Can an “average” rural region turn shrinkage to stability?

Szentes is located on the Great Hungarian Plain. Τwo-thirds of the population lives in the town of Szentes (27.500 inhabitants in 2001) whose rural hinterland consists of 7 villages of different sizes. It represents an “average” rural sub-region (LAU-1), which is not particularly disadvantaged or remote, neither is it too far from urban centres, nor too close by.  It is in between two cities, approximately 100 km from each. Its location, exacerbated by accessibility issues, is enough to be challenged by so-called (inner) peripherization, meaning weak chances of attracting investors and a constrained ability to keep the young and educated population in the town. As a cumulative impact of these circumstances, the area lost about 20% of its total population over the past three decades and it is anticipated to shrink by a further 30% by 2050. ESPON ESCAPE project studied the area further.

What is driving the shrinkage process?

The shrinking process has been driven by shock effects and their demographic impact. Three transition events have to be highlighted in this context: the establishment of the communist dictatorship in the 1950s, the fall of State Socialism in 1989-1990 and EU accession in 2004.

The first transition event took place in the early years of Communism when individual farming was ended and forced collectivisation was launched pushing large numbers of the peasantry to urban centres.

The second transition event, the fall of State Socialism, impacted rural economies and communities as deeply as the first through reprivatisation and the dissolution of a large number of large-scale farms. Economic and social effects of the so-called system-change were mixed since democratisation was accompanied by a deep transitional crisis. To illustrate the depth of the crisis, in the case of Szentes district, the number of jobs in 2011 was still well below that of 1990, they halved in the villages and reached only 78% in the town of Szentes.

Agriculture suffered the biggest losses in terms of employment capacity (dropping by more than 60%), industry and construction lost almost 40% of jobs, whilst services suffered the least from 1990 to 2001 (a 13% drop) and increased in the following decade by 20% equally in the villages and the town of Szentes. Despite the significant losses, agriculture has remained a leading branch of the local economy due to intensive horticulture spread across the region.

Gardening is a traditional activity in this plain area, which relies on such unique natural resources as thermal energy, specific soils and irrigation opportunities, on the one hand, and people’s skills, on the other. This explains why approximately a quarter of the active age population is still employed in agriculture in the study area. The most popular vegetable produced here is “Szentesi paprika”, a so-called Hungaricum with Protected Geographical Origin.

Finally, the third transition event, EU accession, increased labour attraction of and emigration to the West “creaming” the remaining population.

Responses and solutions from the local actor’s perspective

Maintaining these production capacities and values is one of the reasonable goals of the segment of the local elite attached to these interests, which is well represented on the town council.

On the other hand, attracting industries with high value-added and demand for qualified labour is on the top of the priority list of stakeholders. Beyond such strategies clearly in favour of mitigating shrinkage, adaptation measures such as increasing the quality of life through improved public services were equally emphasised by local leaders.

“Improve the quality of life - develop local resources (community services, communal spaces), and enhance access to non-local services (electronic access to service providers, better transport, longer opening hours)” (Employee of the Town Hall interviewed in 2020)

Analysis of data on take-up rates of the EU Regional Operational Programme (ROP) of the last two programming periods proved that ERDF funding provided a suitable tool for supporting such local policy goals, whilst the CAP played an important role in maintaining the viability of gardening through subsidies provided for the Producer Organisation, a leading unit of co-operation on the part of local gardeners.

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