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Recherche et développement régional durable

Corinne Larrue

Session 1. Les problématiques du développement regional durable / The key-issues of sustainable regional development

Sustainability and EU structural Funds Lessons from the experiences of 12 pilot regions

Timothy Moss et Heidi Fichter

Texte intégral

  • 1 Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning (IRS), Erkner, Germany.

1Note portant sur l’auteur1


  • 2 The full report has been published by the European Commission under the title “Regional Pathways t (...)

2This paper summarises the main results from a study, funded by DG Research with the support of DG Regio, into methods of implementing sustainable development principles in EU Structural Funds programmes2.

3Sustainable development has been elevated to a ‘horizontal priority’ for all Structural Funds programmes for the new funding period 2000-2006. This poses a major challenge to programme managers and project applicants alike. In future they will need to pursue the basic Structural Funds objectives of stimulating economic development, creating jobs and combating social exclusion with greater respect for the environment and for the interrelationships between economic, social and ecological dimensions.

4Anticipating the need for prior knowledge and experience in meeting this challenge, DG Regio funded a scheme for 12 Objective 1 and 2 regions to conduct pilot projects on methods of promoting sustainability in the context of their Structural Funds programmes (see Figure 1). The selected regions – from France, Germany, the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands – vary considerably in terms of their size and structural characteristics. Some are sparsely populated, peripheral regions with few towns and a large rural hinterland (Highlands and Islands, Norra Norrlandskusten, Odermündung). At the other extreme are two metropolitan regions with large populations of high density (Berlin, Nordrhein-Westfalen). The remaining 7 regions are all former industrial areas with average population densities. They comprise either a homogenous territorial unit (Anhalt-Bitterfeld-Wittenberg, Groningen-Drenthe, West Cumbria and Furness) or a number of separate territories (Eastern Scotland, Aquitaine, Haute-Normandie, Midi-Pyrénées).

5What makes the experiences of these regions particularly interesting from the point of view of the learning process involved is that many of them had not previously been engaged in sustainable development initiatives. These regions in particular offer interesting lessons on how to initiate and maintain a process of sustainable regional development. The lessons they provide are valuable for the large majority of Structural Funds areas which also have only limited knowledge or experience of what sustainability can mean for regional development. In view of the need for exchanging experiences in the course of the pilot projects the 12 regions formed a network to discuss progress and exchange views together with representatives from the European Commission and other observer regions.

Figure 1: Map of 12 Regions

Figure 1: Map of 12 Regions

6The aim of the IRS study has been to assess and compare the experiences of the 12 regions with their pilot projects, reflecting the findings in the light of recent EU-funded research on sustainable regional development (Moss/Fichter 2000a ; 2000b). The research methodology comprised a combination of a desk-top analysis of reports on the pilot projects and the research literature, and analysis of ca. 40 interviews with key actors from the pilot regions as well as participation at three meetings of the sustainable development network where the interim results of this study were discussed.

7The IRS study focuses on the way the regions addressed five key challenges which they all tried to master in the course of their activities to promote sustainable development in their Structural Funds programmes. This paper outlines the regions' responses to each of these five challenges and the recommendations given as a result of their experiences. The final section summarises the principal findings, identifying the diverse pathways taken by the regions and the common lessons they learned.


2.1. Building a shared understanding of sustainable development:

8Creating a shared understanding of sustainable development in a region or locality depends to a great extent on being able to blend the views and interests of regional stakeholders with the basic principle of the concept, building on – rather than challenging – past policies and practices. A powerful message emerging from the pilot projects is the need to keep discussions on sustainability focused on the specific circumstances and needs of the locality or region and to define sustainable objectives which make common sense connections between economic, social and environmental issues at programme and project level. An important benefit of debates on sustainability within regional partnerships is that they can open up new ways of looking at development issues which shed fresh light on the strengths and weaknesses of a region or on the long-term impact of programme measures and objectives, particularly if they draw on the experiences of a wide range of regional actors. In practical terms the process of developing a common understanding and vision of sustainable development for the region can be stimulated with a number of proven tools and methodologies – such as the use of simple diagrams or qualitative SWOT analyses – which help reduce the complexity of the sustainability concept and make the advantages of a more sustainable approach more visible and tangible. It is important to invest considerable time and resources in such a process and to ensure that expectations are not unduly raised.

