Research: government needs to take more responsibility to keep rural areas liveable

April 3, 2023

Is the countryside still an attractive place to live when villages lose basic services? And what causes the loss of services? Wageningen University & Research investigated these questions in response to a concern raised in the Dutch parliament. The decline of the quality of life in rural areas seems to be self-reinforcing – the disappearance of one facility can lead to the closure of others. To stop such knock-on effects, the government needs to take more responsibility.

The quality of life of rural areas is currently in the spotlight. When it comes to sustainable energy production, housing, distribution and data centres, water storage, sustainable agriculture and nature conservation, all eyes are on rural areas. At the same time, basic facilities that keep those regions liveable – such as public transport, GP practices and schools – are disappearing. This increases inequality with cities, which many people consider unfair.

Rural decline as a self-reinforcing process

At the request of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Wageningen University & Research conducted a literature review into the decline in quality of life in rural areas. “The results show that such decline caused by fewer facilities is a self-reinforcing process,” says project leader Roel During. “For example, cancelling a bus service can result in fewer students attending a school, which is then forced to close, while the closure of a GP’s practice may lead to the disappearance of the health centre that houses the practice. It leads to a chain of knock-on effects that current policy cannot stop.”

Mainly economic considerations

The researchers searched a wide range of information sources to identify what assumptions play a role in decision-making on basic services, and what knowledge is applied in the process. “Very often, the most important consideration is whether the benefits still outweigh the costs of a service,” says Bettina Bock, Personal Professor. “For many services, it is the private provider that makes the decision without the involvement of local authorities. A bus operator will, for example, assess whether a bus service is still profitable. But the operator does not take into account any knock-on effects, while these hit local residents hard. And a store that is closed also served as a daily meeting place for the community, whereas a physiotherapist cannot continue their practice if they can no longer use the village hall. The risk is that residents will lose motivation to engage or get involved in creating a more sustainable living environment and society, with or without the cooperation of the government.”

Establish a basic level of quality of life by law

To halt this decline, the researchers have formulated some recommendations, the most important of which are addressed to the government. It is important that all layers of government – from the central government to the municipalities – start taking the lead. Together with local residents, social institutions and businesses, they need to start working on the vitality of villages and rural area. “We recommend establishing a basic level of quality of life by law,” says During. “This could include things like having meeting places, decentralised care, accessibility of basic services and access to high-quality internet. Residents should also have the right to organise the continuation of facilities as they see fit. Now, they often face regulations or the commercial interest of professional parties." Another key recommendation is to give village residents a voice in the many challenges facing rural areas. Residents who are involved in such projects are often more positive about the quality of their living environment.

This research was funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality under the Policy Support Research programme (BO-43-122-006).