The other side of the coin

Federal referendum from 10 February 2019

Supplement to the urban sprawl initiative

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

The initiative was launched because, in the opinion of the initiators, the present Swiss spatial planning was not sufficiently effective (cf. Current Concerns No. 2 from 23 January 2019). Anyone who investigates the matter, however, will come across a centrally controlled settlement policy that has been going on for years and that ploughs up our country in such a way that citizens are inclined to say: Stop! Perhaps you remember the metropolitan spaces, introduced in Berne around the turn of the millennium on the model of the EU. On this basis, the Confederation pursues its costly agglomeration policy, which promotes the regional concentration of commerce and industry in “urban areas” – so to speak the counterpart to the natural parks in “rural areas”, which are also planted from up high. What both have in common is the breaking down of cantonal sovereignty through the creation of “regions” that allegedly are more in tune with the needs of today than the cooperation between the cantons, which is independent of the Confederation. Both are directing spatial policy with the bait of subsidies worth millions in a way that not only serves the much-desired economical use of building land but above all weakens the independent planning of the once sovereign cantons and autonomous communes. It is advisable to consider this other side of the coin before deciding on further steps in settlement policy.
One of the main reasons for Switzerland’s economic success is – in addition to the right of citizens to make democratic decisions – the decentralised structure and the associated flexibility of our economy. Unlike in many other countries, commerce and industry have never been concentrated exclusively in the cities. Textile factories and later on mechanical and electrical engineering companies also settled in many villages in Switzerland from the 19th century onwards. This applies even more to commerce and service companies: 99 per cent of Swiss companies are still small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which operate primarily in the immediate vicinity, anchored in their communes. Not only do they pay their taxes (in addition to payments to the Confederation and the canton) into the communal coffers, but managers and employees are also often active in the associative life and in communal politics. Therefore, the per capita economic performance in urban and rural areas is relatively balanced and the population in urban and rural areas generally meets on an equal footing.

Agglomeration policy: Concentration of the economy in the “urban area”

The current example of “Wil West” makes it clear that it is less and less the cantons and communes that shape building and economic policy today, but newly formed supra-regional organisations that gear their projects primarily to getting hold of the generously flowing federal funds. In the “Regio Wil”, for example, there are representatives from 22 communes in Thurgau and St. Gallen, as well as from the business community, and the branch manager is simultaneously the head of the “Wil West” project. This huge green field area of 158,000 square metres is to be built over from 2023 to 2038 (!) for commercial, industrial and service company use, creating up to 3,000 jobs. The preliminary project work alone amounts to CHF 1.45 million, a separate motorway connection costs CHF 16.3 million. The total infrastructure costs are an estimated 132 million (https://www.wilwest.ch/projekt/daten-fakten/). The main attraction: The federal government is contributing 37 million francs to the Wil agglomeration programme.

Restrictions on communal autonomy and disadvantages for local businesses

“With the realisation of Wil West, the two Cantons of Thurgau and St. Gallen are sending a decisive signal for the long-term economic strengthening and positioning of the entire region. At the same time, the concentration of new settlements and business expansions of existing local companies on a central area will counteract further urban sprawl in the communes.” (https://www.wilwest.ch/wil-west/vorhaben/)
Sounds good to me. A closer look, however, reveals the major disadvantages of such a huge project. First, only 103,000 of the 158,000 square metres of the site are located in the construction zone. The rest would therefore be re-zoned – this is not in the spirit of sustainable spatial planning. Since it is completely open anyway how much a site in Wil West is sought after by resident and new companies, one could actually limit oneself to the already zoned area.
Secondly, the communes in the region that are not directly involved are disadvantaged. Because they have to pay, so to speak, for the creation of new commercial building land in Wil West: For a company anchored in the commune, the canton may not allocate building land under certain circumstances, because the large-scale development swallows up all reserves. This happened in Oberuzwil, where a small business with eight employees had their lease terminated by its owner and therefore looked for another plot of land to build its own factory building. Although the company owner wants to stay in the commune and the local council wants to enable that, there is little hope. Because there are no building land reserves in the commune, and the management of Regio Wil is hardly interested in approving new zoning outside the Wil West site (“Wiler Zeitung” from 22 January 2019). The commune may therefore lose one taxpayer and eight jobs.
Thirdly, centralised planning simply does not fit in with Switzerland’s small-scale, decentralised economy. One cannot recommend the tradesman from Oberuzwil to settle in Wil West. He has built up his regular clientele in the communeand neighbouring places over the years, while he would have to start all over again at another location. Especially from an ecological point of view, it makes most sense if the customers live close to a business – to keep distances short.

Where does the federal government take the 37 million?

For agglomeration projects and nature parks, the Confederation is drawing on resources of the former investment aid fund in a big way. From 1974 to 2008, the Confederation and the cantons provided this fund with regular contributions, so that capital of around CHF 1.5 billion was available.
The fund supported financially weak mountain communes in their expensive infrastructure tasks (e.g. mountain roads, avalanche barriers), but not à fonds perdu, as is customary today. Rather, the communes received long-term (30-year) repayable interest-free loans. Almost all loans were repaid by the communes and could be lent to other communes (totalling 1222!). “It was an example of the federalist subsidiarity and solidarity principle,” wikipedia praises the Federal Law on Investitionshilfe für Berggebiete (IHG) [Investment Aid for Alpine regions] from 21 March 1997 (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarität).
With the coming into effect of the New Regional Policy (NRP) – in the style of EU regional policy – the IHG was repealed with effect of 1 January 2008. The CHF 1.5 billion will only go to regional projects selected by the Federal Administration, such as nature parks and agglomeration programmes. Mountain communes now have to see for themselves how they manage. Many are currently paying back their previous loans, thereby filling the pot of money. In Ticino, Valais, Glarus and Graubünden, entire valleys have merged to form single communes that are no longer anchored in the population as before, but could allegedly be managed “more efficiently”, i.e. more cost-effectively. As it has long turned out, this is not true: Small communes are still the most economical in terms of their budgets. It is bitter that now nature parks and large-scale commercial zones are being allocated the money that was originally intended for the financially particularly strained alpine regions.    •