Cultural similarities made Berkshire a good choice for a British partner (Krakow also has royal links and it, too, stands on the region's main river, the Vistula). Since 1991, when Berkshire signed its accord with the Krakow region, Berkshire County Council has successfully applied for two projects under the Know How Fund to help develop Krakow's libraries and tourism. It is awaiting a decision on a third application for a business advisory project.
The Government established the first Know How Fund in June 1989, with pounds 25m for assistance to Poland. Now there are funds to most of the countries of central and eastern Europe. Their overall objective is to help these countries move towards democracy and a free-market economy by providing advice and expertise.
Berkshire's projects come under the Technical Twinning Scheme, a section of the fund set up in 1991 and administered by the Local Government International Bureau to support technical projects between British local authorities and twinned authorities in central and eastern Europe. Its particular aims are 'to help resolve technical difficulties, to increase local capacity to deal with problems, and to increase the knowledge of local government councillors'. Its yearly budget for 1993-4 is pounds 700,000, a small proportion of the total Know How Fund of over pounds 54m.
'The reason for setting money aside for local authorities is because they have an expertise which no other institution in this country has - expertise that is greatly needed in central and eastern Europe,' said James Beadle of the administering bureau.
A wide variety of projects are accepted: often they have a business emphasis, such as helping to set up a business resource centre in the partner area, which Clwyd is doing in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Other projects focus on improvement or reorganisation of public services; Kent, for example, is to help set up a waste management scheme in the Bacs Kiskun region in Hungary, and Nottinghamshire is to help improve fire and rescue services in the Kolin district of the Czech Republic.
Berkshire's projects on libraries and tourism both come under John Hicks, head of cultural services for Berkshire County Council. Exchange visits by librarians began in May. 'We are able to give them access to the technology they have missed out on. They know they must take a great leap if they are going to develop their services in the way we have,' said Mr Hicks. 'We brought them a CD-ROM player for their library services because they have no facilities for looking at bibliography other than in hard text . . . we have also taken them copies of the British National Bibliography on CD- ROM and brought their staff here for database training.'
Maria Garczynska, head of information in Krakow's bibliographic department, said she was stunned when she visited Berkskire. She added: 'It is difficult, especially regarding computer equipment, because we can't afford to buy what they have in Berkshire. But it's useful to have the experience - to see how they organise their lending, and what they do for handicapped people.'
In the planning stages of a project, often it is not just the language but also conceptual differences which have to be addressed, as John Hicks has found. 'You suddenly realise they have interpreted an idea differently, that their cultural background gives them a different viewpoint.' For example, many libraries in Krakow follow a 'closed access' system: a member of the public requests a book from a librarian, who then gets it and brings it out to the reading room. 'When we were talking about reference facilities, they imagined we were talking about closed access,' said Mr Hicks.
'When we took them to see a public reference library collection in Reading, they were horrified. They had been planning their systems along the lines we had been discussing, and they suddenly realised this meant allowing the public to wander up to the shelves.'
The tourism project is still in an early stage: preliminary visits have taken place; further discussions are planned for next month. Berkshire has valuable experience to offer in moving visitors round busy centres such as Windsor, and in marketing. It also has Beautiful Berkshire, a consortium that markets about 120 tourist attractions, hotels and conference venues in co-operation with the county council's tourism department. The idea of the local authority in such a supporting or enabling role is hard for Krakow officials to grasp after years of experience of a local authority in absolute control.
Mai Brightwell, the county tourism officer in charge of Beautiful Berkshire, visited Krakow in July: 'It's a beautiful city with a lot of culture - castles, palaces and exhibits in beautiful settings. You could quite happily stay there for three or four days . . . The disadvantage is that there are very few flights going in and they would have to address that if they want to compete with other short breaks in Europe.'
While foreign tourists in Krakow are nowhere near as numerous as in Prague, it has always been a popular place for Polish visitors. Principal sites such as Wawel Castle and the cathedral are already crowded. There are also magnificent caverns in the nearby Wielicka salt mines, reached by travelling down a miners' lift in total darkness. But at the end of the tour there is only a tiny kiosk selling souvenirs. 'If they want large numbers of tourists, they haven't really got the infrastructure in place,' said Mr Hicks.
There is a strong desire to learn from the West, and to close the gaps left by the years of separation under communist rule. Krakow is firmly at the centre in leading Western culture to the east. And the benefits are not one way, Mr Hicks said: 'What we get out of it is a real understanding of the advantages we have at home. My staff come back saying that it has changed their whole approach. Undoubtedly, we've got problems here. But just seeing how the Poles have managed - it changes everything.'
Inquiries about the Technical Twinning Scheme should be made to: James Beadle, Local Government International Bureau, 35 Great Smith Street, London SWIP 3BJ, tel: 071 222 1536, fax: 071 233 2179
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