ESPON and The EU’s Territorial Agenda


What can local and regional authorities do to speed economic recovery? What kind of actions are needed to make the pattern of development more sustainable? How can we make places more inclusive?  The Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 (TA), agreed by the Ministers responsible for spatial planning last month, aspires to point the path “Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions”.  Now I am at the ESPON meeting in the Royal Palace at Godollo, Hungary that seeks to explore what knowledge is needed to take the TA forward and to inform the EU’s Cohesion Policy after 2013.

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.

  • Thanks for a thoughtful post on the Territorial Agenda, Cliff. It is, of course, a document agreed by Ministers from across the EU and, as such, is inevitably the product of a process of debate and negotiation. It would be an interesting thing to see how the TA is implemented, not just in Member States, but through the taking forward of joint actions. To me the need for a plan or framework to implement the TA is quite clear. Similarly, the need for ESPON research on appropriate ways to help the development of actions is also clear. I don’t expect this will be a swift process, but it would be sad if the work that went in to revising and agreeing the new TA were to be lost by not being taken forward.

    • Thanks Chris. I do recognise the many political constraints within which the TA2020 had to be framed. Similarly, I agree that we now need to think of ways and means to take it forward.

      • Sometimes I think that in Hungary – at least in practice – only the disintegrated development exist and mostly favoured. Strategies are written and delivered only in the form of different and separated schemes of such disciplines as transportations, civil infrastructures. Although integrated development strategies have been made since 2008 they are still rather collected dreams combined with brick and mortar projects dominantly lacking social and economical backgrounds or demands for cohesion. And yes, there is official planning framework system and the country is covered by spatial and regional plans still they are rather document made for the “drawer” as they are being called. Aye, and all what this member state has are maps and maps… 🙂

        So it is very interesting to see what kind of impression will you get at the end!

        • I think you make an important point, Roland: making plans is not the same as implementing them. Of course the TA2020 is not a plan. It is a set of generalised statements that the Ministers responsible for spatial planning in EU countries could agree on. The same happens with UN statements: everything has to move at the pace of the slowest. To turn TA2020 generalised statements into action depends on initiatives in and by member states, regions and local administrations. Also TA2020 sends messages to the various sectors (such those you mention for transport and infrastructure) to recognise the territorial aspects and impacts of their policies. A further problem is that territorial change can take a long time to be recognised and then endures for a long time too. Thus better capacity to anticipate territorial impacts would be important.

          Meanwhile it was great to be back in Hungary again, and to enjoy the good organisation and warm friendship of those who hosted the ESPON seminar.

          • I wonder if any of the Ministers responsible really believe they are shaping Europe through such statements… As you have commented elsewhere in relation to HE, spatial outcomes are likely to result from a combination of other policy instruments adopted in Europe and nationally. The question is then whether they add up to anything like the overall picture the spatial Ministers had in mind.

            More seriously, I think there’s a difference to be drawn between regional development investment programmes designed to bring the infrastructure of lagging regions up to the level where they can compete; and long term financial dependency (think: when will Scotland not need a positive multiplier in the Barnett formula?). Ultimately, it may be that the unemployed need to move to regions where they can contribute, rather than sitting waiting for enough investment to bring their home town up to the potential of the most competitive agglomerations.


          • Thanks for the comment Richard. The DG Regio line is that all regions have potential that can be released through endogenous initiatives. At one level this is true, but it is also a political convenience that fudges the kind of issue that you confront in your own comment. It looks like there will be a significant amount of conflict over the future of Cohesion Policy 2014, not least with the UK. I heard Andreas Faludi’s presentation at the World Planning Schools Congress in Perth, WA this morning. He highlighted the attempts by member states, especially UK and Germany to rein in the powers of the Commission, and argues that the Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion was a “weak and timid” document.

            Your comments on Scotland and the Barnett Formula (for non-UK readers this determines the allocation of money from the UK government to the Scottish government and results in higher per capita public spending in Scotland than in England) would be challenged by some in Scotland, not least the Scottish National Party. There is the issue of the revenue from “Scotland’s” offshore oil that goes into the UK Treasury, and also other flows of public money that benefit London and SE Engalnd. See for example Duncan’s comment after my blog on shrinking regions. Also a pretty consistent message from ESPON is that the Aberdeenshire NUTS3 region is conspiculously affluent and performs well on many economic indicators, often being in the top band across Europe. You can argue that this region scarcely needs subsidy from the rest of the UK, but it also contradicts the image of scottish dependency. The real challenge in UK spatial policy still seems to me to be about how to maximise the performance of the northern English cities. Michael Parkinson’s team working ont he ESPON Secokndary Cities project will hopefully have something to say about this.

            In all of this we should honour Des McConnaghy who for 40 years has argued the need to connect planning to flows of public investment.

          • It’s good of you to remember me Cliff. I think you know that back in 1962, before the UK entered the EEC, I saw the Paris meeting between General de Gaulle and Dr Adenauer. And that prompted me to contact the Treaty of Rome draftsmen about the need for effective statutory planning to protect Europe’s peripheral areas from the otherwise inevitable negative effects of trade liberalisation.

            I still have Pierre Uri’s response; “Why should we have burdened the Rome Treaty with a controversial issue, trying to insert a clause making it mandatory to have regional planning? It is enough, as experience shows, that this has not been barred. Now there is the problem of implementation and I do not know if the “aménagement du territoirre” in France and the “économies régionales” in the Community are going to lead to effective action as long as the principles themselves are not clear”.

            But the principles are still unclear – though it has finally taken the adoption of the Euro to spell this out in the EU peripheral countries. Since 1962 I laboured to build some effective “read across” between town and country planning and expenditure-based planning – both locally and within UK central government departments. There have been, and there remain, deficiences in our national public expenditure planning systems. But a persistent UK problem has been the way professional planners have themselves avoided involvement in even modest proposals for expenditure-based planning.

            One of Cliff’s predecessors (as UK RTPI President) asked me for a paper to introduce the 1980s; (The Planner, Vol 67, No 1, January 1981).This began: “The key to democratic planning is the democratic control of capital. To spend is to choose, the rest is relatively rhetoric”.

            I stick by those sentiments! But now it should also be clear just how badly we have failed; and how the spread of neoliberalism and the adoption of the Euro has already wrecked such havoc in Greece, Spain, Itlay, Portugal and Ireland. Such trends will continue. So perhaps the time has come for a final warning: we must move towards sensible expenditure-based planning or we cannot move at all. And the key to that democratic expenditure-based planning remains the democratic control of capital.


          • Remember you? Des, I could never forget you! I certainly think there needs to be more debate in the planning and regional science field about the implications of the inability of peripheral Eurozone countries to control their own national and regional economies. Arguably the same problem exists, though in less dramatic form at present, within the UK: regional economic differences are subservient to exchange rates and interest rates that largely reflect the economy in the SE of England.

            In Perth, Western Australia, last week Andreas Faludi was calling the EU’s Territorial Cohesion Green Paper a “weak and timid” document. We know that there will be a scrap over the future of Cohesion Policy after 2013, and that the UK is likely to be on the side of the minimalists. Yet unless debtor countries and poor regions can invest in the infrastructure and governance for development, it is not going to be possible for them to repay the banks what they owe. Planned regional development should be a central part of recovery and European stabilisation. Austerity by the bucketful will not create the “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” that is officially the EU aim as expressed in Europe 2020