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Regional Provision of Public Services in european comparison

BMVBS-Online-Publikation 04/13, Ed.: BMVBS, March 2013

Nexus Institut, Berlin
Dr. Angela Jain, Dr. Martin Schiefelbusch
in co-operation with Eirini Anastasiadou (Athen), Nicolas Bach, Kerstin Franzl, Melissa Gómez, Holger Jansen, Tihomir Mitev (Plovdiv), Sonja Ziener

Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR), Bonn
Klaus Einig


The report resulted from the accompanying research "Internationale Erfahrungen" (International Experiences) to the "Aktionsprogramm regionale Daseinsvorsorge" (Programme of Action for the Regional Provision of Public Services). This programme is part of the "Modellvorhaben der Raumordnung (MORO)" (Model Projects for Spatial Planning), initiated by the Federal Ministry for Transport, Building and Urban Development. As part of the action programme, 21 model regions in Germany were given financial assistance and advice with the goal of testing measures in the field of services of general interest (SGI) and placing these within the context of a comprehensive regional strategy. Special attention was paid to the development of an integrated perspective in the sense of working across different sectors. The accompanying research expanded the perspective across Europe. The focus is on demographic challenges in Europe, the respective national awareness of these challenges, the specific understanding of the concept of SGI and their fixation within political-administrative structures.

The selection of the countries to be studied was made in consideration of a geographic North-South-East-West-distribution. Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Greece were selected. International programs in the EU were also observed. The focus was on rural areas in peripheral and sparsely populated regions, as well as the regional centres located within these regions. First, a specially developed criteria matrix was applied, in order to develop an overview of innovative regions, model projects and other projects and measures. These were then recorded in an Excel table, which also contains a short description of important terms and a list of relevant sectors (e.g. transport, energy, health, etc.). From the tabulated in-formation, representational examples were developed (e.g. individual measures, regional strategies, programs). Research via the Internet and telephone followed in the individual countries and through international programs such as Interreg, Leader, Inforegio or the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD). Parallel to this research, government offices and scientific institutions were contacted on a national level in order to gather additional information on the situation and on further measures.

The report presents statistics on differentiated demographic developments. National characteristics can be observed. It is shown that shrinking and over-aging affect especially the rural, peripheral areas. Despite the common difficulties of the affected regions, there is a consensus on the specificity of regions and their independent developments. The realisation is that there can be no comprehensive concept and that strategies and regional plans must be developed on the basis of specific needs.

Political formation becomes more important in several ways. First, an adaptation to the changing demographic structure must occur, where over-aging and the disparate distribution are seen as being more important than the shrinking of the population. The second approach is to reactivate the regions with the goal of increasing immigration to and halting emigration away from these regions. Rural, peripheral regions are at risk of the developing and strengthening negative effects, which could develop momentum. For this reason, on a EU-level and to a certain degree also on national levels, the affected regions are of the highest priority. The goal is to break apart the negative spiral. This is reflected in the percentage of funding, which is appropriated to the development of rural, peripheral regions (for example, 40% in Norway). Territorial balance is a central focal point in European politics, through which targeted funding is further legitimated. Furthermore, strategic plans aim for this goal and provide orientation. Regional and communal cooperation, especially, is viewed as being a particularly useful instrument in order to promote both adaptation and activation. Therefore, a number of reforms are central to regional politics of European countries.

In view of the heterogeneous understanding of the term "services of general interest" (SGI), national traditions in relevant areas were reconstructed. The concepts move in between a competitive orientation and an orientation along the European social model (regulatory process debate), as well as between national and international regulations (competency debate).

In addition to strategic plans, other organisations are witnesses to the discussion on the topic of SGI. These organisations promote inter-communal, provincial and regional cooperation and coordination. They also develop methodological and operational suggestions for action for the implementation of projects. Definitions of minimum standards, the development of various forms of cooperation, and/or the organisation of competitions also mark an active interest in SGI.

Scandinavia has been especially successful in the implementation of SGI. The support for SGI began as early as the 1950s. With the overarching goals of growth and regional balance, public service gained importance. Parallel to this, the fiscal equalisation system was being ambitiously developed. The geographic situation, of a sparse population in many areas, played a central role in this process. The informal institutions, developed gradually over a long period of time, might be considered a factor for success in the long-term implementation of current strategies and projects.

Many southern and eastern European regions present a stark contrast. The political systems, which influenced these countries in the past, stood in the way of the development of a sustainable SGI system. Factors such as political occurrences (i.e. reforms) and economic crises can strengthen the public awareness of SGI. In Italy, for example, the excess of corruption provided the grounds for the introduction of approaches for quantification and standardisation, although their actual purpose is currently being questioned. In Scotland, the withdrawal of competencies from rural development agencies is causing irritation within the population. The fundamental political understanding of the relation between market and state is also of importance. In most of the studied European countries, a shift has been observed lately in favour of the market. However, opposing developments exist parallel thereto, such as the public interest in NPM (New Public Management) in Norway, in which concepts have been transferred from the private to the public sector.

