected the rural development?

That’s a very big question. Of course, we don’t know it all yet because we are still in the pandemic and still fighting it, so what people are experiencing this year will be different, I hope, to what they experience next year. The economy is going to be very impacted everywhere: we are going to have a lot of less money to spend generally and we don’t know who will feel the impact of that yet. I think that people became more aware of how to deal with a crisis, and what you need to be more resilient in the future. So, we are doing a lot more of what we call resilience planning: how do you survive when things go wrong? Everything from medical and mental health support, to making sure people have enough food… all those things I’m sure are the same in Spain. That has meant that this year local communities have become incredibly important, they are the ones on the front line who are actually doing a lot of the work to support people in their community. Where I live, we have an organisation working with all of the local groups and community councils, for instance delivering food and helping people who don’t have enough money to buy clothes for their children. We’ve been improving communications across the area, so people can work together more efficiently, and working between the local communities and the local authorities, to help make sure that what they do is better targeted to more people.

So we’ve become much better working together at local level, and we’ve begun to plan more strategically, doing community surveys and working on the emerging priorities. Some of these are looking for a green renewal so we don’t go further into the same patterns that we had in the past, but we’re thinking very carefully about doing things in a more environmentally friendly way. That seems now to be a very big issue in Europe as well, which is very good. I think people have learnt they can work from home, they don’t have to travel everywhere, they don’t have to go to offices and they don’t have to use all the resources, and that’s very good for the climate! We’re not burning as much CO2 and people have more flexibility and perhaps more time in their lives. So there is a lesson that we’ve learnt and we can roll out in the future, but we won’t know the full impact of this even for another year. Rural areas have been proved to have many advantages in a way that we never expect: more people in cities are moving to rural areas because they think they are safer and we’ve seen a big increase in people buying houses in rural areas, and particularly in places like the North of Scotland. Hopefully all of this will result in an improved rural society as we recover from this crisis.

Source of the information: Asturian Network of Rural Development