Last year, the Czech government adopted a Strategic Framework aimed at resurecting the three regions lagging behind in the country – which are also the country’s coal mining regions.
The programme, dubbed RESTART, is among the few attempts in Central and Eastern Europe to plan the long-term development of coal regions and prepare them for life post-coal.
As any young initiative, many expectations are placed on RESTART. And some criticisms are already emerging: Will it really give locals the chance to have a say about their future? Will new money really come to the regions? Will it succeed in its ambitious goals?
In late April, we sat down with Gabriela Nekolová, the Deputy Government Plenipotentiary of the Czech government in charge of RESTART, to better understand how the programme works and address the criticisms.
Just Transition: Mrs. Nekolová, tell us about how RESTART came to life.
Gabriela Nekolová: Back in 2014, a special bureau for Czechia’s three regions lagging behind – Karlovy Vary, Ustecki, and Moravian-Silesian – was established: this is the office of the Government Plenipotentiary. The main role of the Government Plenipotentiary is to come up with and present to the government a process which can help these three regions start the restructuring process.
In the beginning, we thought we would concentrate just on the downturn of coal mining but we learned very fast that the problems are deeper and go beyond the downturn of coal, they are connected to the general social situation. So we got a mandate from the government to deal with all these problems.
In the last month of 2015, the government passed a resolution which called for a complex strategy for the restructuring of the three regions. In order to prepare the strategy, we spent most of 2016 processing analytical inputs to have the background and then started to prepare the Strategic Framework.
The Czech government adopted the resulting Strategic Framework in January 2017. The Strategic Framework is meant for three years and this is a good time frame because we are dealing with a very dynamic process and we can’t really know what will happen in a couple of years.
The government also assigned the Plenipotentiary the task to prepare some special measures to help the regions under the framework. These measures are implemented via a so-called Action Plan, and they are renewed each year. The first Action Plan was adopted by the government in July 2017, and now we are working on preparing a second one.
JT: Were you in your position also under the previous government (the Strategic Framework was adopted under the Social-Democratic-led government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, but at the end of last year the ANO Party won general elections and the new government is led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis)?
GN: Yes, I was there since the very beginning, in 2014, and I was in touch with the government of PM Sobotka.
JT: Do you think the change in government will affect in any way the evolution of this process?
GN: We have to say honestly that even for us it’s an interesting question and we are waiting to see what the new government will bring.
But we knew from the beginning that the restructuting process of mining regions lasts for tens of years, so it was always clear there would have to be many governments who have to live with this strategy. We hope this one will accept it too. For the moment, we do not see any problems. Just last week, when PM Babis visited Karlovy Vary, he confirmed that he sees the RESTART strategy as an important one for the restructuring process in the region.
Any new government, at central and regional level, can be a breaking point.
It was the good will of the last government to start this process. But the last government was also a coalition, and members from different parties had to agree to this, so we have hope for the future.
The role of the Government Plenipotentiary is to mediate and be a facilitator. It is an apolitical function, the Government Plenipotentiary can communicate with all parties and should do so. Of course you can never stay absolutely away from the political, but we always try our best to communicate with all parties very openly, so in this way we keep it apolitical.
We also communicate with hundreds of stakeholders from the three regions to develop the Action Plans, from all parts of the political spectrum.
JT: Please describe how you communicate with the stakeholders and citizens in general.
GN: When we prepare a measure, we talk not just with experts but also with the public.
We generally have our own ideas and we engage with stakeholders in the regions (both experts and the public) to learn if the ideas are fine. We have colleagues who are in charge of coming up with complex measures. For the experts, we have a detailed questionnaire via which we are asking them for thoughts on how to restructure the region. We also run the ideas past the general public.
JT: How do you do that, how do you engage with the public?
GN: On our website, you can find a very simple questionnaire for the public, and everyone who visits our webpage has a chance to offer us their vision and ideas. When we get such ideas, we discuss them in our team and with experts and try to link them to the Strategic Framework. But we are not just passively waiting for inputs, we are doing quite hard PR through the press and social media, and we are informing the public that they can help.
JT: Indeed, good there is an extra push. Because how many people come to the website spontaneously or even use the internet?
GN: Of course it’s not just the website! With my team, we’ve attended many meetings with the public in the three regions. We are talking to students of highschools and universities, unions, and seniors. Just in the last year, and only in the Ustecky region, we spoke to 400 students, 500 seniors, and representatives of municipalities. This means thousands of people across the three regions.
JT: Do you have the impression the contributions from the public are a major part of the process or they are rather marginal?
GN: To be frank, they are quite marginal. Because most ideas from the public are very general. People say ‘help up, we have unemployment’ or ‘we have problems with the environment’. So we try in communication with them to turn their needs into more concrete ideas.
But we see it as our role to explain over and over again how the process works, how we can help the people, and how the general public can get engaged.
JT: So if I write in the questionnaire that I have a problem – for example, there are no parks for kids in Usti – what do you do? Do you call me to discuss this?
GN: We cannot handle such participative communication, we do not have the capacity. But, even more, this is not our role. The theme of restructuring is very broad, we cannot be out on the streets all the time getting everyone’s opinions about everything.
Our role is that when we see that we get contributions from several cities complaining there are no parks for kids, we recognise this is a problem and step in to solve it.
We do, however, get more and more ideas from the public.
This year, we got 250 filled in questionnaires. And, for the general public, it is important to know that if they communicate their problems to their elected representatives, the mayors of their towns and villages, these will be sent to us in our various processes.