2.2. Developing tools for measuring sustainability

9The experience of developing tools such as programme assessment exercises, project selection criteria and indicator systems has lent extra weight to the growing recognition that beyond their technical value in programme management these tools serve far wider ranging functions. They can help raise awareness and develop a shared understanding of sustainability amongst regional partners, stimulate interest in sustainable projects and modify existing proposals. Furthermore, they can function as benchmarks for distributing a financial “sustainability” bonus and for determining zones or locations in need of special targeting. These broader functions need to be considered when adapting existing selection criteria or indicators to accommodate sustainable development objectives. They also have a significant bearing on how and when the tool should be used – whether in a pro-active way, involving a wider range of players than usual or with greater emphasis on advice and guidance. Overall, a powerful message emerged from the pilot projects of the need for more open and less “defensive” or restrictive applications of programme management tools. Consideration needs to be given to adapting sustainability criteria and indicators for other policy levels to meet specific regional or local development objectives and to ensuring compatibility between tools for project selection, monitoring and programme assessment. Particular care should be taken to keeping the number of indicators small and manageable, devising ways of cross-sectoral linkage and considering aspects of sustainable development difficult or impossible to quantify.

2.3. Building partnerships for sustainability

10Despite very different institutional and cultural backgrounds the pilot regions drew very similar recommendations on partnerships to promote sustainability. In general, the process of building quality regional partnerships needs careful prior consideration of the intended purpose of a partnership, the potential members, the structure and operational procedures and the institutional framework within which it will operate. It is necessary, for instance, to consider what aspect or stage of a Structural Funds programme a partnership is to address and what results it can realistically achieve in the time available. More specifically, it is very important to get key actors of programme management – especially government agencies – involved in the partnership at an early stage. Secondly, a sensitive external facilitator can have a major impact on the quality of a partnership, encouraging an open exchange of views, making participants feel responsible for the partnership and providing expertise when requested. Thirdly, partnerships should not be rushed – the process of building up a regional partnership takes time. Fourthly, discussions should focus firmly on the needs of the region and the experiences and skills of the participants. Fifthly, the expectations of the participants should not be raised beyond what can realistically be achieved with the available resources. Finally, it is important to show the results from the workshops will be used or taken forward ; without this, participants will be discouraged from attending future meetings. Bearing these lessons in mind a powerful partnership can be built up capable of making programme development and project selection more effective and lending greater legitimacy and transparency to the decision making process, as recent EU-funded research has shown.

2.4. Improving programme management procedures to promote sustainable development

11The new ‘horizontal priority’ of sustainable development for the funding period 2000-2006 presents a challenge to existing procedures of programme management at regional, national and EU levels. The need to pay greater attention than in the past to the interrelationship between economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection demands altered or new procedures for allocating funds, providing advice and giving other kinds of incentives to applicants to submit sustainable projects. On the basis of their experiences the 12 pilot regions have made a number of suggestions for improving procedures for managing Structural Funds programmes to accommodate better sustainable development objectives. One group of suggestions is directed at the European Commission. It includes appeals for greater technical assistance to provide a more wide-ranging programme of advice and guidance to programme managers and project applicants and new funding mechanisms to encourage innovative – and risk-intensive – projects and small, less experienced applicant teams. Other suggestions are targeted at national and regional governments or the regional partnership itself. These include proposals to introduce a global grant for greater regional self-responsibility to programme management, a financial bonus system for rewarding projects which meet regionally specified sustainability criteria, mechanisms for area targeting and a more extensive regional programme of training and advice to raise awareness of how sustainable objectives could be practically integrated into project proposals. It is important, when considering changes to management procedures, to take into account the established institutional practices and policy styles of the respective Member State. This applies in particular to potential areas of incompatibility between the discursive, participatory approaches deemed necessary to promote sustainable development and the more closed, technocratic procedures of Structural Funds management favoured in some countries.

