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The future of Europe [ESPON]

28 October 2014

The UK’s future within – or outside – the European Union is increasingly at the centre of political debate in the UK in the run-up to next year’s general election. This national debate, often framed in terms of our assumptions of difference with ‘Europe’ (as if the UK is not part of it), can distract us from similar debates going on across Europe about which Europe represents the future.

Consider many of the policy debates going on in the UK – regarding spatial economic imbalances, how to support growth particularly in major cities and city-regions (including issues of governance and the devolution of power and resources to cities), investment in transport infrastructure and which areas tend to benefit most, how to respond to rising inequalities and poverty in some regions, and whether the state can correct or ameliorate these disparities and how. One way of characterising the underlying question to all these debates is: where do we invest?

The same debates are going on in Europe, including around the strategy and vision of the European Union as a whole.  In Europe, these debates are framed in terms of ‘territorial cohesion’ – which may sound like a ‘foreign’ concept to some British ears, but as so often with regards to Europe, it is language which divides us. The challenge is not of course the most developed parts of Europe – for instance the so-called ‘blue banana’, which stretches from North West England to Northern Italy with high concentrations of people, money and industry – but the less developed regions and the growing regional disparities between regions. The map below, showing the size and distribution of Europe’s cities, illustrates that the ‘blue banana’ pattern appears in many data sets.    

 ESPOn size and distribution of cities

An alternative spatial vision for Europe to the ‘blue banana’ (which portrays Europe as having a core and periphery) is the ‘bunch of grapes’ – which reflects a more open, diversified and polycentric Europe based on the promotion of secondary cities and city-regions, more decentralised, with strong networks, and support to less developed regions. These concepts were developed in the European Spatial Development Perspective.

As a result of the financial crisis, in the context of continued austerity and slow growth in Europe, the less developed regions of Europe may be facing two ‘lost decades’ of progress in convergence, as a result of the financial crisis. In light of these issues, this sharpens the question : do we invest in the already successful metropolitan regions,  or in the least developed regions? This approach should be sensitive to macro-economic conditions, but also informed by a place-based approach (as outlined in the Barca report) and multi-level governance – again, echoing the debates going on in the UK.

A couple of weeks ago I participated in the final meeting of the cross-European spatial research programme called ESPON (the European Observation Network, Territorial Development and Cohesion), which reflected on the past six years of the programme (from 2008 to this year) and what has been learnt. In terms of the main programme alone, there have been 25 projects generating 31,000 pages of research, from 181 research partners, including 191 case studies covering 27 countries, providing an unprecedented wealth of evidence about Europe across a huge number of issues and dimensions. This has now been handily captured in one document, the Third ESPON ‘synthesis’ report.

The report presents new insights from a diversity of ESPON projects, including that:

  • Europe’s global transport connections are still territorially concentrated;
  • Europe benefits from a polycentric network of global cities, and second tier cities play an important role in making Europe more polycentric. From 2000 to 2001 capitals accounted for 30.2% of GDP growth, and second tier cities made an equal contribution of 29.9%; and investing in R&D activities in some leading second tier cities can produce higher returns than similar investments in capital cities.
  • The economic crisis stalled developments towards more cohesion in Europe; by 2009 the uneven territorial effects of the economic crisis were apparent across most of Europe, as the map below shows.

 ESPON employment resilience

The report argues that policies today need to include a larger territorial perspective as investment and growth often is depending on opportunities in territories, regions and cities beyond the boundaries of administrations. Considering the functional region, cross-border, European or even worldwide perspective is becoming an essential component for successful policy-making and themanagement of change.

Our own work in ESPON has been as the UK’s ‘contact point’, USESPON, and ESPON On The Road projects.

We have learnt that we can sell cross-European research (or ‘capitalise’ it, in EU terminology), but we need to understand the operational world of policy-makers and decision-makers – the immediate challenges and concerns facing them, and relate research findings to them, including their national or local context. However, the general sense is that, in the context of the economic crisis and its (ongoing) aftermath, policy-makers are increasingly ‘territorially blind’, at both EU and national level. The ESPON evidence is not used as much as it might at the European Commission policy-making level and this has been hindered further by the retrenchment and tensions induced by the economic crisis. Policy-makers need for a vision for the territorial development and cohesion of Europe, and as the next ESPON programme, ESPON 2020, is being developed, the primary challenge, in the UK as in Europe, is getting policy-makers to think more territorially – or as we might say in the UK, getting them to think more spatially.

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.