Focusing on vulnerable neighbourhoods? A reflection on a key challenge of the EU’s Cohesion Policy.

Sonia de Gregorio Hurtado – Architect and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid

Photo credit Andy Howell

The concentration of poverty in vulnerable urban neighbourhoods stands today as one of the main challenges of the European Union (EU). This is confirmed by many evidences. For example, the 7th Report on Economic, Social and Territorial Cohesion published in 2017 by the European Commission points out that the risk of poverty or social exclusion in cities is still at higher levels than before the financial crisis in the countries that joined the EU before 2004 (including Spain). In addition, according to a Eurostat report published recently, in 2014 there were 58.2 million people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the urban areas of the Union. These figures show the urban dimension of poverty as one of the factors preventing progress towards economic, social and territorial cohesion, which requires decisive action by the EU institutions and the member states in line with the objectives of the Cohesion Policy.
The issue of urban poverty, and the negative effects that result from its “territorialisation” in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods, started losing relevance in the European policy framework during the 2000s. At that time, policies began to focus on the social dimension of exclusion, while in relation to the urban issue, emerging approaches to achieve innovation and competitiveness became central. This vision has continued to dominate until now even though the economic crisis once again placed the economic dimension of exclusion (and therefore urban poverty) among the pressing challenges in the European framework. Indeed, from 2008-9 the effects of the crisis concentrated importantly in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods of cities, initiating or intensifying processes of physical, economic and social degradation in them. The austerity approach that characterized public policies those years has perpetuated and reproduced this situation. However, despite its importance, the array of problems experienced by vulnerable neighbourhoods has not managed to break through the explicit priorities of the urban axis of Cohesion Policy for the current programming period (2014-2020).
This has happened despite the expertise the EU has accumulated over time with regard this policy domain. Because its relevance, it has influenced importantly the Spanish urban policy framework for the last two decades. Instruments such as the Basque program Izartu (2001) or the Neighbourhoods Law of Catalonia –Ley de Barrios de Cataluña– (2004) explicitly declared their inspiration in the European experience. The fact is that from the end of the 80s until 2006 the urban dimension of the EU policy was marked by its attention to vulnerable neighbourhoods. Its more visible and influential element was the URBAN Community Initiative, an instrument that provided member states access to specific funds on the condition that they develop urban regeneration strategies in the so-called “neighbourhoods in crisis”. The strategies had to act through an integrated approach in all the dimensions of urban decline (social, economic, environmental, governance). Through a leverage effect, the URBAN strategies for urban regeneration aimed to ensure that the area selected initiated a substantial change, leaving behind the period of decline, and consolidating new dynamics of urban sustainability.
Despite the recognition of the positive effect of the experience developed in almost 200 EU cities between 1994 and 2006 (39 of them Spanish cities), in the successive programming period (2007-2013) the Cohesion Policy strongly changed its focus under the premises of the economic vision that would later be reflected in the Europe 2020 strategy. Important changes were introduced in relation to the urban issue and member states ceased to have economic incentives to act on the vulnerable neighbourhoods of their cities through integrated regeneration programmes (even though they could dedicate part of the financing from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to that objective). As a result, among the 28 member states, only Spain developed an action that can be considered as an explicit continuation of the previous experience. It was developed through the urban regeneration instrument called Urban Initiative launched by the Ministry of Finance at the end of 2007.
In the current period (2014-2020), the Cohesion Policy has once again undergone major changes influencing its ability to impact cities. The first and most obvious has been that member states have to invest at least 5% of their ERDF allocation in integrated sustainable urban development actions. This has contributed to increase significantly the budget that the countries have earmarked for specific urban actions in comparison with previous periods and has reinforced the visibility of the urban dimension of the Cohesion Policy. However, action in vulnerable neighbourhoods has still not regained explicit attention. Again, as member states are left without incentives and operating in a policy environment encouraging territorial economic dynamisation – through an approach called Smart Specialization – they have generally overlooked the problem of vulnerable urban areas. The complexity of the administrative and technical procedures has added to this evolution. For instance, the thematic fragmentation of the Cohesion Policy into 11 thematic objectives has made it difficult to implement integrated urban regeneration instruments that would require action through multiple thematic objectives. The result is that at present the Cohesion Policy is financing actions that will contribute to improve sectoral urban issues, it is testing and advancing in new solutions, and is boosting the urban economy, but it is no longer addressing one of the problems that most genuinely explain its need: the inequality that establishes and consolidates degraded neighbourhoods in cities over time. The experience gained in the past shows that this issue requires specific political, technical and economic attention. Experience also shows that when Member States have options, they generally do not choose to invest their Cohesion Policy funding in deprived neighbourhoods. On the contrary, the explicit emphasis of this issue at the EU level sends an important message to the countries, encouraging them to take action.
The importance of this problem has been recently underlined by the Urban Poverty and Urban Regeneration Partnership of the Urban Agenda for the European Union, which in its 2018 Action Plan points out the need to focus specifically on this challenge. The actors involved in this Partnership are only a part of a large group demanding political attention to this issue from different instances and countries. This raises questions about how the problem of vulnerable urban neighbourhoods will be addressed in the next programming period of the Cohesion Policy beginning in 2021.
Decisions are currently being made within the EU framework and will be formalised in the member states following negotiations between the European Commission and each of them. The scenario is still uncertain, because of the transition between two Presidencies of the European Commission (and their respective teams), but the framework anticipated does not indicate significant changes. However in this perspective of continuity, it should be noted that the new regulation on cohesion funds will probably leave the door open for member states to act in vulnerable urban neighbourhoods through integrated regeneration programs through the new Political Objective 5, A Europe closer to citizens (sustainable and integrated development of urban, rural and coastal areas and local initiatives). In this regard, Spain has an important experience that will surely weigh in when negotiating with the Commission. This, together with the limitations of the urban axis of the Cohesion Policy in the present period (which has the 173 Integrated Sustainable Urban Development Strategies –ISUDS – as the most visible instrument), the relevance of urban poverty in Spain, and the threat of a new economic recession in the EU, provide strong arguments to allocate part of the coming financing framework set by the new ERDF/CF Regulation proposal (at least 6% of the ERDF allocation to each country from 2021) to the regeneration of vulnerable urban neighbourhoods. This approach pleads for an action that values all the positive things that these areas have while operates the necessary changes so that their inhabitants have the same opportunities and average quality of life as the rest of their fellow citizens. The challenge is big. The opportunity is immense.