2.5. Linking EU structural funding to other instruments for sustainable regional developement

12Structural Funds programmes are only one – albeit very important – instrument of regional development. If they are to exploit their full potential to promote sustainable development they will need to link in with other instruments of regional policy. These include other sources of funding from the EU, such as the CAP, and from national governments (e.g. the Lottery in the UK or the Joint Programme in Germany), spatial and sectoral planning at national, regional and local levels as well as other regional and local initiatives towards sustainable development such as Local Agenda 21. Even though the 12 pilot projects did not place much emphasis on this issue there was widespread recognition of the importance of policy linkage for Structural Funds programmes. In particular, the pilot regions recommended paying greater attention to ensuring the compatibility and complementarity between the various funding programmes with a view to maximising the potential they each provide for promoting sustainable development. A second recommendation was to improve coordination with regional planning, which in many EU countries today has adopted sustainable development as a key policy objective. The cross-sectoral nature of sustainable development is lending additional weight to the argument that Structural Funds procedures need to be better embedded in a wider regional policy context.


13The pilot regions approached these five challenges in very different ways. These differences related to: the purpose of the pilot projects, the interpretations of sustainable development used, the management tools they addressed, the methods of analysis applied and the kinds of stakeholders involved. The clear message emerging from the pilot projects is that no single approach – or ‘way in’ – to promoting sustainability via structural funding was generally preferred over others. It would not appear helpful, therefore, to seek to define one approach universally applicable in all regions and in all circumstances.

14But how can we make useful sense out of this diversity of approaches ? It is clearly not adequate – nor particularly helpful – to advocate diversity per se. Do certain approaches fit together to form ‘pathways’ which are clearly distinguishable from one another ? By comparing the approaches of the 12 pilot regions it is possible to distinguish at least four ‘pathways’ which each reflect a number of similarities in the approaches taken. Defined in terms of how the task of promoting sustainability in structural funding was interpreted by the principal players, these four pathways can be described as follows.

3.1. Capacity building in the region and its localities

15The emphasis here is on engaging stakeholders in a process of discussion at regional and/or local level, using sustainable development as a conceptual tool for focusing debate. The rationale behind this pathway – as observed in Highlands and Islands, Odermundung and Midi-Pyrénées – is to strengthen and exploit the region's available human potential to solve its own development problems. Within the pilot projects considerable time and effort was spent, consequently, on developing sustainability objectives for the region or its localities acceptable to a broad partnership. The potential drawbacks of this pathway lie in the high transaction costs of co-ordinating wide, heterogeneous partnerships and the time lost for other important activities.

3.2. Adapting programme management tools and instruments

16Those regions which prefer to rely on instruments for measuring performance to achieve programme objectives or which already have active partnerships working towards sustainable development (such as Anhalt-Bitterfeld-Wittenberg) seek to refine their existing management tools so as to accommodate the special requirements of the sustainability concept. As a rule this pathway engages a small number of experts commissioned to improve indicator systems or project selection criteria. The potential drawbacks here lie firstly in the difficulty of devising accurate yet comprehensive benchmarks for such a complex concept and secondly in the absence of wider discussions on sustainable development for the region.

3.3. Identifying and filling gaps in current and future programmes

17Although almost all regions began their pilot projects by assessing the contribution of the current programme to sustainable development, this activity was central to those regions – such as West Cumbria and Furness, Haute-Normandie and Nordrhein-Westfalen – which aimed to identify those measures of the programme which held potential for sustainable development as yet under-exploited. This pathway is very focused on programme design and relies heavily on desk-top analysis. For this reason it tends to engage in dialogue with regional stakeholders only when there are results to report.

