The politics of rural governance : case studies of rural partnerships in the Netherlands and Wales

Derkzen, P.H.M.


All over Europe a `partnership¿ approach to rural development has emerged in recent years. The principle of partnership implied the introduction of a territorial rather than a sectoral approach and a more direct, decentralised relation between the European Commission, governments and other regional and local actors. Despite extensive literature on partnerships in the UK and the Netherlands, there are no comparative studies of rural partnerships in these two countries. The objective of this study is to explore the policy instrument of `partnership¿ for rural policies in the Netherlands and Wales from a comparative and political perspective. The political perspective was elaborated in first, the relationship between the rural partnerships and democratic legitimacy in terms of the possibility of participation and the meaning of representation. And secondly in a focus on how power relations shape partnership processes and how power struggles develop over time. The first conclusion is that particularly the Welsh rural partnerships included more local people and previously excluded groups such as the voluntary sector. In the Dutch rural partnerships other than agricultural interests were included but, a number of exclusionary mechanisms prevented the further inclusion of local citizens and other local groups. Secondly, the concern with the democratic legitimacy of Welsh partnerships through the emphasis on inclusion starkly contrasts the sometimes low levels of decision making in these partnerships. In contrast, the level of decision making in terms of the capacity to make important decisions, was higher in the Dutch partnerships, but there was less concern with inclusion. However, the Dutch cases show a tension and incompatibility between encouraging wider participation and constructing the power relations necessary to realise sectoral policy integration. Thirdly, the Welsh cases showed that it was the civic representatives from the voluntary sector who acted most strongly as representatives of others, whereas public sector members saw themselves as acting more as participants rather than as representatives. Public sector members felt freer to act solely on the basis of their own view or expertise. In such cases, the role of a participant can ¿ contrary to the theory of participatory democracy¿ legitimise and strengthen a free-rider position and enhance organisational elitism. Fourthly, this study shows that if the government bodies responsible for the partnerships refrain from indifference, the existence of politics in partnerships can indicate an element of substantive decision making of at least some involved partnership members. Conflicts, power and politics are therefore also natural features of collaboration. We conclude that partnerships are political arenas that deserve their own democratic rules and procedures including after their establishment by the government. The implementation of rural development will be highly dependent on the partnership dynamics and modes of power that come into play. Rural partnerships have contributed to the contestation of the hegemonic position of agricultural interests in rural areas. However, there is a tendency for a new generation of closed policy communities to emerge, in the form of these rural partnerships. These rural partnerships generally have no or weak rules for access to partnerships over time, or for the length of time a member can be in the partnership. There are limited accountability mechanisms for partnership members and a limited responsiveness to the public or region at large. The democratising effect of establishing these partnerships for rural development will not last if consideration is not given to the democratic governance of these partnerships over time