RTPI NEWS: Taking European spatial planning forward: the show must go on

Whatever happens next is likely to have resonances for planning all across Europe, says Cliff Hague.

"The show must go on" was the message from a high level meeting in London about how to take European spatial planning forward. However, there was also a recognition that many planners working at local level are either unaware of the European dimension or unconvinced about its relevance. As Frank D'hondt, a planning consultant based in Antwerp, quipped: "The show should begin."

The European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) has had a significant influence on planning in the UK since the final version was agreed at Potsdam in 1999. The RTPI has embraced spatial planning through its New Vision, and the stamp of the ESDP is discernable in the regional spatial strategies in the new English legislation. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as Ireland, have all risen in different ways to the challenge of thinking about the spatial dimension of national policies.

So what happens next - or what does not happen - is likely to have resonances on the planning profession across Europe, as the ten accession countries join next year. The fact that the ODPM is a key supporter of this European Council of Town Planners (ECTP) meeting sent a very positive message about UK commitment to positive planning to all who attended.

The one-day conference drew planners from as far afield as Bulgaria and Spain. It was clearly an attempt by the ECTP to try to kick-start a process that appears partially to have stalled. The ESDP was prepared by the Committee on Spatial Development, a body made up of the member states, but this has been disbanded. This is one reason why calls for an "ESDP 2" float in a vacuum.

The University of Nijmegen's Andreas Faludi lucidly dissected the history of the ESDP and the factors that are now contingent to a new ESDP. He drew on his definitive text, co-authored with Bas Waterhout, No Masterplan!

The Making of the ESDP (RTPI Library Series, Routledge). He pointed to the enthusiasm and considerable technical expertise that some of the accession countries will bring to debates about a new ESDP. Above all, Faludi sees the European Commission - de facto DG Regio - as the way forward. He feels that the project has been stalled because member states have over-played their hands, whereas the commission now has its sights set on the idea of territorial cohesion, that potentially provides a powerful underpinning for spatial development policy.

The ESDP has been an example of the open method of governance that is now favoured in the EU and allows for mutual learning, guidelines and benchmarks rather than top-down uniform imposition. An invitation could be issued to the commission to prepare an EU territorial cohesion strategy, building on the Lisbon Strategy - which emphasises the building of Europe's competitiveness - and the EU Strategy for Sustainable Development.

Another seminal figure in the development and analysis of European spatial planning, Dortmund University's Klaus Kunzmann, took a slightly more sceptical approach. He pointed to the UK as one of the countries where the ESDP has had a catalytic impact, but there are also nations where it has evoked little interest other than among regional planners and academics. It is the first pan-European document on spatial planning and is widely quoted, although it tends to portray all the problems as the same everywhere in Europe, which they are not.

It has provided a legitimation for the role of the public sector in development at a time when strong deregulatory currents were even being felt in continental political systems. "The fact that there was agreement reached in the ESDP among the 15 member states is itself a miracle," observed Professor Kunzmann, who went on to outline some possible forms that a new ESDP might take.

One, which he called ESDP 25, would primarily extend the existing base and analysis of the ESDP to include the accession countries.

More ambitiously, he suggested that he would like to see a stronger focus on sustainability and cultural issues, an endorsement of the public sector's role, maps rather than diagrams and a step away from the stress that is put on urban-rural relations, a concept Kunzmann finds somewhat dated.

There could be a regularly updated series of ESDPs, each with a particular emphasis - for example, periphery, urban, land use and transport.

Doubts about how far the ideas have penetrated were confirmed when Jan Vogelij presented the findings of a survey that the ECTP had carried out.

The more the planners were fully occupied at the local level, the less aware they were about the ESDP. However, there were strong calls from some accession countries for an ESDP 2 that would tackle problems of marginalisation, while there was a general recognition of the need to develop effective links with other sectoral areas of policy that impact spatially but typically are blind to such effects.

Head of the co-ordination unit for the European Spatial Planning Observation Network (ESPON) Peter Mehlbye gave an overview of the way in which this research can feed into a future ESDP. ESPON has now produced interim reports for some 16 projects and is seeing its budget increased. It has been able to deliver substantial results in a short time, covering a plethora of trends and impacts of importance at a pan-European level. These include maps of demographic changes, accessibility measures by rail, road and air, flood risks, access to broadband technologies and the regional impacts of spending on key European programmes such as structural funds and the Common Agricultural Policy.

The third cohesion report is expected to be published early in December and to make significant use of ESPON findings, as it engages with territorial cohesion.

One of the key themes of the ESDP is that polycentric settlement patterns will create balanced and sustainable development. The Polycentricity Scoping Study by Cliff Hague and Karryn Kirk from Heriot-Watt University has been published by the ODPM and was launched at the event. It is targeted at practising planners and encourages the use of INTERREG projects to test these ideas.

So what does Europe want from the next ESDP? The answers were exploratory rather than definitive, but the consensus seemed to be that it should be a means of sharing ideas about spatial planning practice across borders, while allowing scope for experiments and innovation at national, regional and local levels.

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