Big Changes in the Local Welfare System

By Jørgen Møller

The Danish welfare model is being challenged by rural development. Visionary, long-range municipal planning could be the solution to balance resources and needs in a well-planned geographical area.

In recent years, rural Denmark has been undergoing a sweeping and very noticeable process of adjustment, Development in municipal service provision plays a particular important role to play in both the popular and the political debate and in relation to everyday living conditions. The debate about the future of rural Denmark is also very much a debate about the kind of welfare model we choose in self-governing, municipal Denmark. The centralised, specialised model based on economies of scale, or the decentralised model based on proximity. In the developments and debate relating to these matters, strategic and visionary planning is back in the municipal arena as the only tool capable of handling the many different challenges facing the municipalities.


Over the last few years, a number of different yet concurrent development trends have transformed the debate on the development of the local, municipal welfare system. The debate on the development and future of rural areas and villages also an important part of this discussion.

The first significant structural change was the major municipal reform in 2006, when the number of municipalities was reduced from 274 to 98. One of the arguments was that this would bring about economies of scale and enhanced professionalism in dealing with tasks through a degree of centralisation in the municipal service sector.

The financial crisis that struck Denmark in 2008 has meant that public finances are managed according to a neo-liberal paradigm of control with a focus on balancing public budgets. This has also resulted in Denmark's municipalities being controlled quite strictly through annual financial agreements between the state and local governments. These agreements place tight restrictions on the taxes individual municipalities can raise and their level of expenditure. This has entailed significant reductions in the municipal welfare services, where the closure of schools and libraries in small village communities have provoked intense popular outrage and debate.

Politicisation of municipal development

The development of Danish user- and participationdemocracy, where parents sit on school boards, nursery school councils, etc., has been a platform for a whole raft of local protest movements against institutional closures; as a result, each municipal proposal, for example regarding routine modification of the school structure, has been met with well-organised resistance from resourceful parents and villagers.

At the same time, Danish rural development policy, with its strong emphasis on local living conditions and a bottom-up perspective, has led people living in rural areas to expect their voice to be heard in matters of local development. Exploited by resourceful, well-organised villagers, working together with different user- groups from schools, kindergartens and so on, it has become a platform for local protest movements against the closure of schools and other municipal institutions.

One of the most prominent reasons why the restructuring debate in the municipalities generally ends in a stalemate, where positive dialogue is difficult to achieve, is that the closure of schools and institutions take place under a paradigm of savings, where savings in the municipal budget have to be found quickly. The discussion thus quickly descends to a narrow focus on sector planning and financial planning, instead of the comprehensive local social planning that is needed, with an emphasis on sector considerations, the municipal finances and future urban patterns of the municipalities and rural areas.

Denmark's villages

The spotlight then turns to the rural areas and villages. Twenty per cent of Denmarks live in the villages and surrounding rural areas, and villages are important hubs for the aspect of the municipal sector that serves the rural areas. All soft, citizen-centred services such as schools, nurseries, kindergartens, senior citizen centres, libraries as well as cultural and sports facilities are predominantly located in the larger and largest villages with populations ranging from approximately 350 to approximately 1000. There are roughly 600 of such villages and this is where the battle for the future of welfare services is being fought. In the 5000 or so smaller villages, all municipal and private services have long since been shut down, as a general rule.

All change!

A basic tenet for understanding the situation of Danish rural areas and villages today is an awareness that the economic functions, the associated physical structures and the way of life are in a constant state of flux. What is new is that the pace of change has increased dramatically in recent years.

Most villages were economically and culturally self-sufficient local communities well into the 1950s, and in the years between 1970 and 2012 there have been dramatic trends of change, mainly because the 6,000-year old symbiotic connection between agriculture and village has been definitively broken. The foundation for the future for most rural and village development in Denmark is now settlement, migration and commuting.

Today, all villages in Denmark can be regarded as highly mobile commuter communities, where the majority of economically active people earn their living in the towns and cities. This means the village is now primarily a place where people reside. Villages have transformed from production communities into residential and reproduction communities they are today. As most of the life-blood of commerce and functions are no longer operational, it is clear that villages are developing in different directions. Distinct differences are emerging between villages that embody quality and momentum, and those places that are losing value and substance. Some are 'winner villages' and others are – or are becoming – 'loser villages'.

The future of village Denmark in the pipeline

In Danish society and in planning circles, we lack a number of fundamental discussions about how to plan for the dual aspects of phasing out and development.

