Thursday, 19 November 2015

PiS, thinking wishfully about the Polish village

Having listened through to almost all of the maiden speech (exposé or policy statement) delivered by Poland's new premier Beata Szydło yesterday, I was left with two impressions. The first is that this massive wish list is going to be improbably expensive, the second is how clearly PiS believes that Big Government can solve Poland's problems.

I have not the time to go through the whole speech point by point here. But one fragment of the speech struck me. It is worthy of deeper analysis, because it reflects so well way the new government's instincts.

She said:
Nasz rząd jednoznacznie opowiada się przeciwko temu, co określane jest nie kiedy jako "zwijanie państwa" - szkół, bibliotek, placówek pocztowych, komisariatów policji, połączeń komunikacji. Proces ten musi być zatrzymany, a w wielu przypadkach odwrócony. Nie nastąpi to oczywiście z dnia na dzień, ale w pewnej perspektywie swego rodzaju powrót państwa na wieś i do mniejszych miejscowości zostanie przeprowadzony.
"Our government clearly opposes what is sometimes referred to as the "rolling back of the state" - schools, libraries, post offices, police stations, public transport. This process must be stopped and in many cases reversed. This of course will not happen overnight, but over a certain perspective [of time], a return of the state to the countryside and smaller towns will be carried out."
Musimy dążyć do powrotu do sytuacji, która miała już miejsce za naszych rządów, gdy na wsparcie wsi przeznaczone było prawie 3 proc. PKB. Chodzi, jeszcze raz to powtarzam, o sprawiedliwość, wyrównywanie szans, wyrównywanie poziomów życia. Chodzi także o przyzwoitość, bo reguły przyzwoitości były w ciągu ostatnich lat wielokrotnie łamane w całej sferze, która służy obsłudze wsi.
"We must strive to return to the situation that has already taken place under our [2005-07] government, when support for rural areas was almost 3% of GDP. It is, I repeat, about justice, equal opportunities, aligning the levels of living. It's also about decency, because the rules of decency have been in recent years repeatedly violated across the whole sphere, that serves the village."

Yes, the Polish countryside (wieś = 'countryside', lit. 'the village') has a problem. The narrative that Premier Szydło is promoting is that over the eight years, malignant forces have been violating the hitherto-decent Polish village.

No mention of the three real forces that have been busy depopulating Poland's countryside - demographics, labour mobility, alcohol abuse and consolidation of land holdings.

For the past ten years, the number of children starting school in Poland has been shrinking at an average rate of around 17,500 a year. Schools are closing not because of any 'violation of decency', but because there are simply not enough children being born to keep many village schools open.

Secondly, young people are leaving the Polish countryside in large numbers. The brighter ones head off to university, and tend not to return to the plough, but find employment in Poland's thriving cities - or seek their fortune abroad. And less academically talented young women are more likely than their male peers to move to nearby towns to seek employment in the service sector.

Thirdly, as you can see from the road, from the train or - best - from 30,000ft, Poland's farm holdings are being consolidated as successful farmers buy up land from their less-able neighbours. The average size of a Polish farm (gospodarstwo rolne) is 10.5 hectares, up from eight hectares before Poland joined the EU. However, there are massive differences between farm size in Poland's regained territories in the west and north-east of the country and in what was Poland prior to WW2. In Małopolska, average farm size is under four hectares (!!!). In Zachodnio-Pomorskie, it's 30 hectares.

Now, will the PiS government invest in schools, libraries, post offices, police stations and public transport across all Polish villages equally? How will all this be paid for? There's the 500+ programme and earlier retirement that need financing...

A few months ago, a local government official told me that towns in his province are depopulating so swiftly that the state has to be scaled back; there simply isn't the money in the provincial budget to maintain all the institutions that a miasto powiatowe (or 'county seat') is required to have.

Poland's tens of thousands of villages are all different. There are richer and poorer villages in richer and poorer parts of richer and poorer provinces. Will each be propped up with public money equally?

With a judicious amount of public money, local authorities can turn around failing cities. The money needs to pump-prime private investment into the area. At big-city level, Birmingham is a good example - EU funds were used to build the International Convention Centre, prompting the further redevelopment of the heart of the city with largely private money. But British villages are doing it for themselves. As I wrote the other day, villages are where the British want to retire to. They bring with them wealth, they invest in the community, crowd-funding local shops and pubs.

Ms Szydło's government has four years to make good this and many other costly promises. I shall be watching closely. If she succeeds, I will applaud. I'd love Poland's countryside to develop and flourish, to become more attractive, more tourism-friendly and indeed wealthy. We shall see.

This time two years ago:
An unseasonably warm autumn in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Shedding light on an unused road

This time four years ago:
S2-S79 Elka from the air (still talk of opening in time for Euro 2012!)

This time five years ago:
Fish and chips in Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Spirit of place - anomalous familiarity moments


meika said...

I'd love to have a shack in a Polish village. Make a great base for our European travels. Here is the type of holiday shack we have in Tasmania (in NZ they call them batches).

AndrzejK said...

There are two forces at play. As you state villages are depopulating simply as a result of increased efficency not least due to EU funded investment in labour saving devices. So I guess PiS is saying that farmers should all toil by hand or at best with the help of a horse (which requires typcially 1 hectare of land to produce the necessary feed) so as to maintain the village population.

The second is the anti business climate of many local authorities in the villages and small towns. The lack of clear planning legislation means that getting planning permission for say a small factory takes ages. And then the investor/ businessman has to pay for access roads, connection to gas and electricity etc etc. This has nothing to do with schools, 500 PLN for second and further children, allowing children to start school a year later than elswhere in Europe (add any other PiS misguided proposal you care to think of). This issue is all about less and not more government.

Interestingly there is not a peep from the useful fools appointed to the finance, development, trade and industry ministries who should know better that PiS spending proposals will dramatically slow down the economy. They must realise that they will be blamed when the EU imposes sanctions for breach of public deficit targets and the cost of Polish public debt instruments goes the way of Greek T bonds. Indeed they were appointed because Kaczyński must realise that he is living in cloud cuckoo land. Maybe he should team up with the current leader of the UK Labour Party and sing the Internationale!

Mind you I blame the completely lack lustre election campaign of Ewa Kopacz which clearly failed to mobilise 50% of the population to go and vote.

Russell Towlson said...

Great summary of this section of the PiS 'wish list'.
I can't say I really understand Polish politics yet and now we have a new government but thanks to your blog, I'm learning fast.
Best regards