BANSKÁ Bystrica Region is the most rural region in Slovakia and even though its labour force ranks as the second best-educated among Slovakia’s eight regions, this central part of the country is seeking to overcome long-term inter-regional disparities. New, innovative policies and differentiated support to districts are ways of reducing the disparities according to Vladimír Maňka, the newly-elected president of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Maňka about his plans as president, the most pressing problems of the region and his ideas for solutions.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In November 2009 you were elected as the president of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region. What are your main plans for the next four years?
Vladimír Maňka (VM): Actually I have been in the post only since January of this year. In my first steps I am analysing the current condition of the budget and problems in the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region, the condition of organisations and facilities under the auspices of our office, and the situation in drawing funds from the European Union. The budget, by far, does not match the basic needs of our programmes and facilities and this is not only because of the financial and economic crisis.
My priorities lay in two levels. The first is to keep the activities we administer functional, to stabilise the budget, to develop the quality of services provided by our organisations and facilities and to make them more effective and to finance this from sources other than our budget, especially through the use of EU funds.
The second priority is to balance deep inter-regional disparities, to increase employment and the quality of life of people living in this region. To accomplish this we need to better tap the potential of our region.
TSS: What are the most urgent problems of Banská Bystrica Region? What solutions do you propose?
VM: Our region tops rankings of unemployment and risk of poverty. EU funds will help us reduce unemployment, increase economic growth and improve labour productivity. New investors who will create sustainable workplaces can help the region. We have to make better use of the strong points of Banská Bystrica Region, which include rich sources of drinking water as well as mineral and healing waters, excellent conditions for tourism, known sources of geothermal energy, and renewable energy. The labour force in our region is the second best-educated in Slovakia. We also have appropriate institutions for science, research and innovation and available labour, especially in the countryside.
When I served as the mayor of Zvolen, the city actively cooperated with universities – which helped us to use local potential and climb to the top of the ranking of all Slovak towns in harnessing available sources of renewable energy.
TSS: What influence has the economic crisis had on Banská Bystrica Region and the office of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region? What measures do you propose or have you already implemented to soften the impact of the crisis?
VM: The economic crisis has significantly slowed down development of the region and worsened the situation in lagging districts. The unemployment rate in the districts of Rimavská Sobota and Revúca exceeded 30 percent at the end of 2009 and was the highest among all 79 districts of Slovakia.
Banská Bystrica Region suffers from serious structural problems and huge inter-regional disparities.
To reverse its decline, start up its growth and balance disparities across the whole region the state administration and the self-government must carry out fundamental transformation projects to equip this region with the necessary infrastructure related to transport, social security, education, health care, environment, and innovations via production technologies, research and development, education, informatisation, and so forth.
There are currently three main financial resources available to undertake the required changes: the budget of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region, the National Strategic Reference Framework and investments.
The biggest problem in the functioning of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region office itself is bad financial management during previous years and its high indebtedness. Lower collection of taxes caused by increasing unemployment is also having a negative impact on the operation of the office. The actual collection of taxes [ed. note: which is one of the primary sources of income for self-governing regions], is even significantly lower than the original planned budget.
During my first days in office we have identified four basic groups of risk.
The first one is a lack of funds to cover valid obligations. The second group is related to a lack of funds to secure performance of basic functions of the office in maintaining social standards. The sectors of social security, education, transport and culture do not have funds, especially to cover wages and operating costs. Funds in the budget will have to be either increased or some basic functions of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region may need to be limited and some investments related to maintenance and development of infrastructure under the auspices of our office may need to be postponed. A combination of the last two is also possible. The third risk is a lack of money for obligatory co-financing of projects under the National Strategic Reference Framework.
The last, but not least important, risk is ineffective use of funds because of duplication within some projects. On the basis of a deeper analysis we will identify any such projects and secure the active participation of our office in them. Afterwards, we will halt or fundamentally alter any such projects financed doubly from our budget.
TSS: How do you perceive the current extent of decentralisation in Slovakia, along with the current powers and duties of self-governing regions?
VM: Even though as a former mayor I have experience in self-government, my perception of the powers and obligations of the regional self-governments will be more objective once I have served in my current post for more than just a few days.
The powers and responsibilities of the self-governing regions significantly influence the day-to-day lives of citizens in the regions. I see it as important to increase the powers of the offices of self-governing regions to draw EU funds via regional operational programmes so that people who have detailed information about what is happening in a region can directly decide on funds.
Self-governing regions have significant powers in the field of secondary school education by setting the number of classes and authorising and cancelling fields of study. I see huge possibilities in optimising the network of secondary schools with a stress on prospective fields of study linked to the regional labour market’s needs.
We cannot open fields of studies from which graduates, after completing their studies, go directly to unemployment offices.
TSS: Slovakia suffers from regional disparities. Does this problem affect your region? In which areas do you perceive the biggest disparities and what solutions do you propose?
VM: Banská Bystrica Region is the most rural region of Slovakia and simultaneously the region with the biggest regional disparities within it.
We have districts in our region in which unemployment is below 10 percent, for example in
Banská Bystrica and Zvolen, but we also have districts like Rimavská Sobota and Revúca in which it exceeds 30 percent.
More than half of the districts in our region are significantly lagging behind, or even marginalised. This is why it is necessary to come up with new, innovative, regional policies. We have to support the competitiveness of developing areas especially through concentration of support for science, research, innovations and education. Support for their development programmes based on their needs and priorities are the key to higher employment in lagging districts.
So far the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region has not created any special instruments for effective policy for balancing inter-regional disparities. The same support instruments were applied for lagging as well as more developed districts. This has shown itself to be ineffective and inter-regional disparities kept deepening because smaller, less-developed districts were not able to fairly compete in grant competitions with more-developed districts.
Thus, it is necessary to create instruments which will specifically focus support to increase the competitiveness of lagging districts.
1. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Jana Liptáková