3.4. Mobilising political support for a new focus to structural funding

18Here the emphasis lies on reaching an understanding of how sustainable development can be integrated into future programmes which is acceptable to the key players in programme management. This pathway – as practised by Eastern Scotland – engages with the main agencies and decision-makers of the programme partnership rather than with regional stakeholders as a whole. The interpretation of sustainability it seeks is not visionary but incremental, building on what already exists so as to facilitate wide political support. For this reason the approach runs the risk of being hostage to political will. Publicising the results of the activity is an important part of the strategy.


19The 12 regions have demonstrated that it is possible to translate the concept of sustainable development into practical applications which are compatible with structural funding procedures, relevant to the needs of specific programme areas and acceptable to programme partnerships. Partnerships created to deliver economic development have made substantial progress in adapting to the wider demands of sustainable development. They have shown further how this is possible, in terms of developing new methodologies, redesigning programme objectives, adapting management tools and opening up procedures to greater participation and dialogue in order to accommodate the particular demands of sustainable development. An important key to their overall success has been to conceive of sustainability as a learning process towards a new development paradigm which should build on existing practices and reflect a region's specific needs and circumstances. In this way many regions have managed to avoid the negative image of sustainability as a complex, abstract concept, presenting it instead as an essentially simple idea based on making common sense connections and developing effective governance.

20What are important components to this learning process towards more sustainable regional development ? The IRS study identifies 8 ‘common keys’ to a successful learning process drawn from the reports and comments of the main actors involved in the 12 pilot projects (see Figure 2). These are:

211. Strengthening programme partnerships

22Stronger structural and procedural links – both vertical and horizontal -between relevant bodies (programme managers, public agencies, project applicants etc.) are particularly important to address the integrated, long-term demands of sustainable development.

232. Encouraging greater participation and exchange of experiences

24Raising awareness and developing a shared vision of sustainable development for a programme area requires the engagement of a wide range of players and the effective use of their knowledge.

253. Subsidiarity – capacity building at the local/regional level

26Sustainable regional development cannot be effectively prescribed from above – it is about building on and strengthening natural, economic and institutional resources at the local and/or regional level.

274. Making the management of programmes more transparent

28In order to stimulate interest in sustainable development amongst project applicants and programme managers tools of project selection and assessment need to be developed and applied in a more open, less restrictive manner.

295. Making small but visible changes in the right direction

30It is not helpful to approach sustainable development as a distant goal requiring major restructuring ; more important is to emphasise the common sense connections behind an integrated approach to development and the gradual shifts towards a more sustainable future.

316. Moving from bolt-on to integrated approaches to policy coordination

32Simply adding or strengthening environmental and social dimensions to Structural Funds programmes is inadequate ; sustainable development requires an appreciation of how a programme or project can exploit synergies and overcome inconsistencies between economic, environmental and social aspects.

337. Taking a longer term perspective on programme performance

34Sustainable development requires looking beyond the lifespan of a programme at the longer term impact of especially qualitative advances in a region's development.

358. Adapting sustainability objectives to meet changing needs

36It is important to appreciate that sustainability objectives can change over time in response to altered circumstances or needs. Together these shifting objectives encourage a dynamic process of regional development – just as the changing shots of a film create a moving image.

Figure 2: Common keys to a successful learning process

Figure 2: Common keys to a successful learning process



Moss T. and Fichter H. (2000a): Regional Pathways to Sustainability. Experiences of Promoting Sustainable Development in Structural Funds Programmes in 12 Pilot Regions. Office of Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg.

Moss T. and Fichter H (2000b): “Implementation of Sustainable Development in EU Objective 2 Pilot Regions. A Preliminary Overview”, in: Leila Hakkinen (ed.): Regions – Cornerstones for Sustainable Development. Proceeding of the Second European Symposium, Joensuu, 13-14 September 1999, p. 93-98.


1 Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning (IRS), Erkner, Germany.

2 The full report has been published by the European Commission under the title “Regional Pathways to Sustainability. Experiences of Promoting Sustainable Development in Structural Funds Programmes in 12 Pilot Regions” (Luxembourg, 2000).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Map of 12 Regions
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Titre Figure 2: Common keys to a successful learning process
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Légende Graphics: IRS
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© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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