JT: I ask about this because when we visited Ruhr in Germany or post-mining regions in Belgium, everyone was very much stressing the importance of participation. In the Ruhr region, one programme all said made the biggest difference was a very broad competition of projects open to all actors.
GN: As you know, restructuring in the Ruhr started in the 70s. We’re just 2-3 years into the process. Maybe we will meet again in 20-30 years, but we think even today our results are very interesting.
JT: Will you give us an example of a project supported via RESTART to make the discussion less abstract.
GN: One of the most interesting examples concerns the reclamation of brownfields for future business utilisation. We know that in these regions there are hundreds of such brownfields and also we know new investors are needed in the region. The brownfields are great because in history they were chosen for specific reasons: they had good transport links, there was no danger for flooding – which makes them good locations even today.
For this programme, we use money from the state budget and we were able to secure 2 billion Czech crowns for it (78 million euros).
The office of the Government Plenipotentiary doesn’t have any budget so the programmes can only be implemented with money from different ministries or with European funds.
When we work with ministries for example, we identify a need, we propose collaboration to a ministry, we propose the rules for the programme, then the ministry launches it and finances it. Then we again have a role in activating regional stakeholders so they can submit project proposals and get the money
JT: One of the criticisms against RESTART is that it does not actually bring in any new money to the regions.
GN: This example, of the brownfield utilisation for new businesses, is actually one where we bring new money, which would otherwise not be spent.
Indeed, we hear often this criticism. But here is the situation with EU funds: in Czechia, all operational programmes are prepared for all the country, apart of the capital Prague, putting together more and less developed regions. When there is a call for the entire country, stakeholders from disadvantaged regions stand no chance in such a competitive environment. They also have special or different needs. So the role of RESTART is to identify those special needs of the three regions and prepare special calls for proposals aimed at the regions, to ensure EU money gets to them.
Otherwise, the money from the operational programmes does not go to where it’s needed the most.
For example, we are now organising a special call for the three regions under the Operational programme Research, Development and Education, distributing 2.2 billion Czech crowns (86 million euros), ensuring the EU money can be used in the three regions for this very important need.
JT: So how much money is acually new money?
GN: It’s really hard to say, but I would say approximately 30 percent of the money spent through RESTART is new money, coming right now from the different ministries.
This year, most money comes from the state budget but the idea always was to use more EU funds. This is also the sense of EU programming, but right now the money does not necessarily reach the more disadvantaged regions.
This week, we are starting to work together with universities and regional authorities in the direction of planning the resocialisation of previously reclaimed areas. We are talking about a situation in which you can find many interesting reclamations in all three regions but they are for now just nature and gradually losing life, so we are trying to bring them back to society.
JT: Indeed, in Usti we saw many reclaimed areas that were just lakes, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of thought put at the reclamation stage into how the site would further serve the socio-economic development of the region.
GN: This is because in Czechia we have a law that says that, when a company starts mining, they already plan what to do with the site when they finish. So even before they start mining, we know there will be a lake, forest or meadow there – but nothing about its future use.
The ideas about the utilisation of the site and linking it to local needs are coming when the recultivation finishes.
So our goal is to start communicating with the ministries and invent a new tool which would help us do such a preparation in advance. So we can take into account all the possible usages (business and non-business) at an earlier stage and make a more complex decision.
JT: In Belgium, we saw a place where authorities had to recultivate seven identical post-mining sites more or less in the same area. They insisted that what worked for them was to think from the start of a different theme and purpose for each site, in an integrated vision. So there was a museum, a science park, an energy hub, etc, all different.
GN: This is definitely what we want to do here. The problem is that in Czechia we have some tools how to recultivate the nature, but we don’t get enough money for the resocialisation of the recultivated areas. For that purpose, we need money for new roads, engineering, for building beaches near the lakes for example, for using the pumped mining water for energy, etc.
JT: So there is a need for more money too?
GN: Definitely. And this will be again some kind of combination of state and EU money.
JT: I understand then that your big priority is to add resocialisation to recultivation.
GN: That’s right. Every one of the three region has specific needs and potential. For example, Karlovy Vary has strong balneology tradition, which we can use. Ustecky region can potentially become the perfect place for living, because it has beautiful nature and good links to bigger places – it’s very close to both Prague and Dresden. In a few decades we hope that people in Ustecky – especially the young – will stop fleeing the region because it will turn into a place where they can have a good quality of life and build a future. For that, we need to improve the quality of education available there, the level of universities, which is a big problem now but where we see a big potential for improvement.
We are talking about complex change. We do not want to rely any more on a single specialisation for the region because this has caused problems. So we think that the diversification of the economy, not specialisation, is the right way.
JT: Right. In the Ruhr, there were cities which moved from mining to overreliance on the car industry only to have the same problem again when the industry relocated to cheaper places.
GN: We want to avoid that. We also want to have a smart approach, building on the tradition of the place. For example, Usti used to be the energy heart of the country. So let’s talk about the possibility that the lakes which will be there would be used for pumped storage for electricity. If we relied on coal before, why not rely on water now and keep the traditions of the region, energy production?
JT: What would you need for RESTART to work?
GN: Definitely the support of the governmental level. Very important are also the money, so that we can realise the measures but also build a stronger team which will have more power to implement them.
The most important thing is stability. People in these three regions have heard many promises in the past and people are sick of empty words; they want real action. So we need to persuade them, overcome their skepticism. Only when the stability is there, we can earn the trust of the people and make the participatory process much more open.