2 December 2023

During the weekend of 10-12 November representatives of several European island regions visited the island of Skylge / Terschelling. Together with people from the Frisian islands and from the mainland they discussed what can be done to ensure that sufficient suitable and affordable houses are available for inhabitants.

Housing very important issue for FNP
Two years ago a resolution proposed by FNP was adopted at the annual General Assembly of the European Free Alliance (EFA). It was part of FNP’s Strategy Plan on Housing. The Strategy Plan describes how the Frisian islands already then gave priority to its own inhabitants and to workers who really need a home on the islands. This was the main reason for organising the event of the EFA Islands’ Forum on the Frisian island of Skylge/Terschelling earlier this month.

Sita Land-Dotinga, the FNP-spokeswoman for housing in the Frisian Parliament: ‘For FNP housing is a very important issue. We are of the opinion that inhabitants have to be able to live where they want to live and that sufficient, good quality and affordable houses must be available for our people. We also think that in all our towns and villages houses should be built according to the character and scale of the place.’

FNP does not want new sleeping villages such as close to the capital Ljouwert / Leeuwarden. We should build in those places where new houses are needed to keep our communities alive. That is what FNP wrote down in its Strategy Plan on Housing and currently that approach is implemented in the different municipalities. The Frisian islands are an important source of inspiration in that respect.

During the discussions on Saturday the speakers and other participants intensively debated the subject of housing on islands, and as well about housing on the mainland in regions that are a little bit further away from the main economic centres.

The local approach
Tensions in the housing market always occur a bit earlier on islands than on the mainland, but solutions are also found at an earlier stage. Mayor Caroline van de Pol of Skylge / Terschelling kicked of the discussion: the possibility to live there is essential for the liveability on an island. If wealthy second-home owners make it impossible for permanent inhabitants to stay and live on the islands, the liveability is endangered.

The Frisian regional minister for housing, Sijbe Knol, pointed to the role of the region of Fryslân and the national government to stimulate the building of new houses with so-called Housing Deals. He also addressed the gentrification that is visible anywhere in Europe where wealthy tourists are ‘ousting’ the existing inhabitants. This phenomenon also takes place in Sylt or Menorca.

The island aldermen Theo Faber (Amelân / Ameland) and Gea van Essen (Skylge / Terschelling) presented the way the island authorities can take measures in their own hands. By developing new housing projects and with smart policies and rules they can give priority to their own inhabitants and to new people that will keep the community on the islands vital in the future: healthcare personnel, policemen, the volunteer firefighters and sea rescue. It is essential that they can stay and live on the islands. At the same time the limited space and the fact that people live right next to a nature reserve are considerable challenges.

The mainland-aldermen Chris van Hes (De Fryske Marren) and Bert Koonstra (Noardeast-Fryslân) showed what they are dealing with in their ambition to provide housing to inhabitants of their two municipalities. Each of these have more than 50 towns and villages. Inhabitants want to stay in their own village or town, but programmes funded by the national government are based on high numbers per housing project. In response, Barbara Steenbergen (International Union of Tenants) came with the suggestion also to look at European funds, such as the Cohesion Fund or to investments by the European Investment Bank.

The Frisian municipalities and the region of Fryslân just recently submitted a bundled application to the national government and they expect that it will be granted. In the municipality of Noardeast-Fryslân, where people ten years ago thought that the population would shrink and where there was fear of empty streets, the population is now growing again and in the meantime the promise made during elections to the population to provide for new housing is being upheld. In half of the villages new homes are currently being constructed according to scale and character.

After the break the Frisian minister of the Wadden Area, Matthijs de Vries, spoke about the importance of maintaining good quality of life on the islands. Public and other services are under pressure. Once the last school or the last elderly home closes, this has an enormous impact, much more so than if the same would happen on the mainland, where there probably might be an alternative solution ten kilometres away. But without a school and without young parents it will become hard for all the inhabitants on the island.

These challenges are now addressed with the so-called Region Deal that was signed a week before the event by the region of Fryslân, the island municipalities and the national government. Matthijs de Vries also told about a number of projects in which the region of Fryslân cooperates with the islands and with other regions in Europe.

Zooming out from an academic perspective
After listening to the local and regional decision makers, we moved to the academic perspective that was given by professor Sierdjan Koster (University of Groningen). One of the main messages by the professor of economic geography was that ‘islands are special, but not all that special in all respects.

What he pointed out, is that there are two major models on how to look at the world. The first model has a focus on the agglomeration effects – where accessibility is key. But most often the core area is going to win from new connections, and negative side effects such as traffic jams and increasing house prices are spreading towards formerly peripheral areas. The second model is focusing more on the natural strengths of a place, and uses these strengths for development that is suited to the location itself. The second approach is being used by the government of Fryslân, through a focus on wellbeing.

What happens elsewhere in Europe and what is the role of the EU?
In four different workgroups the participants discussed about the topic of housing from the perspective of their own situation at home. For most insular regions, tourism is the main factor, and regulation according to the needs of the local population is key. However, this also requires EU and national legislation that make it possible for local authorities to apply their own policies.

After the lunch break, the focus was on the European perspective. The first speaker was the Corsican Member of the European Parliament François Alfonsi. Islands naturally have certain handicaps. Transport is more difficult, as are healthcare and human resources. In general, costs are 10% higher on islands. And with tourists, prices of housing are going up, which many islanders are not able to afford. Therefore special measures are needed so that people can remain on the island.

The EU can adopt policies specific for islands, and this is something that François Alfonsi is working to achieve in the European institutions. In the coming period, he wants to establish an Islands Pact, just as there is already an Urban Pact in the EU dedicated to the specific situation of big cities.

Barbara Steenbergen (International Union of Tenants) pointed to the fact that islands always have a scarcity of land and that local authorities should keep control. She is involved in the preparation of several pieces of EU-legislation related to housing, such as e.g. the Short-term Rental Directive that tries to regulate the extraction of affordable housing for tourism, that drives prices up. Another recent development is that EU ministers now want more flexibility in providing subsidies for social housing. That should also be possible for middle income households, which is currently prohibited under EU rules. Barbara also called for more action by local and regional authorities to arrange housing themselves, if commercial developers are not investing enough. There is a housing crisis, and it needs to be solved now!

The final speaker of the day was Anton Nilsson, representative of the Åland government at the European Union. He told about the particular case of the Åland Islands, where in order to buy property, you need to have a special Åland-citizenship status. This status keeps prices low and the tourism sector under control, but required a special treaty protocol at the time of the accession of Finland to the EU in 1995.

The successful EFA Islands’ Forum was concluded in the evening with a dinner with all the participants on Saturday evening in West-Terschelling. The following day, the international guests travelled back to their islands all across Europe.

This project/event received financial support from the European Parliament and Onafhanelijke Politiek Nederland (OPNL). The contents of the project/event are the sole responsibility of the author, and the European Parliament cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.