In a single year, the population grew in 900 villages where the number of residents had been previously declining, Alpár Gyopáros, the government commissioner responsible for the development of modern settlements said in an interview with Növekedés.hu, when we asked him about the Hungarian Village Program.
What was the scale of depopulation in small settlements in Hungary in recent decades?
Until 2019, the population decline had been more significant in our villages than the national average.
According to the Central Statistical Office (KSH), between 2003 and 2018 the population of villages fell by 6.4 percent.
In order to stop this process, the government launched the Hungarian Village Program, the implementation of which began in 2019.
As a result, we could see a positive change in a very short time; according to the statistics of KSH for 2020, the population started to increase in 900 villages where there had been a decline previously.
The Hungarian Village Program was meant to be a long-term project, so even I was surprised that the measures proved to be so effective within 1-1.5 years.
What are the main objectives of the Hungarian Village Program?
The main objective of the Hungarian Village Program is to stop the depopulation of small settlements by improving the living conditions in rural areas. We want to make the countryside attractive to young people, as life in a village has many advantages over urban living; there are larger personal spaces, the air is cleaner, the environment is more peaceful, and the shopkeeper in the local shop greets you as a friend. However, in order for a young couple to choose to live in a village instead of the city we need to ensure that there is no gap between the two in terms of the quality of life.
Or to put it another way: the choice between the two should only be a lifestyle choice rather than one about the quality of life.
In what way can the program support migration back to the villages?
The Hungarian Village Program is a complex program, which has provided opportunities and solutions to villages and their residents through three sub-programs in the last two years, and a fourth program will added from this year.
The first pillar is to support small-scale developments to improve the quality of life through tenders which are open to municipalities, churches, and rural NGOs.
These tenders have included the renovation of village streets, pavements and cycle paths, community buildings, kindergartens, schools, and GP surgeries; the purchase of minibuses for farm and village caretakers; creation of community spaces; improvement of physical education and sports infrastructure; support for the construction of service housing.
In addition to that, since 2020 non-governmental organizations operating in villages have been entitled to apply for support. In the last two years, more than 12,000 applications have been approved in the amount of more than 130 billion forints.
The second important pillar is the village road fund, aimed to improve the condition of the domestic side road network. With this, we try to make the daily commute between settlements easier and faster. Between 2019 and 2022, the development of more than 2,500 kilometres of roads is expected to be completed.
The third sub-program is the rural edition of the home purchase subsidy CSOK, which helps families settle down. Under this scheme, depending on the number of children they are raising, families are entitled to apply for up to 10 million forints in non-refundable support for the purchase and modernization of a residential property or 5 million forints for the renovation of their home.
What measurable results has the rural CSOK had so far?
The rural CSOK is extremely popular, which is well reflected in the figures:
since its launch on July 1, 2019, more than 17,000 families have applied for more than 91 billion forints in non-refundable support.
Therefore, as of January 1 this year the government extended the program to nearly 200 additional settlements, so this type of subsidy is now available in 2678 settlements altogether.
How about subsidies aimed to help the reopening of small shops?
From 2021, a fourth pillar will be added to the Hungarian Village Program in order to save small shops in villages.
In the last few decades, hundreds of shops selling mainly basic foodstuffs have closed in small settlements, and most of the businesses still working are on the verge of closing down.
Therefore, a solution had to be found so that basic shopping facilities could be maintained, as residents of small villages also deserve the opportunity to just pop into the local shop for fresh bread or some other basic food, instead of having to get into their car and drive to the nearest store.
There is a 45 billion forint budget available for saving small shops, and this amount will be sufficient to support shops in hundreds of villages. The subsidy can be used for the purchase or development of properties, asset procurement and wage subsidies.
How big is the budget participants can count on and for how long? When will the first calls start?
The Hungarian Village Program is successful; we have a lot of positive feedback from the small settlements themselves. One of the reasons for this is that we created the program together with the stakeholders in order to be able to meet local needs as much as possible. Before launching the program, we talked about the needs with mayors, representatives of non-governmental organizations and parishes, but also with people living in villages as part of public hearings in more than 120 meetings all over the country. Another advantage of the program is that it is flexible. The development of rural Hungary is a high priority for the government, and it is also reflected in terms of financial resources.
The Hungarian Village Program started in 2019 with a budget of 150 billion forints, it grew to 210 billion last year, while this year we have more than 250 billion forints available to improve rural living conditions.
The first calls have already been published; 20 billion forints is available for the development of properties owned by municipalities, and 1 billion for the procurement of community-related assets and the wage subsidies for community organizers. Applications can be submitted from 16 April. Apart from that, the decree containing the rules for the support of small village shops has also been published.
Do you see a trend toward moving to smaller settlements as a result of Covid-19?
We can see from the statistics that more and more young couples are taking advantage of the rural CSOK and choosing village life over urban existence. Besides that, mayors of small settlements also confirm that properties are being sold and bought faster than in previous years.
Indeed, the epidemic brought about a change in the attitude regarding residence; a courtyard or garden has become more valuable during lockdown. However, I do not think that the pandemic in itself is enough motivation to move house, as such decisions are generally made after careful consideration.
People consider aspects like the availability of kindergartens, schools and well-equipped medical surgeries in the given settlement, the condition of the roads, local shopping facilities, the general tidiness of the settlement, or whether it is possible to get state support to buy a home. And here comes the Hungarian Village Program, which offers a solution to all these issues. As far as we can see, and this is confirmed by the feedback we received, a trend toward moving into small settlements has indeed started in the recent period due to the combined effect of all the measures we have taken.