Thursday, 09 April 2015 13:10

ESPON and the EU's Territorial Agenda

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What the Territorial Agenda says

The TA has no maps. Rather it is a set of general exhortations about territorial development challenges and principles, which will be familiar to those who have followed EU territorial policy making in recent years. There is growing integration of regions within Europe, but they face problems from climate change and demographic change, energy insecurity and loss of biodiversity and cultural heritage. What is new is the impacts of the economic crisis and the EU’s adoption of territorial cohesion as an aim in the Lisbon Treaties.

So what does the TA prescribe? It repeats the mantra that goes back over a decade now to the European Spatial Development Perspective about the need for polycentric and balanced development.  “Integrated development” is recommended in cities and rural areas and regions with special characters such as mountainous area (did anyone ever favour “disintegrated development?”). Similarly territorial integration is favoured in cross-border regions and for functional and transnational mega-regions, such as that drained by the Danube. Competitiveness and connectivity are also endorsed as is the protection and enhancement of cultural and natural heritage.

Better co-ordination is the potion prescribed to turn these wishes into reality. This includes “the use of territorial approaches in planning”. None of this may sound startling or particularly exciting. The pace of progress in today’s EU is slow, as a lowest common denominator has to be sought amongst so many states, many of whom are cool towards planning that they associate with excessive regulation blocking the growth that is so desired, but so elusive. However, the TA also makes some more adventurous suggestions that might yet have longer term importance.

Embedding a territorial mindset

The TA directly addresses the future post-2013 Cohesion Policy and also Rural Development Policy of the EU, calling for a deepening of the territorial dimension. “The existing assessment, monitoring and evaluation practices and requirements of the EU, including those for Structural and Cohesion Funds and implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy, should incorporate relevant territorial considerations” (paragraph 49). Also it asks the European Commission to take territorial impacts into the impact assessment procedures that already exist.

If action is taken on these points it will be a significant step forward, recognising that place matters and that policies that are conceived without any reference to how they may affect different places in different ways need some kind of spatial audit. To take just one example in England: what will be the territorial impact of the shifts in higher education policy towards higher fees  and withdrawal of teaching grant for all courses that are not in science and technology? Presuming that the policy makes an arts or social science course less attractive, which are the universities that are most dependent on such courses and what is their role in their regional economy? If Member States did indeed follow the beckoning of the TA to “integrate the principles of territorial cohesion into their own national sectoral and integrated development policies and spatial planning mechanisms” (paragraph 59), then presumably we’d need answers to such questions.


One way to get such answers might be through the European Observation Network for Territorial development and Cohesion – ESPON. The first day of the ESPON seminar at Godollo saw researchers and policy makers warming up to begin to confront such questions, with an eye firmly fixed on the prospects of a new ESPON programme coming into being after the current one ends in 2013. It looks like the demand will be for a strengthening of capacity to do quick research to briefs set by practitioners, while also sustaining more fundamental and long term research on European regional development trends and options. Above all, the aim will be to enhance the capacity of cities and regions as policy makers and implementers. Just what that might mean is something I will explore tomorrow after the seminar ends.


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