Taking depopulation seriously: a pioneering law from Spain

Thomas Fisher reports from the EU’s Rural Pact Conference in Brussels

So often rural areas lament their depopulation, but seem unable to do anything about it.  We know from CoDeL research in Uist, across the Scottish islands (see the many casestudies in www.islandsrevival.org), and across the Northern Periphery and Arctic (e.g. in Atlantic Canada and the Faroe Islands) (see here, here and here) that the over-arching narrative that all so-called ‘remote’ areas suffer from depopulation is not the case.  There are plenty of areas where younger people with new perspectives and aspirations are returning, settling or staying, where the local population is stable or growing, and where these trends accelerated during the pandemic.

However, there is no denying the depopulation in some areas in almost all countries, including in central Spain.  The Region of Castilla-La Mancha is just a little larger than Scotland, but with a population of only two million.  Over a quarter of the region’s municipalities have less than 100 residents, over two thirds of municipalities less than 1000 inhabitants.

But as I discovered at the EU Rural Pact Conference in Brussels last week, the region is not sitting idle at all.  It has introduced a pioneering Law on Economic, Social and Tax Measures against Depopulation which came into force in June 2021.

The law aims to overcome the traditional agri-centred approach for rural development. It is based on the assumption that the cohesion of rural territories affected by depopulation requires interaction among diverse activities and sectors (tourism, trade, industry, green, digital, silver and social economy, etc.). This exercise stems from a 360º analysis of the problems affecting rural areas and incorporates cross-cutting measures to be implemented by all departments of the regional government. Specifically, it promotes actions aimed at guaranteeing equal access to basic services: education, health and social services. It also places special emphasis on ‘connecting’ rural areas, both digitally and through new transport alternatives. Finally, it supports and encourages the development of economic activity, with specific incentives for the different areas, taking into account their degree of depopulation.

European Network for Rural Development casestudy (here)

Measures for municipalities that have a population density of less than 12.5 inhabitants/km2 (two thirds of the total), as well as additional municipalities at risk of depopulation, include:

1) a guaranteed access to public services:

  • opening rural schools with a minimum of 4 students
  • a contract Programme (“Contrato Programa“) that funds higher education for young people who decide to study out of their hometown while their family continues living in the municipality, and if the young student comes back or goes to another sparsely populated area when concluding their studies
  • access to health emergency services in less than 30 minutes.
  • boosting homecare services for the elderly and access to residential resources at a distance of less than 40 km
  • introducing demand-sensitive transport

2) Investment incentives for businesses, including:

  • public aid of up to 40% more than in other areas of the region, for companies and self-employed workers who decide to establish themselves in sparsely populated areas
  • a €10 million fund to provide financial support for business projects in sparsely populated areas or areas at risk of depopulation
  • a Talent Recruitment Programme with incentives to return to work in rural areas.

3) a plan to guarantee access to optic fibre and 5G in all towns in the region.  By 2023 there will be optic fibre in every municipality.  There is also aid for delivering optic fibre to industrial sites and business areas, most of them in depopulated areas, and a social voucher on connectivity (“Bono Social de Conectividad”) to guarantee internet access to 5,600 vulnerable families at risk of digital exclusion.

4) tax incentives, e.g. deduction of up to 25% on personal income tax for residents  in areas of extreme depopulation,  a 15 % income tax relief for the purchase or renovation of a home, and a reduction of more than 50% in taxation on capital transfers and legal acts for acquiring a primary residence in these areas, or business premises.

5) rural proofing as a compulsory measure in the law to identify and assess the impacts on rural areas of new regulations, plans or programmes – through ’demographic impact reports’ – and define measures to correct potential imbalances.

6) a Regional Strategy against Depopulation, designed for a period of 10 years, with 210 concrete actions.  These include measures to develop cultural resources and activities, and access to these in villages.  The overall strategy mobilises EUR 3 322 million from regional, national and EU funds.

This “comprehensive, multi-sectoral and integrated” approach, enshrined in law, is striking, and other regions such as the neighbouring region of Extremadura are taking up similar actions.  Will other countries follow with the same political will and allocation of resources?

For the presentation at the Rural Pact Conference, on Castilla-La Mancha’s Law on Economic, Social and Tax Measures against Depopulation, see here.  For a casestudy on the law see here, including analysis of the critical role of pre-zoning (different responses to different starting situations, based on a detailed zoning exercise that classifies rural territories in clusters of areas, not just in terms of population, but with similar levels of socio-economic development and quality of public services), the integrated approach to rural development, the strong political leadership and coordination of actors with a long-term vision.

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