Cold reception for northern area plan

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Eight government ministers unveiled the first strategic plan for Northern Norway in nine years on Friday, promising support for better schools, transport, job creation and a new investment fund for business development. The plan was quickly dismissed by opposition politicians, however, as lacking substance and failing to offset depopulation.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide presented her segment of the new strategic report on Northern Norway from Alta in the heart of Finnmark. She insisted that the government has listened to many local residents while working on the report over the past two years. PHOTO: Regjeringen.no

“The government is letting Northern Norway down once again,” complained Sandra Borch, a Member of Parliament for the opposition Center Party from Troms. She told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after the digital presentation of the plan that “if they’re going to take Northern Norway seriously, they need to listen to us who live here. This is unfortunately a (government) report full of glowing speeches.”

Both Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and other  ministers partcipating insisted they had solicited local input and listened. “We have had lots of good conversations in the north over the two years we’ve worked on this plan,” said Søreide as she sat near a bonfire outdoors in Alta on Friday. “We have spoken with teachers, business owners, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, fishing boat crews, artists and reindeer herders.” She also referred to “tight dialogue” during hundreds of meetings with local elected officials and the Samí Parliament: “We have listened and learned, not least in getting advice from 50 members of a youth panel.”

Søreide stressed that “we must take demographic developments seriously and see what we can do to prevent more depopulation” of the northern areas. State statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) reported earlier this week that the populations of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark have declined by nearly 2,000 during the past year, despite growth in some cities like Tromsø and Bodø, and lots of real estate investment.

“Our young advisers were very clear,” Søreide said. “We must provide flexible education programs, good infrastructure, capital for entrepreneurs and support local value creation. We must remember that it’s also important to have a place to go after school or work, whether it’s an athletic hall, cultural programs or a youth center, and what works in Oslo isn’t necessarily what’s needed in Alta.”

Søreide also stressed that the report on Northern Norway “isn’t a budget document” or an attempt to address all the challenges in the north, but rather to “plot out a direction for priorities in policy over the next several years.”

Defense build-up
The government and Parliament have already proposed some new major defense spending in Northern Norway, from a helicopter base in Bardufoss to billions of redevelopment of facilities in Porsanger and Sør-Varanger. Tana Mayor Helga Pedersen of the Labour Party, a former government minister herself, doesn’t think more defense spending will keep northerners from moving south: “The civilian presence must increase,” she said, not just the number of military people who’ll be temporarily stationed in the counties of Nordland or Troms og Finnmark. She’d prefer to see transfers of state jobs that would provide more economic stability, and more decentralization programs “instead of everything being gathered in Tromsø.”

Søreide spoke while seated outdoors near a bonfire in the dim late autumn light of a Northern Norway afternoon. PHOTO: Regjeringen.no

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who put a lot of emphasis on Northern Norway during his years at foreign minister, was also critical to the government’s report. He found few examples of concrete plans and funding for new ventures in the report meant to provide policy for growth and stabiity. “There’s great distance between lots of fine words and concrete action,” Støre told NRK.

The government does plan, however, to set up a new investment fund with money from both the state and private interests that would be managed from Northern Norway. The goal will be to stimulate innovation and growth, also through cooperation with interests in northern Sweden and Finland and the European Investment Bank. The government is also promising NOK 4 million over three years to a fund for young entrepreneurs, aimed at linking research and value creation.

Other government ministers in charge of fisheries, culture, business and defense took part in forming the strategic plan. Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen, who’s from Northern Norway himself, told NRK that the region is a high priority, not least given renewed super-power rivalry and more activity in the Arctic by the Russians.

“What’s good for Northern Norway is good for the entire country,” claimed Prime Minister Solberg. “The government’s political project in the area is therefore to concentrate on securing jobs and economic growth.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund