Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Study visit of the leadership of NSORB to the Kingdom of Norway

The mayors of 19 Bulgarian municipalities visited the Kingdom of Norway in the period June 20-24, 2022. The visit is for the exchange of experience and expertise and is organized within the framework of the "Growth through activation of local potential - GALOP" project.

The visit began with a meeting in the small municipality of Lerdal, located in western Norway. The mayor of the municipality, Mr. Odun Mo, introduced the delegation of Bulgarian mayors to the challenges facing the Norwegian municipality from the recent past, which led to taking concrete steps to develop the local potential.

As a result of various factors - the financial and economic crisis, closure of a number of companies and enterprises, and accordingly jobs, as well as the subsequent migration of young people to larger urban centers, the municipality is placed in a situation to apply for help from the state .

In Norway, all municipalities with problems can apply for these extraordinary funds, and the decisions to allocate the funds are decided jointly by the state and the district where the municipality is located.

The approved support is for the period 2012-2018 in the amount of about BGN 5,5 million. The mayor of the municipality said that this is "a lot of money for a small municipality" and that it has been fully utilized.

With the provided funds, a strategy was created to attract young people, increase the number of tourists who spend the night in the municipality, as well as an investment in building the local enterprise Sogn Frukt og Grønt AS. It aims to support local farmers who, through their voluntary cooperative, have the opportunity to provide their produce to the company. In turn, the company sorts, packs and ensures distribution in other regions of the country. The company is one of the largest in this sector in western Norway. In this enterprise, the municipality has a stake, receiving income in the form of turnover tax.

Although the expected major development after the program did not happen, the mayor stated that it was successful: "It is difficult to undertake and implement business development and change, financial resources are not the only factor for success, but also the ability to we cooperate'. He added that new local businesses and jobs are currently being created. The mayor shared that, apart from the negatives, the covid pandemic has brought many local tourists to the area, thus supporting businesses in the municipality. Among the main challenges is, of course, the lack of skilled workers

In the presentation of the Chief Executive Officer of the municipality, the main structure and responsibilities at the municipal level were presented. Among the highlights was the joint cooperation between 7 neighboring municipalities, including common utilities and other services.

The revenues of the municipality for 2021 are in the amount of BGN 60 million. They are higher than those for other similar municipalities, mainly because of hydroelectricity production. Of course, state transfers have the largest share, followed by tax revenues. About 75% of all municipalities in Norway have introduced property taxation. In contrast, Lerdal do not tax individuals, only businesses.

Within the framework of the visit, the mayors also visited the enterprise Sogn Frukt og Grønt AS, as well as the renovated old historic center of the village, where 161 wooden houses have been restored, as well as small local businesses have been created, mainly oriented towards the circular economy and offering repaired or restored goods. as well as local products.  

The main focus of the program in Aurland was the development of tourism in territories on the UNESCO list. The mayor of the municipality Trugve Skerdal introduced the Bulgarian delegation of local authorities to the activities of the municipality he leads, a large part of whose territory is on the list of cultural and historical heritage of UNESCO.

The economy of the municipality is highly dependent on tourism, developed in the area of ​​one of the most beautiful fjords in Norway, as well as agriculture - mainly small farms producing meat and dairy products.

The problems that the mayor shared are the high unemployment, which has worsened especially during the pandemic period (20-30% in the winter periods). A problem also caused by the fact that the majority of those employed in the tourism sector are foreigners.

Among other challenges are: the lack of qualified personnel, road and transport infrastructure, the goals for zero emissions of harmful gases by 2026.

Trugve Skerdal pointed out that there is no high school on the territory of the municipality, which forces students to travel about 2 hours in one direction. To ease this process, transport is provided, but many of them have chosen to live in accommodation in the neighboring municipality. The lack of a hospital is also a problem, the nearest one is in Lerdal, about an hour and a half away by car.

In response to a question from the Bulgarian delegation, Mayor Skerdal spoke about the latest reform of local self-government, which entered into force in 2020. After a referendum among the citizens, it was decided that the municipality of Aurland would remain independent. At the moment, several municipalities in western Norway are reconsidering their split, including the Vestland district, which is made up of 2 of the old districts.

As one of the main priorities of the municipality, the efforts to optimize the tourist passenger flow, which are severely limited by the natural mountainous relief and the inclusion of large parts of the territory of the municipality in the UNESCO list, were indicated.

During the meeting with the representative of Norway Best - a company that manages an online platform for tourist and accompanying services offered in the municipality, it was shared about its development and future plans. The platform was established in 2014, with a focus on overnight package services, with a focus on local products.

The company has existed since 1997 under the name Aurland Resource Development. It was created at the mayor's suggestion to preserve the local railway in Fløm.

Today, the company operates and offers boat trips on the fjord and the railway, and they are about to develop a local ski resort. Local tour operators and attraction companies can also use the site to advertise their products by paying a commission to the company. The company is a joint-stock company, with the municipality owning 33% and receiving dividends.

Regarding the port and the goal of zero emissions by 2026, the delegation was informed that large cruise ships will stop calling at Flom. They will stop at other ports and it will be possible for tourists to take ecological transport to Flom.

The cruise ships operated by the company are electric, as is the railway, and next year electric buses will be delivered to transport tourists. On an annual basis, the railway benefits from 1 million passengers, and 450 passengers arrive by ship, of which 250 are by coach, the rest for transport between towns. 95% of all tourists are foreigners.

It was also shared with the delegation that there are many campsites, guest houses and smaller hotels, but the bed base is insufficient to accommodate the entire tourist flow. The crowding of all the tourists, mainly in the summer months, is also a problem. the company's business plan includes the construction of a new hotel next to the existing one in Fløm, which will have a completely ecological design and features.

Within the framework of the visit, the Bulgarian local authorities also met with the mayor of Oslo, Mrs. Marijane Borgen. in her presentation to the leadership of NSORB, she emphasized that people are both a resource and wealth "Oslo is a city where we don't divide people", she added. The population of the city is about 700 thousand people, and with the surrounding municipalities it reaches 1,5 million, and the linguistic diversity is impressive. In this regard, the municipality works purposefully for the learning of Norwegian by foreigners residing long-term on its territory. She emphasized that a place in a kindergarten is provided for all children aged 1 year and up to preschool age. Only 2 or 3% of children do not attend municipal kindergartens. In addition, the education system is designed to give parents peace of mind that their children will be taken care of while they are at work. Schools start around 8, and after regular classes they have a study room until 3 or 4.

Mayor Borgen emphasized that another top priority for Oslo is to be the first emission-free capital by 2030.

The mayors were familiar with the structure and responsibilities of Oslo, which has a special status as both a municipality and a district, and accordingly its duties are much greater.

At the moment, the municipality provides work for 50 in its structures, including staff in kindergartens, health workers in outpatient care, etc. On this occasion, Oslo is one of the largest employers in the country

When asked about public transport in Oslo, it was stated that it is a company jointly owned between two districts of Oslo and Viken. The state's contribution to public transport is the construction of the infrastructure. For this purpose, negotiations are underway, and the current agreement, called Package 3, places the main responsibilities for the development of transport at the municipal and national level. It was stated that during the pandemic the state has financially supported public transport. Regarding the street network and its maintenance, it was clarified that this is within the competences of the municipal level.

In absolute terms, Oslo's budget for the year is NOK 85 billion, of which NOK 66 billion is for operational activities. As part of the presentation of the structure, the mayors were introduced to the so-called a parliamentary system introduced as early as 1986 and a decentralized system and the division of Oslo into districts since 1988. These districts also have budgets, but distributed by the larger municipality.

The management of Oslo in the form of a Municipal (City) Council is represented by 59 councillors, and the total number of employees in the Municipal Council is about 600 people.

On the topic of the Oslo Climate Strategy, the representative of the Climate Agency Odun Garberg pointed out the following main highlights:

The strategy was adopted in May 2020 and has 16 priority areas. Its main goals are to reduce harmful emissions by 52% by 2023 and by 95% by 2030.

As part of the strategy, measures aimed at preparing the population for the upcoming changes and switching to clean energy sources, as well as reducing harmful emissions to a minimum, are foreseen. It is interesting that in order to reduce harmful emissions, the municipality encourages the purchase of products produced in other areas, which reduces pollution from production. Also, overall energy consumption is expected to be reduced by 10% compared to 2009.

Regarding the main challenges and sources of pollution, 3 main sectors responsible for 90% of emissions were noted: transport (52%); waste with 25% (collection and processing) and construction with 12%. It is interesting that from 2020 the population of Oslo cannot use oil for heating, and this ban was preceded by a period of reconstruction of their heating systems.

From 2026, capture of CO2 from waste incineration will begin (energy from incinerators is used for heating). The project includes the construction of a facility to capture about 400 tons of carbon dioxide per year. In the pilot project conducted, the results show a capture of 000-90% in 95 hours

9 billion Norwegian kroner is needed for the construction of the facility, which is for construction and administration. 1/3 of the financing is from the state, and the rest is financed by the municipality through municipal enterprises and several private companies. The project starts implementation in a week, and the construction itself this fall. After commissioning, the facility is expected to produce about 1.8 terawatts of heat per year.

On the topic of waste, the mayors inquired about the regulations regarding their disposal in Norway, and it was specified that waste is burned in Norway and the storage of organic waste is prohibited. There is an exception only for certain products, such as construction waste, which cannot be burned and stored accordingly.

Regarding the mobility sector, the Bulgarian delegation was informed about Oslo's zero-emission transport policy. The goals are to switch to all-electric or zero-emission vehicles, encourage cycling and walking, and remove polluting heavy-duty transport from the city. In this regard, from next year, 99% of the buses will be electric.

With regard to the structure and construction of the transport network, it was shared that in the central part of the city the municipality itself carries out the construction and other related activities, while for the network in bordering municipalities and districts they work together in cooperation.

The toll ring system in Oslo was also briefly presented, the main purpose of which is to reduce harmful emissions from vehicles. Entry into the city is paid by everyone with internal combustion engines, and recently also by electric cars, but at a reduced rate. The toll system is a serious challenge for the reorganization of the business using heavy goods vehicles. At the same time, those companies that have invested in new emission-free vehicles do not pay a fee until 2027. The funds collected from these fees are invested in the purchase of environmentally friendly vehicles for public transport, the construction of bicycle and pedestrian paths, fuel stations and others.

In order to achieve zero emission targets, tax regulations at the national level also provide some relief, such as electric and zero-emission car users do not pay some fees and taxes, they also enjoy a parking discount, and are allowed to use the bus lane at a minimum of 2 the passenger.

In addition to public transport, by November 2024 all taxis should also become electric.

Similar measures have been taken for water transport (boats, ferries and ships), with 4 of the municipality's ferries being electric with a capacity for 350 passengers, and there are also inter-municipal ferries with a larger capacity.

Since 2016, Oslo has started the phased implementation of strict requirements for zero-emission construction, initially for the public sector. It uses a technique powered by clean energy sources that is silent, also materials that do not pollute, etc.

This has also led to greater satisfaction among workers in terms of working conditions. From 2023, private constructions should also become emission-free.

The topic of responsibilities, challenges and opportunities for local authorities in Norway was also discussed in detail with the chairperson of the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KoS), Ms. Gun Marit Helgesen.