Hrísey Island Receives Development Grant of ISK Ten Million 

Hrísey Island has received a regional development grant of ISK ten million, RÚV reports. The Áfram Hrísey (‘Onwards, Hrísey’) grant is intended to increase available housing and draw new residents to the island.

The island of Hrísey is located 35 km [22 mi] north of Akureyri and although small (approx. 7.67 km2 or 2.96 mi2), is known for its rich bird life. Forty species of birds make their home on Hrísey, with ptarmigans being particularly prolific. It is also home to the largest breeding colony of Arctic terns in Europe.

By comparison, however, only 200 people live on the island, and this is something that the grant seeks to address. “Right now, our most pressing issue is housing,” says resident Ásrún Ýr Gestsdóttir, who has been hired as the grant’s project manager. “We have people who want to move here, but we don’t have housing for them. We have a lot of houses, but almost half of them are empty for most of the month or the year.”

The grant will make it possible to accelerate the process of building new housing and drawing more people to the island full-time. “Up until now, almost everything has been done by volunteers here…we’ve just been doing it whenever possible, sending news to the media while eating dinner. Right now, there’s only one person submitting something for us and contacting the planning department in Akureyri and the town council and people we need to call.”

“We hope that when this project ends in spring 2024, we’ll have seen some progress,” says Ásrún Ýr. “That there will have been some construction and that more people will have moved here with either a permanent presence in our remote work center or even gotten started with something new, new employment opportunities.”

Short-Staffed, Rural Police in Iceland Must Look to Public for Assistance

Staffing shortages in rural police departments in Iceland mean that police often turn to members of the public to assist with law enforcement work and to help in the community. This was among the findings of a recent study conducted by sociologists at the University of Akureyri, RÚV reports.

The article, “Jacks (and Jills) of all trades: the gentle art of policing rural Iceland,” was authored by sociologists Guðmundur Oddson, Andrew Paul Hill, and Thoroddur Bjarnason. The article summarizes the authors’ interviews with twenty-three rural police officers. According to the abstract, the authors found that rural police officers’ daily work life is characterized by “understaffing, overwork, an extensive range of tasks with little to no backup, and a blurring of work-life boundaries.” Based on these interviews, they conclude that “rural police officers must master the art of soft policing, which requires superior communication skills centred on extensive dialogue, negotiation, de-escalation, and minimal use of force to build trust and consensus.”

“The main theme was overload,” remarked Guðmundur, who noted that Iceland employs the second fewest number of police officers per capita in Europe. Due to a lack of human resources and the long distance that would often be required to travel for backup or additional assistance, rural police officers often have to seek assistance from the immediate community. “Asking those present to help direct traffic in the event of a car accident, for example,” he explained. In Iceland, rural police often turn to local Search & Rescue squads for assistance as well.

According to Guðmundur, these findings indicate a clear need for more police officers. In an interview he and coauthor Andrew Paul Hill gave about their findings in October 2021, Hill also highlighted the various differences between rural and urban policing that became evident during the course of their study. “Aside from being under-resourced, rural officers are often deeply embedded in their communities, which presents challenges as well as opportunities,” he said. “Given this, prospective police students must be educated and trained for both rural and urban police work, but, as we all know, most of the police teaching material and methods are based on the latter.”

Hill added that officers new to the profession often lack the professional mentorship that they need to be successful: “Our study also raises the issue of whether students and/or new police officers are prepared enough for rural police work given that the Icelandic police has become more centralized with the merging of police districts and declining staffing levels since 2007, which means that fewer police officers are located in rural and remote areas. This also means that there are fewer potential tutors with extensive rural policing experience for prospective police officers and new officers. Another way to address this issue could be to require prospective and/or new police officers to train and work in both rural and urban areas to better prepare them for the realities of rural policing.”

Decreasing Student Numbers Present Operational Challenges

Borgarfjörður eystri

Many rural schools across Iceland have significantly fewer students than just a couple of decades ago, RÚV reports. Shrinking class sizes are proving a challenge when it comes to providing a well-rounded education and ensuring that students have access to additional services they may require. Smaller class sizes also mean increased costs per student.

Schools across the country have been affected by the general trend of migration to the capital area for jobs and services. In many primary schools outside the Reykjavík capital area, student numbers have decreased by as much as 50%. In Hólmavík, Westfjords; Vík í Mýrdal, South Iceland; Fjallabyggð, East Iceland; and Hornarfjörður, South Iceland, there are around 40-50% fewer students than at the turn of the century. In Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords, student numbers have reduced by one third.

“If we go back to 1996, there were nearly 200 municipalities and a large number of small schools. Since then, the number of municipalities has decreased to 72,” stated Svandís Ingimundardóttir, Educational Matters Representative of the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities. There are a few rural municipalities, such as Reykjanesbær, which have grown, and where the number of students have increased, “but we know that schools have closed due to a lack of students, and last winter was the first year there was no instruction at Finnbogastaðaskóli in Árneshreppur á Ströndum because there was only one student left.”

School is not just classes

Many schools that do manage to stay open find themselves with very few students. According to data from the 2017-2018 school year, 11 schools in the country had fewer than 20 pupils. “School is more than just teaching and conversation between students and teachers,” Svandís asserted. “There is so, so much more involved in education. Just this social interaction and development which the students gets through communication with their peers.”

Besides an impoverished social environment, too few students can made it difficult to provide a well-rounded education. “Students should be offered various electives when they reach the middle school level and if there are one, two, three students then there is hardly much choice,” Svandís explains. “The students’ rights when it comes to various aspects of their education[…]diminishes with a small population.”

