Thursday, 09 April 2015 11:32

Cross-border development - Learning from Newry-Dundalk

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Why borders have been barriers to development

The enlargements of the EU during the past decade greatly increased the number and length of internal international borders. The significance of this was not fully grasped in the UK, where the only land border is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  On the continent, cross-border co-operation has been recognised as a potential driver for economic development, and the source of new dynamism for regional development and spatial planning. The Association of European Border Regions, founded in 1971, has become a powerful lobby in Brussels. Border regions are strongly supported through Structural Funds and listed in the Lisbon Reform Treaty as a potential focus for actions to achieve territorial cohesion.

Economic geographers have long recognised the disadvantages faced by settlements close to a border. The catchments for trade and labour are truncated.  If the border is unstable and contested (as many European borders were) there were extra risks that discouraged investment. It was necessary to duplicate services and institutions either side of the fence. Railways did not match up. A couple of years ago I travelled from Ljubljana to Nova Gorica, then got a taxi to Gorizia Centrale on the Italian side. Gorizia had been allocated to Italy in 1947, though 20% of the regional population was put on the Yugoslav side of the border. In such situations the economic benefits of the Euro and the Schengen Agreement are easy to grasp.

Each border is different, in terms of its physical characteristics, development differences, cultural contrasts, fiscal regimes etc. It is perhaps where there are cities – on one or both sides – that the greatest economic benefits can be realised. Research in the ESPON programme has revealed that 23% of the cities in the 31 ESPON countries have the potential to grow cross-border metropolitan regions by linking up with neighbours across the border. These cities are mainly located along borders stretching from the Benelux countries to Northern Italy, and along the borders between Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

Cross-border working in Ireland

Last week I was at a landmark event. At a hotel on the edge of Dundalk, the Newry and Mourne District Council (from north of the border) and the Louth Local Authorities (from the Republic) signed a memorandum of understanding. It commits them to cross-border co-operation. They have set up a Strategic Alliance, which aims to:

  • Promote social, cultural and economic links and attract inward investment;
  • Share services and co-ordinate management of key resources;
  • Together build an outward-looking focus.

Key areas for co-operation were identified: emergency planning, renewable energy and green technology, tourism and recreation and sustainable economic growth and job creation. There is to be a Joint Committee of elected members and a Joint Senior Management Group, as well as an Advisory Forum (on which business and the voluntary sector will be represented) along with Project Teams.

Pat Cox, President of the European Movement International and a former President of the European Parliament, summed up the thinking behind the initiative. “We have a deep pride in, and sense of, place, but nobody owes us a living. We need to build communities hat are animated and do things together. That’s indispensible in a globalised economy, and why this path-breaking exercise is welcome. You now have an instrument: make the most of it.”    

The idea of a Newry-Dundalk Twin City Region has been promoted by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development. Colin Buchanan, Raymond Burke Consulting and Urban Institute Ireland produced a study in 2006.  In isolation neither Newry nor Dundalk is largest enough to really be competitive, but they are only 14 miles apart. The ICLRD argued that “Critical mass and good positioning within the all-island network are of paramount importance …To attract international and domestic investment and for the provision of public services and transport links, scale and connectivity are fundamental.”

There has been considerable alignment in strategic spatial planning between Ireland’s National Spatial Strategy and the Regional Development Strategy of Northern Ireland. Both have sustainable development at their core and use the same concepts. For more discussion on this see my report on the ESPON UK web site. Newry-Dundalk is part of the Belfast-Dublin corridor, while in the north-west there are also developing links between Derry and Letterkenny.  

Ideas into practice

Planning and economic development in England are understandably absorbed by the UK government’s abolition of regional strategies and Regional Development Agencies and the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships. Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, some of the cutting edge concepts from European research on territorial development are being put into practice. These include:

  • Multi-level governance – connecting EU, cross-border, national and local actions through a flexible range of initiatives linked through loose strategies and visions, and mixing endogenous and exogenous initiatives;
  • Co-operation in functional regions to achieve agglomeration economies and economies of scale in terms of service provision;
  • Strength in diversity – seeing differences as an asset.

In tune with the ideas of “place-based development” set out in the Barca Report, there is a strong emphasis on bottom-up action and ownership. Barca said “it is up to the top levels of government to set general goals and performance standards and to establish and enforce the ‘rules of the game’. It is up to the lower levels to have ‘the freedom to advance the ends as they see fit’”.  This chimes with the ideas behind localism. Greg Clark, England’s Minister for Decentralisation and Planning, has said that he wants to revive planning, as a plan-making process, concerned with anticipating future needs and demands. A look at what is happening elsewhere in Europe, and in particular across the Irish Sea, could help put these ideas into practice.

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