Planners, economists and researchers came together to discuss how data from the European Observation Network on Territorial Development and Cohesion programme can help discussions on major development drivers. The event was hosted by the ESPON UK network in Leeds.
The meeting highlighted the fact that while the UK's north-south divide is well known, it is a west-east divide across Europe that could see northern areas losing out beyond 2013 to regions in the central and eastern European countries.
Progress in developing integrated regional strategies in the UK highlights the data challenges that exist. For instance, bringing together regional economic strategies and spatial strategies has required considerable harmonisation of data. Moves towards integration, together with the ESPON 2013 focus on new topics such as urban attractiveness, climate change and maritime issues, suggest that the gap may be less wide in future.
New ESPON projects - in which local authorities can propose work that drills down to data at the relevant scale rather than action that covers all 31 ESPON countries - hold out the promise of improved links with practice.
The strengths of the research lie in its breadth of coverage and focus on the engagement of relations between places. Accessibility is one example, but there are many others. Given the strong emphasis on agglomeration effects that has emerged from the new economic geography, regional policy-makers at European scale and in the UK are confronted with the same dilemma.
Do they "back winners" by encouraging land release and supporting infrastructure investment in those places where the market wants to invest? Or do they prioritise regional equity by trying to steer development to those areas that the market has shunned?
The problem has become even more pressing during the past year. The economic downturn has meant that the private sector can no longer be relied on to deliver necessary development. Now, with the threat of cuts in public spending too, development strategies will need to become very smart if they are not to be left to gather dust on the shelf through the next decade. They must also take on board climate change and carbon reduction.
We face key questions about how we want the UK to develop and how much policy-makers can do to deliver desired outcomes. Practitioners and researchers will need to work more closely together and sustain the narrative that place matters.
ESPON remains an important conduit to EU thinking on these issues and on the future of cohesion policy. The Euro-speak envisages a Europe that combines rather than polarises aspirations for competitiveness and cohesion and that pursues sustainable development.
It means recognising the strengths of diversity rather than trying to make every place the same. But that then means challenging every region to develop its own strategy to maximise its territorial assets, whether they be transport links, landscape quality, renewal potential, cultural heritage or creative clusters.
There are no easy answers but an evidence base and willingness to network and learn from others is a key starting point. The national contact points for the research programme, including the ESPON UK Network, will be an important focus for such efforts.
Cliff Hague is a past president of the RTPI and a team leader of the ESPON UK Contact Point. To join the ESPON UK Network, please visit www.espon.org.uk