Services not up to standards

Icelandic regulations state that students should have access to services and professional assistance no matter where in the country they live, but the reality is often different. “For example, you don’t have access to a speech therapist weekly like you do in the capital area,” Svandís pointed out. “And that’s of course a big question that parents have to ask themselves when choosing a place of residence.” Svandís concludes, however, that the Association of Local Authorities is not worried about the development, which is simple a worldwide trend that can be addressed with systemic changes. In East Iceland, for example, improved road infrastructure has made travel between towns easier and faster.

Calls for Stricter Regulations On Foreign Land Ownership

An increased number of wealthy foreign entities making large purchases of rural land in Iceland has prompted significant bipartisan concern, Kjarninn reports. Iceland’s Minister of Transport and Local Government hopes that a bill putting restrictions on the foreign purchase of Icelandic land will be ready for parliamentary review by the fall.

Foreign entities buying up properties in rural areas

Earlier this week, Morgunblaðið reported that Fljótabakki ehf., an Icelandic subsidiary of an American travel company called Eleven Experience, had purchased Atlastaðir, a farm in Svarfaðardalur valley in North Iceland, just 20 km [12 mi] from the village of Dalvík. Eleven Experience already owns and maintains the luxury hotel and spa called Deplar Farm in Skagafjörður fjord.

Fljótabakki’s land purchase this week is just the latest in a series of buys that the company has made around Fljót, which is located on the eastern side of Skagafjörður. Just last fall, the company purchased the farm Hraun, with the intention of setting up a tourism company there. Prior to that, the company purchased Nefstaðir, on the shore of Lake Stífluvatn, and it also owns the nearby properties of Knappsstaður, Steinavellir, and Stóra-Brekka.

Fljótabakki’s steady acquisition of the property in a remote area is not unprecedented; this week it was also reported that Sólstafir, a company owned by British millionaire Jim Ratcliffe, recently purchased Brúarland 2 in Þistilfjörður fjord in Northeast Iceland. With this purchase, Ratcliffe’s company now owns the majority of fishing rights along the Hafralónsá River, a popular salmon fishing river. Sólstafir had previously purchased other properties in Þistilfjörður, as well as in Vopnafjörður.

‘Significant and broad political will to put in place a stricter framework’

Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson says that these developments are completely unacceptable and that restrictions that were in place concerning land purchase in Iceland were removed in the course of changes that were made to the law fifteen years ago. He says that the Icelandic government has been looking at provisions that have been put in place in both Denmark and Norway in order to regulate foreign land purchases.

A working group was appointed in September 2018 to review laws about foreign ownership of agricultural properties in Iceland. The group suggested, among other things, that conditions be imposed on the purchasers, such as requiring that they maintain a legal residence at the property. Sigurður Ingi says that the government is currently working to put many of the working group’s recommendations in place, but that there are a number of stumbling blocks that are keeping from doing so, not least in other government ministries. He says, however, that he hopes the bill on land purchasing will be ready in the early fall.

“…[T]he changes that were made around…2003 and 2004 took down all the normal fences when it comes to these things and that has to change,” he told Morgunblaðið. “It’s my opinion that we need to go as far as we can with this.”

In an interview on national radio, Prime minister Katrín Jakóbsdóttir voiced her support for the initiative. “I believe there is a significant and broad political will to put in place a stricter framework around this issue in Iceland, just as we’ve seen throughout our neighbouring countries.”

Read more about this issue here – In Focus: Whose Land is it Anyway

Hrísey Optimistic About Development Initiative

Inhabitants of the island of Hrísey are more optimistic about the ongoing ‘Fragile Communities’ initiative in which their community is participating, RÚV reports. The regional development project began on Hrísey 2015 and will end in December 2019; it’s anticipated that it will invest more in marketing initiatives for the island this year.

A project of the Icelandic Regional Development Institute, the Fragile Communities project (link in English) was founded in 2012 with the intention of collaborating with rural communities to address and counteract issues that have contributed to their decline, such as a lack of diversity in the local economy, changes to fisheries access, a decline in farming, seasonal tourism, a “negative spiral” in services, and lagging infrastructural development. Raufarhöfn in Northeast Iceland was the first community to participate in the initiative, which it did from 2012 – 2017. Since then, eight other communities have joined the project.

Hrísey is a small island (7.67 km2 / 2.96 m2) located in Eyjafjörður fjord, located 30 kilometres north of Akureyri and a fifteen-minute ferry ride from the village of Ásskógssandur. As of January 2018, 151 people lived on the island.

When Hrísey joined the project, its stated goal was the establishment of an “inviting and accessible island community, [with] a diverse economy and strong infrastructure.” However, many residents have felt that the Fragile Communities project was yielding few results in its initial years and, in 2017, criticized its implementation. Since then, however, many of the community’s smaller goals have been accomplished says Helga Íris Ingólfsdóttir, the Fragile Communities project manager for both Hrísey and Grímsey island. A new salt production facility was established on Hrísey, for example, as was a guest house and restaurant. An egg production plant, with facilities for 1,500 hens, will also soon open, thanks to funding from a Fragile Community grant. All combined, this has led to a perceptible change of attitude in the community. “I felt like there was more optimism than there’s been before,” Helga said. “People have more of an interest in taking a different approach to the debate.”

Helga said that expectations run high for government-funded initiatives, but that resources are nevertheless limited. “There’s just a few million krónur [ISK 1 million is equal to $8,315/€7,267] that we receive to distribute in grants,” she explained. “So this is more about showing solidarity and the desires of the inhabitants and their vision for the future, rather than there ever being some sort of direct, external assistance.”

This year, the project will be investing in marketing Hrísey. The goal is to attract more tourists to the island and appeal to investors who might be interested exploiting the island’s unique qualities and establishing new business opportunities there.

“Now there’s more experience behind the project, and there’s optimism that this will return real results,” said Halla Björk Reynisdóttir, president of the municipal council.