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Subsidiarity, Planning and the Concept of Region *

* First published in NORDRevy, No. 5/6, 1996, pp. 23-26.

As Denmark's experience makes clear, the main task of European spatial planning is to control the spontaneous effects of the Capitalist Single Market for that to be successful, we need a precise understanding of subsidiarity and a consistent definition of region

A Danish member of the Committee of the Regions, Vice-Mayor Helene Lund, recently said: 'The existence of the COR is justifiable as local and regional authorities throughout the Community have been increasingly influenced by Community policies, not least since the launch of the Single Market.'

This highlights one of the fundamental issues of European Union regionalisation. Mrs Lund mentions two factors influencing local and regional communities: 'Community policies' in general, and 'the Single Market.' It can be argued that by far the most successful EU policy has been the Single Market, whose repercussions are increasingly felt at all levels of economic, social and political life in Europe and beyond.

I think it fair to say that most of the hard problems for most of the remainder of the Community policies, particularly those having to do with spatial planning, are precisely to regulate and control the spontaneous and logical effects of the introduction of the Single Market.

When analysing the prospects of spatial planning in an integrated Europe, one must distinguish between the changes already taking place as a result of economic changes in Europe and its localities, on the one hand, and spatial planning attempts to cope with or regulate such changes, real or prospected, positive and negative, on the other.

From the Danish scene, I shall try to relate some of the changes that have already taken place in addition to innovative political, administrative and planning measures that are being discussed as instruments to cope with the new times. I include an attempt to register how EU policies have influenced national policies, and what Danish politicians might expect from the EU in the future.

The Øresund Region is the most conspicuous planning scheme in Denmark. Denmark and Sweden have agreed to build a car-rail link between the two countries at an estimated cost of 16 billion DKr (2.3 billion ECU). The link is supposed to be completed around the year 2000. It will serve a Danish-Swedish Euro-region (now appointed an Interreg-region) with a population of 3.3 million. It is also part of a north-south transport corridor linking non-EU Norway in the north, via the western part of Sweden, over Denmark to the continent.

A link over Fehmar Belt from Denmark to Germany is somehow implied, but is not high on the priority list of the EU Commission, nor of the German Federal government.

Politicians and planners expect that this new link will lead to economic growth in the region, making it attractive to foreign and national investors.

Intimately connected with the Øresund scheme, it has been decided to build a large extension of Copenhagen the so-called Ørestad on the island of Amager. The plan is for 3.5 mio sq.m. spread over 135 hektars to be constructed over a period of 30-40 years. Most of the new development is aimed at high-class business, finance and production activities with limited residential use.

The land on which this development is planned is owned jointly by the municipality of Copenhagen and the Danish state. The proceeds from the sale of land connected to the Ørestad are earmarked for the construction of a new mini-metro in Copenhagen, serving also Ørestad.

Both of these schemes have been mandated by acts of the Danish parliament, which have, as far as Ørestad is concerned, been accepted by the municipal council of Copenhagen in spite of wide-spread popular concern and protests, including large parts of the planning community in Denmark. As far as Ørestad is concerned, the county of Copenhagen, bordering but not including the city, did not take an active part in the decision and is now showing signs of dragging its feet.

The execution of the projects has been delegated to two semi-private consortia acting as developers, entitled to take loans in the international market guaranteed by the Danish and Swedish and the Danish state respectively.

The Danish part of the Øresund region is the Greater Copenhagen region with a population of 1.7 mio., comprising the three counties of Copenhagen, Roskilde and Fredensborg (between them totalling 50 municipalities), plus the two autonomous city municipalities with county-like authority, Frederiksberg and Copenhagen. Geographically, Frederiksberg is an island within Copenhagen.

In spite of its status as a complete, functional region, it has never been possible to establish any enduring system of governance or planning for the Greater Copenhagen region with one-third of the Danish population. Needless to say, this has created a lot of internal problems in the region, the most urgent of which is the increasing impoverishment of the city of Copenhagen a situation aggravated by the fact that Frederiksberg (whose taxes are somewhat lower than those of Copenhagen) and the municipalities to the north and west of Copenhagen encompass the most well-off citizens of Denmark.

Most observers agree that an administrative reform of the Copenhagen region is badly needed, but there is very little unanimity as to how it should look. The most drastic suggestion is to gather all the constituent counties and municipalities into one super-county possibly with a limited number of large municipalities. At present, this solution does not seem feasible because it would curtail the prerogatives enjoyed by influential actors.