The challenges

  • How do we develop and adapt the substance and physical location of the welfare system in the context of an urban pattern?
  • What should we do with the "surplus villages", and what should they be used for in the future? Should exit strategies be prepared for these small communities so that, over a period of time and with dignity, municipalities and residents can initiate the necessary processes for adapting the number and size of villages, or should we just shut our eyes and hope for the best?
  • What should happen to all the villages and rural districts with scant or no resources and a declining population?

The tools

Planning and phasing out, exit strategies and demolition of villages is not very familiar territory among Danish planners and politicians, but a few important aspects could tentatively be mentioned here.

The ordinary planning system can be used as a process template. In connection with the overhaul of municipal planning in 2013 or 2017, it would be a good idea to initiate the necessary dialogue about a holistic view of municipal service and its future location in large, sustainable village hubs.

In my opinion, it is necessary to bring to bear visionary, long-term and strategic thinking, by combining the three familiar types of planning: budgeting, sector planning and physical planning. As part of that process, it will be necessary in many municipalities to centralise municipal services and give greater priority to some villages at the expense of others, which will then lose their services. This is important to be able to maintain a futureproof level of service in the municipality as such.

How to do this

The question of how and where the municipalities should build future-proof municipal service structures in large service villages with a population of between 1,000 and 1,500 and the supplementary pattern of smaller, diverse villages and settlements outside these village hubs is the key question in planning.

A number of researchers (Hjalager & Halkier, 2012, Højgaard, 2011, Møller, 2011) have put forward the view that Danish society does not have the necessary resources to maintain the existence of all of today's villages. However, up until now, politicians at all levels have failed to realise that, as a supplement to developing growth villages, there is a need for exit strategies for the small, run-down villages. In such villages the goal of the proposed phasing out over the long term is to achieve better-functioning rural districts, with a village structure that corresponds to the challenges of the future. It might be possible to save municipal funds on various operational and infrastructure tasks that would be eliminated with the disbandment of villages.

A (small) number of municipalities have recently approached what is a very difficult task in terms of municipal policy, namely prioritising the future level of services in a geographical context. For example, in connection with the municipal plan and the municipality's rural policy, Næstved municipality has divided the municipal area into a hub structure that provides the level of service residents can expect at a given location in the municipality, such as distance to schools. This offers an open reconciliation of municipal service provision and what the population can expect. (Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Affairs, 2012)

However, a number of legal and financial aspects require clarification before villages can be disbanded. The scope of compulsory purchase orders needs to be tested. It will be necessary to investigate whether existing – or, in fact, slightly older – legislation on urban renewal could provide inspiration for sustainable, economic system structure. Finally, substantial financially resilient funds will need to be built up for purchasing, demolition and relocation. Mortgage institutions and banks must be included in the structure of deals for acquiring real property with a view to physical restructuring, and various relocation schemes will need to be established. As was the case in earlier situations, like under regional policy and the fight against unemployment. (Møller. J. 2012, Mølgaard, J. 1980).

It could also be envisaged that funding from short-sighted agricultural subsidies could be diverted to clearance and village disbandment funds, and that selected, condemnable villages could be demolished. In some locations, new villages could be built for holiday- and leisure purposes and second homes (or other -purposes) villages, on the site of the old villages.

The result

Those villages going forward, without receiving municipal services, should be given special attention from the municipality in terms of future development. Villages need to be thought out again, and the result could be greater diversity with re-purposed villages as the sustaining principle for the future of small villages.

Of course, conditions in the 5600 villages, small and large, will not be the same. Differences and diversity should be respected, supported and encouraged, and accordingly there should be variety in our system of villages.

The municipalities can develop their small villages into re-purposed villages in dialogue with the residents. The extent of the overall village system could be quite considerable. To illustrate the possibilities, (Møller, 2011) at one end of the spectrum there could be entrepreneurs' or equestrian villages, where "anything is possible", and at the other end of the spectrum there could be sanctuary-like, tightly-regulated cultural heritage villages with half-timbered houses, thatched roofs and hollyhock, with the appearance of the village controlled via local planning preservation orders. In most cases, it will not be possible to embody such diverse development principles in any one village, but if everyone's cards are put on the table, a lot of misunderstandings and local battles could be avoided.

Over time, villages diversify, and together they constitute a strong and varied network, where people can choose to settle in planned and prioritised re-purposed villages, and live there according to their own desires and opportunities. In doing so, the dynamism can be promoted and/or recreated. Last but not least, going forward, the municipalities must not allow urban sprawl and haphazard residential development in the rural districts in the hope that this will reverse the decline that has affected many rural areas. That would only lead to more municipalities experiencing even greater difficulties in providing services to the people who live in the open countryside and small villages.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 3, 2012