One main principle of the administrative structures in all studied countries is that of subsidiarity. In this regard, the assumption is that strong, autonomous administrative units on the lower levels (e.g. regional, communal) positively promote regional development. Communities are responsible for considerable areas of SGI. In some nations, these subsidiary structures are the result of in part radical political-administrative reforms, which were developed under the strong influence of the European Union (e.g. Greece and Bulgaria). With the reforms, a redistribution of federal funds, in favour of lower units, occurred. In part, entirely new administrative units emerged. The first processes of progressive decentralisation in Europe occurred in Scandinavia during the 1980s. Currently, the integration of SGI within the Scandinavian administration is considered to be path breaking. Reforms such as PARAS in 2011 in Finland supported these developments. PARAS created incentives for the voluntary merging of communities, so that their number could be reduced considerably.

Regional politics are linked to many other political fields of action, but have little financial means. The national strategies for rural development usually orientate themselves along the structure that is anchored in the EU programs. The latter serve as guidelines. The member states are guaranteed freedom in political formation with the assumption that they know their own specific needs best. The points of emphasis are categorised (for example, according to axes) and ordered in terms of their respective priority levels. Economic measures usually stand in the foreground. Further areas, which are worth funding, exist beyond these: agriculture, environmental protection, social services, tourism, town renovation, education, etc. The provision of infrastructure is considered to be a requirement for further developments. The field of SGI, however, is often not specifically categorised among these programs. Demographic developments and SGI are still not given enough priority. The question of solutions for shrinking regions presents itself.

The national and regional strategies are characterised by their individual adaptation to the varying regional conditions. Usually, one strategy paper builds on the next. Furthermore, the plans are subject to spatial and temporal limitations. The specific needs of a region constitute the starting point. Exactly this is demonstrated by the "offensive Vision" in France. In England, a procedure called Rural Proofing controls whether or not measures are adequate for meeting the needs of rural regions. This includes the proofing through an efficient use of instruments, transparency, evaluation and control. The plans were developed by indi-vidual actors, are the products of consulting agencies or are the results of partic-ipative processes (for example, in Sweden).

The presentation of individual measures in this report is divided into 8 categories (e.g. transport, education and health). Many projects benefit from international involvement. The permanent implementation of a measure is of importance. For example, in the case of the Canterbury Rural Street Runner (Great Britain), a mobile youth club with decentralised offers in towns, it was possible to transfer the sponsorship to the community at the end of the funding time period. The Scandinavian nations are again very successful, in contrast to the southern and eastern European nations, in which EU-subsidised projects usually end at the end of the funding time period.

The challenges lie in the quantitative (population loss) and qualitative (overaging) changes in peripheral, rural regions. The former affect, for example, infra-structures with high fixed costs (e.g. water, electricity and telecommunications), while the latter affect the growing demand for senior, care and health facilities, as well as for mobile services. Many European regions are confronted with similar challenges. Some already have made experiences with demographic change, while others are still facing the political re-orientation.

Throughout Europe, traditional concepts of SGI, with a sectored orientation, are called into question on economic grounds alone. The integration of individual projects and strategies into a system, for example through the implementation of single measures into a congruent comprehensive strategy, seems to be difficult for many. The measures differ in that they either implement an overarching framework program or were developed bottom-up according to the LEADER approach.

The report closes with a listing of meta-topics of integrated thinking, which can be derived from the observed measures and strategies and can be found in various combinations in practice:

  • Reform of communal jurisdiction
  • EU projects as spaces for experimentation and the exchange of experiences
  • Programmes for rural development
  • Multi-use and spatial integration of services
  • Cooperation with civil society
  • Spatial concentration
  • Adaptation/lowering of standards:
  • Support of immigration
  • Virtualisation/tele-services
  • Mobilisation of previously stationary services

Innovative concepts and ideas, in any case, are useful in promoting the calling into question of previous standards in Germany. For the question of the transferability of projects and strategies, it is helpful to be aware of the various forms of transferring experiences and the different categories of factors that possibly, but not necessarily, limit the transfer of ideas.

The abstract is part of the German publication "Daseinsvorsorge im europäischen Vergleich - Problemwahrnehmung, Lösungsstrategien, Maßnahmen" - BMVBS-Online-Publikation 04/13, Hrsg.: BMVBS, March 2013, Berlin