However, if the Greater Copenhagen region wants to be part of an Interreg region with Sweden, the existing situation cannot continue.

Recently, new laws came into effect which allow municipalities to enter into partnerships with private enterprises in order to establish, e.g., systems export. This has not proved a particularly successful innovation. But it was also made possible for municipalities to make alliances with other municipalities in order to increase the efficiency of service delivery systems Subsequently, we have witnessed hectic activity all over the country with a great number of such alliances being established. The most heralded example, the Triangular City in Jutland, comprises the main city municipalities of three neighbouring counties.

It is too early to pass final and authoritative judgement as to the significance of the above changes for spatial planning in Denmark. But it is beyond doubt that it has been the fact of the Single Market and the EU planning policy as suggested in the EU document Europe 2000 which has been instrumental in bringing about these changes.

Together with other (negative) economic developments, the Single Market was responsible for the 1989 watershed in Danish planning philosophy. Partly due to the general decline of belief in the welfare state, it was decided to replace the objective of 'equal' development of the country in Danish national planning law with the more modest and vague objective of 'appropriate' development.

This made it possible for the Danish parliament to pass the laws on the Øresund Link and the Ørestad, thus heavily emphasising development of the Copenhagen region.

At the same time, the National Spatial Planning Perspective, Denmark Towards the Year 2018, corroborated this new attitude by following almost ad verbatim many recommendations in the EU DG XVI document, Europe 2000, advocating the responsibility of individual cities and regions to engage in networks and/or develop in accordance with their own resources and positions of strength.

I would surmise that the creation of the EU Committee of Regions will further emphasise this planning trend.

For quite a long time we have been bandying about the concept of 'region' without having defined it in any consistent way.

I do not think this situation can last. I am not saying that we must arrive at only one definition, but as far as the regulative, administrative and geographical partitioning of the Union is concerned, it seems unavoidable that some common standard definition must eventually be agreed upon.

Let me quote again the Danish member of the COR, Helene Lund: 'In Denmark there is a golden rule at local and regional level: those who bear the responsibilities must be given the competence and the influence.' Even if the phrasing is not entirely lucid, the meaning should be quite clear. (And not followed to the letter in Denmark, it should be added!)

A political entity responsible for a certain policy and its implementation should also be entitled to procure and dispose of the means economic, legal, and otherwise to carry out such obligations.

Here we touch the central nerve of the principle of subsidiarity and the even more tricky question of political intervention in the capitalistic market economy. The driving force of the market economy is capital accumulation through successful competitive behaviour. This principle is safeguarded by the economic policies of the EU, first and foremost the Single Market but also the prospected Economic and Monetary Union, the single currency etc.

Historical experience shows us that left to its own devices, the market economy leads to a skewed and uneven development of our territories and their populations. This means that if the EU is serious about its additional policies of creating integration and social cohesion in Europe, it will have to further the consolidation of political entities with the power to influence and regulate the market economy.

Up until now this responsibility has been an exclusive prerogative of the nation state, which has consequently been the sole beneficiary and administrator of the subsidiarity principle. It is obvious to me that subsidiarity within the European Union must be delegated to fixed, responsible and judicially autonomous political entities (under EU law) with whom decisions about further downward delegation must exclusively rest. A vertical and hierarchical administration of the subsidiarity principle must be introduced.

One can imagine that individual countries will arrive at different decisions as to which level should be the direct link between the Union and the territory. Some countries would most likely keep this prerogative with the national government.

Others might decide to delegate it to a lower level such as the German Länder. How to administer the principle downwards might also be a matter of discretion.

If, e.g., Denmark decided to let the national government be the administrator, and if the country were to be divided into 5-6 county regions, the principle might be administered towards these regions according to a national agreement.

In Belgium it would be natural to grant Wallonia and Flanders the right to administer the principle, whereas the situation of the Brussels region is less evident. Washington, D.C. comes to mind.

These considerations make it possible for me to tentatively answer my question of how to define the concept of region: it would be the political entity responsible for the administration of the principle of subsidiarity. If Denmark decides to become such an entity, it would be equal to the LÆnder of Germany and the regions of Belgium, thus becoming sort of 'region,' whereas the latter would become more like nation states.

How to further subdivide and delegate the principle of subsidiarity will require a harnessing of the best in regional and political theory in order to stimulate an enlightened public debate and thus, perhaps most importantly, have deep implications for the long-term architecture of the political landscape of Europe.

Last modified on 06-05-1998