As political and policy concern with regional and local inequality continues to grow across Europe, regional policies are challenged by the competing objectives of tackling long-term structural disadvantage and the reduction of disparities, in the context of the green and digital transitions, and dealing with crises including the Covid pandemic and conflict in Ukraine.
Policy trends over the past 12-18 months are characterised by five key themes:
- initiatives to combine sustainability with competitiveness and innovation;
- promotion of more place-based approaches;
- a greater emphasis on vulnerable or marginalised regions;
- policy intervention to improve quality of life and access to public services; and
- ongoing reform of governance and institutional structures and capacity building at regional and local levels.
Policy reforms and new strategies have been introduced in Germany, Norway, Austria and Estonia. In some cases, the reforms signify a paradigm shift, broadening the previous approach to regional growth or introducing new foci such as quality of life or the support of marginalised areas.
Future policy changes (or pressure for change) are anticipated in Switzerland, Poland, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Slovenia. These reinforce the above trends, especially the focus on sustainable development, particular types of region or territorialising government investment and aspirations for better coordination of regional and sectoral policies.
Institutional changes in governance are underway at national level in Italy and a process of potentially rebalancing national/regional responsibilities in the Netherlands. Decentralisation and local empowerment are being taken forward in different ways in Portugal, Bulgaria, France and the United Kingdom – sometimes contested as in Romania and Slovenia. There are also interesting initiatives to facilitate a more place-based approach through greater localisation or other intermediate governance levels, as in Austria, Belgium and Denmark.
Lastly, there are some new examples of tools or measures to promote cross-sectoral cooperation across levels of government and territorial impact assessment.