European practices in making regional strategies

Successful regional development can no longer be achieved through top-down public sector action. The skills and resources of the private and voluntary sectors are needed. This also means that planning for regional development must be done in a more inclusive way, less hierarchical and with co-operative networks and partnerships. However, action at regional scale needs also to be aligned to policy at national and transnational scales but also at local scale. These are messages from a new study that looks at regional development practice in four areas – the Randstad in The Netherlands, England’s West Midlands, Zealand in Denmark and Västerbotten in Sweden.

The Randstad – an on-going search for an effective regional structure

For half a century and more the Randstad had iconic status amongst the regional planning community internationally. The Dutch seemed so integrated, consensual and rational in their approach; flying into Schiphol you could not fail to see the precise delineations of urban areas, the macro- and micro-management of the intensively used land. The very idea of the Randstad was a masterly and uniquely Dutch exercise in promulgating a loose concept at national strategic level that other tiers of government could comprehend and work with in this unitary but decentralized, “co-government” state. Dutch planning, as I told many students on numerous study visits to The Netherlands, as a classic example of a “comprehensive, integrated approach”.

The Randstad straddles four Provinces. However, the body working on co-operation across the region was abolished on 1 January 2008. This reflects a long-running unease with structures for regional-scale planning. The Provinces are historical units that do not fit today’s functional networks. There was a famous, failed attempt in the 1990s to create city regions. More than a decade later, in 2007, a law was passed requiring co-operation between municipalities over spatial planning, housing, traffic and transport, economic development and environment in eight identified city-based regions. The full story is too long to cover in this blog: readers who want more should see the case study.

Now, after the economic crisis and the attempts to cut back spending, there are new calls for simplification of administrative structures in the Randstad. Within this flux, perhaps the key question is whether redrawing of boundaries and reorganization of administrative units is necessary to deliver policy integration, especially in the spatial dimension.
Västerbotten – regional action creates national growth

The Swedish case study looks at the region based on Umea in the north-east of the country. Region Västerbotten was set up in 2008. There is a firm belief in Sweden that national economic growth depends on growth processes at regional and local level, and that regional expertise and action is the best way to nurture such growth. UK readers might go over that sentence again, and ponder how London’s global role as a finance centre underpins a very different national development model. The Swedes have a national strategy for regional competitiveness, entrepreneurship and employment.

Region Västerbotten is a legally constituted body based on co-operation by the municipalities in this sparsely populated part of Sweden. It has a Regional Development Strategy which is in line with the national strategy mentioned above, the EU Baltic Sea Strategy, and also includes the EU 2020 strategy of seeking smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. It is the link between such aspirations and the development plans at local levels.

The key vehicle for implementation of the Regional Development Strategy is the Regional Growth Programme. This targets sources of investment and particularly EU funds. It is revised annually. All of this is backed, in characteristic Swedish style, by a number of regional structures for co-operation and consensus building. These have played a key role in involving people in building the regional strategy and taking it from something owned by the state to a regional and local concern. Again, if you want the detail you’ll need to read the case study.

Zealand – from land use to business-led regional strategy

Region Sjælland is one of five administrative regions in Denmark. In 2007 the former 14 Danish counties were merged into five regions. Although it does not include a major city, parts of the region are within commuting distance of Copenhagen. The 2007 reforms cut back the regional planning role. Instead it introduced regional strategies set up by the regional council, but in cooperation with regional ‘Growth Forums’ and with the municipalities. These stakeholders must cooperate on broadly equal terms to formulate integrated regional strategies.

As in many other countries, spatial planning and regional policy have developed separately in Denmark, overseen by different ministries, and with different sets of professional practitioners. Regional plans were the middle tier of a hierarchical system linking national planning to municipal and site specific plans.
In the 1990s the focus of regional policy shifted from subsidy to competitiveness. There were initiatives based on local and regional networking between municipalities (‘forming urban circles’), regional councils and local business leaders.

Post-2007 the regional authorities have to prepare spatial development plans for their region. The traditional land use focus at regional level is no more. These plans are non-binding and strategic, and about building support amongst stakeholders. A Regional Growth Forum, containing public and private stakeholders, is responsible for preparation of the regional business strategy and action plan. The regional development plan uses the regional business strategy as its core input.

So this is again an exercise in soft power and building co-operation. Perhaps the most crucial part of the arrangements is that the Growth Forums are seen as equal partners of central government, not subservient to it. Again to get the full story you need to go to the case study.

The West Midlands

The West Midlands case study tells the story of the abolition of the Regional Development Agency and the creation of the Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. The researchers from the University of Birmingham report a general willingness to work with other neighbouring LEPs. However, they also point to likely problems in achieving policy coherence across spatial scales. For example, the Regional Growth Fund is disbursed directly to companies with LEPs having an advisory role at best. Enterprise Zones are designated by national government. The Growing Places Fund is being allocated for infrastructure projects but to Local Authorities. Whilst in not setting out a statutory role for LEPs government appears as an enabler, these funding schemes can cut across LEP priorities and hinder the achievement of territorial integrative strategic planning.

Regions and regional strategies

As the West Midlands case study reminds us, the Right Honourable Eric Pickles MP, Minister for Communities and Local Government, has said that “the whole concept of ‘regional economies’ is a non-starter and that [regions are] arbitrary dividing lines across the country for bureaucratic convenience…”. He could look to this ESPON project to confirm that the concept of a region is indeed rather loose, slippery even, and a recurrent focus for failed bureaucratic attempts to draw lines round areas in the hope that this can make delivery of policies and services easier.

However, the cavalier dismissal of “regional economies” is not supported by this project – or by the huge volume of research and evidence compiled on spatial economics over the past half century or more. This is not to say that public authorities have the power to determine the structure and trajectory of a regional economy: globalisation and privatisation have seriously “hollowed out” capacity in government at all scales. However, as this study has shown, regional scale action by public agencies, working now with multiple other stakeholders, and across different scales from EU to local, can help to steer a regional economy and increase the integration of policies.

This view is consistent with the message from another ESPON project on the roles of secondary cities. That study, led by Michael Parkinson from Liverpool John Moores University, makes the case that cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds etc, and their continental equivalents, are significant forces in national economies. National policy needs to recognise this. But that story will have to wait for another blog.