Demographic Challenges are Everybody’s Concern

By Camilla Sahlander

A demographic challenge common to the two counties of Hedmark in Norway and Dalarna in Sweden is that the populations of many of their small municipalities are decreasing. How will these small administrations maintain welfare provision, schools and health care? Almost half of all the municipalities in Hedmark – and even more in Dalarna – have stagnating population growth.

What difference does a border make?

The two counties of Hedmark and Dalarna are divided by a border. The regions are very similar in many ways and if it were not for the mountain range that stretches along the border, co-operation would probably be natural. However, the mountain area both divides and connects the two regions. The connection is tourism and the ski area that spans the border between Hedmark and Dalarna.

There are approximately 194,000 inhabitants in Hedmark and 276,000 in Dalarna. Both counties have small municipalities and are quite close to larger urban regions with good commuting facilities (Oslo and Stockholm). On the other hand, settlements are spread widely and there are many small villages far from the nearest regional centre, which creates commuting problems within both regions. A common challenge for Hedmark and Dalarna is the age structure of the population. There is a large ageing population and low fertility rates. There are also difficulties in recruiting personnel in both the public and private sectors, especially for executive positions.

The regional organizations, that is, the County Administration Boards and the Regional Development Councils in Hedmark and Dalarna, have co-operated on various projects during the past six years and have become well acquainted. In May 2012, the Nordic Council of Ministers appointed a new Border Committee for Hedmark–Dalarna co-operation.

The demographic cross-border project

In December 2012, the Border Committee started the Demographic challenges in Hedmark and Dalarna project within the Nordic Council of Ministers Nordic Demographic Programme, administrated by Nordregio. The project will be completed and a report tabled during the autumn of 2013. The target groups are the municipalities of Hedmark and Dalarna, which have extremely challenging demographic development problems characterized by outmigration, especially of young people, and an ageing population.

The main activity of the project is to organize seminars, so-called demographic laboratories, with both lectures and workshops. Other activities include gathering information and statistics on the themes of competence provision, labour recruitment and living facilities, in order to analyse consequences for participating municipalities. Finally, examples of good practice from other, municipalities and projects that have succeeded in reversing a negative trend will be compiled in a demographic guide-book.

At the time of writing, half of the time allocated to the project has passed. During the winter, my colleague in the project and I travelled from the south of Dalarna to the north of Hedmark to meet with the administrators of the participating municipalities (of whom there are 11). We introduced and established the project and its purpose. This was vital in the initial stage, and it has of course taken some time. In the middle of April, we had a preliminary seminar, where the representatives of the municipalities and the reference group met. New ideas on extending cross-border co-operation were presented and many new contacts were established. It was clear that discussing demographic issues is very important, especially that of managing the challenges that will follow.

One aim of the project is to create awareness and knowledge of the current demographic situation and its consequences for the municipalities. This will prepare them to improve planning and to implement their strategies regarding the themes of the project (competence, recruitment, living facilities and attractiveness). A cross-border network of people working on the same issues and facing the same challenges in the two countries is also an aim of the project.

Lessons learnt

When we wrote the project plan and drew up Demographic challenges in Hedmark and Dalarna, we did not foresee that establishing the project with the participating municipalities would be as time-consuming as it turned out to be.

Before starting the project, we were in contact with people in several of the municipalities and described the project to the administrators. They seemed interested, so when we were granted project funding, we contacted them again. Now they definitely needed more information. We knew that we had to meet the administrators of the municipalities to explain the project and the demands that their participation would entail, but most importantly, we had to listen to them. They had much valuable information for us to incorporate in the process.

Other than having to readjust the time frame for the project, we have not encountered any obstacles so far. However, we foresee a challenge in planning and organizing the upcoming seminars – our demographic laboratories – in an intelligent manner. It is important that the seminar themes are relevant to the municipalities' work with demographic issues. Each seminar should provide the participants with new information, experiences and hopefully new contacts. Because many similar seminars are held in our region, we must plan our demographic seminars so they fit in with the others.

Another challenge of the project is the time aspect for the municipalities. We know they have little spare time, so integrating this project into their processes is important and requires us to remain in contact with them throughout the project.

Because of this project, the demographic issues and challenges are more frequently discussed by the Border Committee. Demographic challenges concern all municipalities and regional organizations in different ways. For example, for the County Administration Board where I work, demographic development is strongly connected to rural development. Therefore, the demographic cross-border project connects working areas in the organizations represented on the Border Committee.

Siljan

Lake Siljan in Dalarna (but it could almost be Lake Mjösa in Hedmark)

In this cross-border project, one lesson has been the importance of establishing the project firmly with the participants. Many of the municipalities are unaccustomed to working with partners on the other side of the border, so resistance and doubts regarding cross-border activities can occur. It is often necessary to work harder to convince people and organizations of the benefit of participation. However, after our last meeting with the participants in the project, I was surprised by their positive attitude towards working with cross-border partners.

Connected by challenges

Working with demographic challenges is not an easy task for anybody. This concerns not only Hedmark and Dalarna, but also the Nordic countries and large parts of Europe. Can a small project between two cross-border counties make a difference? I do not know, but I know that I have learnt much more about the municipalities' work with these issues. New contacts have been made and co-operation established, and I am sure that by discussing the demographic challenges and placing them on the agenda, something will happen!

Back to Nordregio News Issue 3, 2013