Monitoring of Territorial Cohesion

By Odd Godal

ESPON is a programme to monitor the territorial cohesion of Europe. It has a systematic European and comparative perspective. The second programme period is about to conclude, and a third programme is to be launched. The ambition for the new programme is to strengthen its user focus, which of course may be achieved in a number of ways. Below, I reflect on the experience so far.

One of the main conclusions of the report European perspectives on regions and regional development in Norway – in the light of ESPON written by NIBR (Norsk institutt for by- og regionforskning) and Spatial Foresight is that ESPON has made significant improvements in establishing and improving the basis of transnational analyses and comparisons of European territories and regions, and in establishing strong research networks across national borders. The picture we get of Norway and large part of the Nordic countries is that they differ from the rest of Europe with regard to geography, settlement patterns, urban structures and other structural issues. Nevertheless, in spite of or perhaps because of this, the Nordic Region is very strong with regard to many aspects of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

The objective of the project on which the report is based was to increase the relevance and accessibility of ESPON results for Norwegian regional policy and planning. This included reproducing ESPON results at a more detailed regional level concerning issues of particular interest for Norwegian regional policy. But what do ESPON projects tell us about regional similarities and differences in Norway compared with Europe?

The report has revealed the difficulty of conducting transnational European comparisons at the regional level within Europe or the ESPON space. The units for comparison are defined differently in each country according to different principles. There are also great differences in availability of regional and territorial data. Moreover, there is significant variation in Europe with regard to geography, settlement patterns and economics.

Innovation in Norway

The results are sensitive to the method and choice of regional level. The use of the same methodology at a lower level than NUTS2 or even NUTS3, for example, for functional areas such as the labour market, will provide a different picture. An example is the ESPON Project on Research and Development, Innovation and Knowledge (ESPON KIT), which classifies Norwegian regions at the NUTS2 level as 'Advanced services regions' or as 'Technologically advanced regions'. No Norwegian regions have been classified as 'Low tech regions' or as 'Advanced manufacturing regions'. (see Figure 1. Technologically advanced regions in Europe, 2007.)

Reproduction at a lower level using similar indicators provides another perspective. At the labour market level, the Technologically advanced regions are found in the Stavanger/Sandnes and Sandefjord/Larvik regions. Advanced services regions are found in labour market regions in and around the larger cities. Along the coast, we find Advanced manufacturing regions, but Norwegian regions are generally very diverse with a range of possibilities. Analyses based on the NUTS2 and NUTS3 levels often do not provide a sufficiently nuanced picture for analytical or policy purposes and should be combined with analyses at a lower level.

Figure 1. Technologically advanced regions in Europe, 2007. Click to view larger image.

Source: Europeiske perspektiv på regioner og regional utvikling i Norge – I lys av ESPON, NIBR 2013:9.

A territorial monitoring system for the Baltic Sea Region (BSR)

The ESPON BSR-TeMo project is distinct from the previous project because it was originally initiated by Visions and Strategies around the Baltic Sea (VASAB). Its purpose was to establish a system to monitor the territorial and regional development of the BSR. It therefore includes areas that are not normally included in ESPON projects, in this instance, north-west Russia and Belarus.

The aim of the project was to develop an operational territorial monitoring system on a macro-regional scale for the BSR. The project addresses two issues: the policy issue of territorial cohesion and a methodological issue of an indicator-based system for monitoring territorial development in the BSR.

The starting point for the monitoring system was the three main challenges for territorial cohesion identified in the VASAB Long-term Perspective for the Territorial Development of the Baltic Sea. First, there is the east–west divide that follows the administrative borders once defined by the Iron Curtain, which reflects differences in several socio-economic development aspects between the eastern and western BSR territories. Second, there is the north–south divide that results from diverse climatic conditions for human settlements in the BSR territories (accessibility is also an important issue); and third there is an urban–rural divide, which is a major challenge for cohesion in the BSR, particularly with regard to demographic development.

