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How to Use ESPON in INTERREG Projects

The latest ESPON UK Network meeting created new insights into how ESPON and EU territorial co-operation projects can help each other.

The INTERREG programme and ESPON share much common ground and there can be benefits from closer working. There is a common background created by the Lisbon Agenda on competitiveness, the Gothenburg Agenda of environmental sustainability, and the aims of cohesion which seek to reduce regional disparities.

Ian Hill from the INTERREG IVB Contact Point explained the basic features of the programme. INTERREG is about co-operation between partners, and co-operation is one of the three objectives of the Structural Funds, along with competitiveness and cohesion. INTERREG is now into its fourth iteration, and has three strands. INTERREG IVA is about co-operation and harmonisation between partners either side of a common border. INTERREG IVB is for transnational co-operation, which broadly means partners need to be in the same Euro-regions, but not necessarily straddling an international border. Such projects need to focus on issues that go beyond borders but benefit from co-operation by partners from different countries. Finally, IVC is for the exchange of experience across Europe, and so often has partners that between them cover the north, east, south and west.

Eligible Areas

As Ian explained, not all of the UK is eligible for the IVA programme. The focus is restricted to land borders or maritime borders where the divide is less than 150kms. Northern Ireland meets these criteria, but within Great Britain Lancashire and Cumbria and the east coast north of The Wash miss out. For IVB Europe is divided into 13 “zones”, and parts of the UK are in four of these. This opens the way to everyone for co-operation partnerships within “North West Europe”, or (for the east) across the North Sea, or (for the west) with the Atlantic Coast, or (for fewer parts of UK) as part of the “Northern Periphery”.

There are four shared programme priorities in IVB, regardless of the zone, though each of these can be nuanced to take account of local situations. The four are: innovation, environment, accessibility and sustainable communities. Of these, innovation and accessibility figure most strongly in ESPON.

Paula MacLachlan, also from the INTERREG Contact Point for North West Europe, stressed that the INTERREG projects sit between research and mainstream Structural Funds. They encourage innovative actions that are practical in the nature, often taking the form of demonstration or pilot projects. 

Regional Development rather than Spatial Planning

A key point to emerge from discussions was that the focus of INTERREG has shifted over the past decade. In the early days there was a strong inclination towards spatial planning. However, the programme has increasingly come to be a regional development action. This shift is mirrored in the ESPON programme, which is now the European Observation Network on Territorial Development and Cohesion, with the ghost of spatial planning now hidden with the acronym that survived from the original programme that ended in 2006. Similarly, the mission of the 2013 ESPON programme emphasises “territorial capital and potentials for development” and “European competitiveness, territorial cooperation and a sustainable and balanced development”.

Climate Change – a shared concern

One of the highlights of the day was the presentation of work on two projects. Diane Smith from the Town and Country Planning Association spoke about the INTERREG IVC project called GRABS. It is concerned with green and blue infrastructure – open space and water – and adaptation to climate change. There are 14 partners from 8 Member States. A key output is the preparation of an adaptation action plan by each of these partners. To get political commitment to the action plan, they also have to create a “high level policy statement”. The GRABS project is also producing a tool to assess risk and vulnerability.

Professor Simin Davoudi from Newcastle University is part of the ESPON team led by the University of Dortmund that is researching the territorial aspects of Climate Change. The key feature of this work is that it is zooming in on the concept of regional vulnerability. The measurement of vulnerability starts with one of the IPCC’s scenarios, but then takes into account the sensitivity of regions to predicted climate changes but also their adaptive capacity. “We could be looking at the map of Europe in a new way”, said Simin, “Adaptation to climate change will bring a new dimension to Cohesion Policy”.


ESPON produces maps, indicators and scenarios. It researches trends and policy impacts and creates typologies that group together regions with similar characteristics. The discussion in the workshop recognised that local and regional authorities planning to be involved in INTERREG projects could take advantage of this ESPON resource.

One way to use ESPON is in the process of searching for partners. The ESPON data, and especially the typologies, provide a statistical profile of regions at NUTS 3 level. This can be used both for benchmarking against comparable regions, but also to sift the field and find places that offer maximum similarity – or if the need is for contrasts – maximum dissimilarity. Equally importantly, ESPON provides a European context within which INTERREG project proposals should be structured. Concise reference to relevant ESPON data and findings can only enhance the quality of an INTERREG project proposal. Furthermore there was a shared feeling amongst those in the workshop that plans in general should pay more attention to the European dimension.

Bottom-up projects - INTERREG and ESPON’s “Targeted Analysis” projects.

One problem in the ESPON 2006 programme was that it gave little weight to case studies. The imperative that the programme had to grapple with was the very demanding task of beginning to map territorial trends and impacts at a truly European scale. This left little energy for probing local and regional detail. The ESPON 2013 programme recognised the need to build stronger links to regional and local practitioners. A key part of the programme is therefore the “Priority 2” projects, which are created in response to demands submitted by stakeholders for more targeted analysis. A project on potential of rural regions, proposed by the Welsh Assembly Government, North Yorkshire County Council and Dumfries and Galloway is just about to begin. In addition the West Midlands Leaders Board has just succeeded with a proposal for an ESPON project that will look at ways to measure and monitor regional integration strategies.

There is a potential synergy between this research in ESPON and INTERREG projects. Authorities who have been partners in an INTERREG project might look to proposing further research through an ESPON Priority 2 initiative. For example, could ESPON evaluate the impact of an INTERREG project? Similarly, work being done in INTERREG could be a useful basis of evidence for ESPON projects to draw upon, particularly as case studies.

Getting it together in the UK

Building spatial knowledge was a theme of the workshop, and so it was not surprising that final discussions concentrated on how this might be done within the UK. Between ESPON and the INTERREG projects with UK partners there is a formidable amount of information and knowledge. However, the connections that could create a real critical mass have still to be made. Not only would better links help those involved directly in both programmes, but also they could be a way to reach out to others. Can we together make a concerted attempt to focus the learning within ESPON and INTERREG to connect it to key UK themes and concerns, such as place making or climate change, and to English procedures such as the preparation of Integrated Regional Strategies or Local Area Frameworks?

Last but not least, there was a recognition that the hard economic climate makes it essential to get things right. INTERREG projects still require partners to contribute towards the costs. In today’s situation that will not be easy. One idea was that projects might become more strategic and regional in nature, with local delivery partners. With everyone expecting that post-2013 Structural Funds will be harder to come by, getting territorial co-operation right will be of even greater importance to UK local and regional government. The data, indicators, maps and concepts in ESPON – and the policy recommendations from ESPON projects – are a platform that should be built upon.

For more information on the INTERREG programme contact: or

Visit the INTERREG Resources and Discussion Forum for presentations and further information about this meeting which happened on 8 March 2010 in London.

Visit also Cliff Hague's Blog for Narratives of rural change and development in the Baltic Sea Region.

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