Skellefteå heads for a record population increase

Peter Larsson has become a constant presence in the northern counties since he became the government's coordinator for societal transformation. His mission has now been renewed, with a focus on people and housing.
Peter Larsson has become a constant presence in the northern counties since he became the government's coordinator for societal transformation. His mission has now been renewed, with a focus on people and housing.

When Peter Larsson started as government coordinator for the northern Sweden green transition, he remembered Stålverk 80, Sweden's biggest industrial policy disaster of the 1970s, and came across a similar sceptical attitude: "Nothing is ready until everything is ready".

Engelska 8 september 2023 16:45

Now he believes that we've made a population breakthrough in the north and that, in years to come, we'll be able to look back and see when the migration to Norrbotten and Västerbotten really started. 

But there is still a big cloud of worry hanging over the transition - construction companies are in crisis and a stagnation in housing construction would be very dangerous, says Larsson.

There's a new autumn assignment now for Larsson. The focus is now on housing and people, in Larsson's own words. He must "promote sustainable community building that takes into account those who currently live and work in the communities concerned." 

In addition to the goal of reversing migration flows from south to north, which we will return to later in this article, the goal is to build "sustainable" societies.

A concept that is, to say the least, difficult to grasp.

Peter Larsson has become a constant presence in the northern counties since he became the government's coordinator for societal transformation. His mission has now been renewed, with a focus on people and housing.

It encompasses everything from social, economic, and environmental sustainability to construction techniques and material choices. But it also becomes clear that Larsson is currently working with a broad perspective. Especially when it comes to housing.

– At the moment, there are no fool-proof ideas on how to accelerate and maintain housing construction. We have to try everything. We are opening all the old filing cabinets and looking at how things were done before, because this is not the first time we have experienced challenges, says Larsson.

A recent report from Dun & Bradstreet (formerly Bisnode) indicates that 1200-1400 construction companies in Sweden are at risk of bankruptcy in the next 12 months. HSB in Luleå will no longer build in Kronandalen and Serneke is closing its offices in Luleå and Umeå.

– I am very worried, but I try to encourage reflection. This is a real, crucial situation, and the question is how to deal with it in a way that leads to continued production of housing.

If the construction of new homes in so-called expansion municipalities such as Skellefteå, Luleå, Gällivare, Kiruna and Boden were to stop, the consequences could be devastating, says Larsson.

– We have seen these general tendencies before, and in these expansion municipalities they are much more dangerous. Then you can make a socially unsustainable development permanent, for example with temporary housing, as we have partly seen in Kiruna, says Larsson and continues:

– This decline can wipe out a lot of projects and the cost of restarting them will be very high. Those who talk about the need for bridging are right. The difficulty is to find a bridging model that works.

A picture from Kronandalen in 2018 - and one from 2022. A lot has changed in the area over these years. But recently, HSB returned a land allocation agreement for the area.

When he was interviewed in DN this summer, Larsson mentioned government support as an alternative, but he says it is just one stone to look under.

– My starting point, and the guidelines are very clear here, is to propose government intervention. It doesn't say what that should be, and it's a bit tense given the current government. But my challenge is to ask the question: Is it possible to find a solution that can be relevant?

To ensure the government's efforts are focused on the affected municipalities in the region - with a common strategy, regardless of whether it is Skellefteå or Luleå. To build sustainable communities and not permanent camps. 

– You can say that housing is the key. Then we can say that the industrial plants that have been built, or are being built, now have cost so much money that they cannot disappear. There are even expansion plans in the new plants, says Larsson.

He believes that if housing construction does not keep up, the industrial companies will find other ways to staff the facilities.

– And they may do so in ways that do not benefit society as a whole.

Whether this is clairvoyance or humility remains to be seen, but Peter Larsson says that "most wise thoughts have already been thought."

– That's what I mean when I say that if we look in all the archives, the answers are there: then it's just all about packaging. Look at steel manufacturing. Sure, we're trying to go from using from coal to using hydrogen, and that's a big step. But at the same time, the actual process of how to do it has already been invented; it's just a matter of putting it together in a different way.

In the autumn, the first buildings at H2 Green Steel's steelworks in Boden will begin to rise. Temporary contractor accommodations will be built, due to a lack of more permanent solutions.

But a lot of projects in the archives are not relevant. In certain contexts, the Miljon Program (1965-1975) is highlighted as an example of a successful way to build housing in a pressurized situation. But Larsson believes that there is only one relevant factor for comparison with the Miljon program today.

– This reform is not relevant in any way, except for one parallel: once you have a decision and a strategy, you can actually do things. That is where the similarities with the current situation end.

Although Larsson is deeply concerned about the situation in the construction industry, he is optimistic. 

His prediction that the northernmost counties must increase their population by 100,000 risks becoming a figure mocked by posterity. But Larsson is clear that this will not happen overnight, but through steady growth over time.

Attracting 100,000 people to Norrbotten and Västerbotten sounds like a utopian dream. Are you on an impossible mission?

- No, not at all. The population momentum has started to roll.

Larsson points to Skellefteå, where 911 people have registered to move to the municipality in the first half of 2023, which means that 1994's record migration is about to be broken. Of these, 513 people had moved from abroad. Norrbotten also has positive immigration from abroad for the first half of 2023: 182 people to Boden, 57 to Gällivare, 63 to Kiruna and 182 to Luleå.

– If we look back in 10-15 years, we'll see that this is where the momentum really started to pick up speed. 

Near Baldergymnasiet in Skellefteå, new apartment blocks have been constructed.

He also points to Region Norrbotten's initiative to market lifestyle migration as a way to further increase immigration.

– It attracts people who are tired of big cities, dense housing and traffic jams. It's an approach that has great potential and can reach many more people than is currently thought, says Larsson.

But attracting outdoors enthusiasts and nature lovers to the north cannot be the only way to reach 100,000 new people. 

– A combination of channels will be needed, but it is usually said that once the momentum has started, traditionally less mobile Swedes, and there are many of them, will also start to move.

Peter Larsson's brief

The mission aims to promote sustainable community building that resides and operates in the affected municipalities in the north. Peter Larsson is tasked, among other things, to propose state measures to increase housing construction and assist the government in identifying obstacles to community building that need to be addressed urgently.

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