The methodological issues were identified on the basis of previous attempts to establish a monitoring system. The key analytical issues to be addressed included the choice of indicators according to content; at the geographical level, particular consideration should be given to the inclusion of the LAU2 or municipal levels as building blocks, and to visualization, benchmarking and maintenance. It is important to find manageable ways to perform tasks such as updating the data and statistics that go into the monitoring system, but also to develop them further based on experience so that the system will continue after the project is finished.

The project has established a territorial monitoring system for the BSR, and as such it has achieved what it was intended to do. However, the system still requires development in future years. Experience has revealed several issues that should be relevant to future monitoring systems for other macro regions. One such issue is the comparison of statistics from EU states and Norway, which use Eurostat methodology, with those from Russia or Belarus, which use other methodologies, to improve coherence between ESPON data at the European level, and regional and local data. (See Figure 2 Life expectancy at birth change 2005 - 2010: An example of good availability and comparability) A monitoring system should not only reveal trends and provide forecasts, but should also provide analysis for the decision-making process.

A system such as BSR-TeMo makes it possible to understand regional and territorial trends and structures across the BSR with regard to demographic development or GDP per capita. Trends in demographic development in one part of the BSR can be compared with those in another part, and the system can assess whether the economic gaps between parts of the BSR are decreasing or increasing. This information can inform policy briefs for ministerial meetings, programme development or assessments of strategies.

Figure 2. Example of good availability and comparability: Life expectancy at birth (change 2005–2010). Click to view larger image.

Source: Territorial Monitoring for the BSR. ESPON & Nordregio/IGSO PAS, 2013

The project has been conducted in collaboration between VASAB, the ESPON CU and researchers headed by Nordregio. All three parties had something to offer to the project. VASAB had the idea as well as previous experience of establishing monitoring systems stipulated in the terms of reference for the project. Because VASAB is the result of intergovernmental co-operation in which Russia and Belarus participate, it was easier to obtain data and involve Russian partners. With its regular meetings and secretariat, VASAB offered a stable framework for developing the project and networks in which the project could be presented. ESPON helped finance the project, but has great skill in managing research projects and the ESPON database. Of course, the researchers did the hard work.

I hope that the experience gained from this project may be of use to others who plan to establish macro-regional monitoring systems, not only concerning the architecture or technical side, but also as a model for co-operation between actors. I also hope that the co-operation between ESPON and VASAB on the monitoring system will continue in the future, not only in updating the ESPON data and the indicator structure that are the foundation of the system, but also in obtaining statistics from Russia and Belarus and in promoting the system.

Reflections on the two projects

I believe that in many ways both projects illustrate two points. One is that ESPON has made it possible to make transnational regional comparisons that were previously impossible. This is probably most evident with regard to the monitoring system for the BSR, which had been attempted but not quite successfully. However, it was previously difficult to compare research and development, innovation and knowledge or other issues at the regional level, whether at the NUTS2 or another level, because comparisons were not so readily available.

The second point concerns the interpretation of data. This can be seen as an area in need of improvement within the ESPON programme that should be addressed in the new programme period. I believe this needs to be the case, but the questions are how and at what cost. There have already been several suggestions with regard to implementation, including a project between the ESPON Contact Points in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

The NIBR and Spatial Foresight report states "that units for comparison are defined differently in each country using different principles. There are also great differences in access to regional and territorial data. There are also significant differences in Europe with regard to geography, settlement patterns and economics". Revealing such differences in data collection and processing may be viewed as an intended or unintended effect of the ESPON programme. This brings the ESPON programme in line with other EU programmes, which are often primarily intended to upgrade procedures or standards or make them equal across borders in their respective fields by exposing differences.

Transnational comparisons or analyses are of course helpful for an organization like VASAB, whose task is to develop policy options for the territorial and regional development of transnational regions such as the BSR. The same is true for the other organizations that work at the transnational level, or for programmes such as the European Territorial Co-operation programmes, which work across borders. However, in general terms, comparable data or information should help regions assess their position, development opportunities and challenges. Perhaps we all face a challenge in using and applying this new information.

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