Published 11 May 2017

Regional growth policy challenges

– Is there a need for structural reforms and new collaborative solutions?

There has been remarkably little focus on the critical examination of the implementation of regional growth policy. Growth Analysis has produced a number of reports describing the management and control problems that exist at regional and local levels regarding the implementation of regional growth policy. We have reasonably good grounds to claim that this is an important factor for what results can be achieved through policy intervention. This anthology should be seen as a contribution to the critical examination of the prerequisites for effective implementation of regional growth policy in relation to future regional challenges.

This matter embraces many questions and answers and we have chosen therefore to ask a number of researchers and elected representatives to reflect on the problem of control and management from their own perspectives and on the basis of their own experiences.

The anthology consists of six papers written by eight researchers. In addition, three elected representatives have been asked to reflect, on the basis of their own experiences, on the conclusions presented in the papers.

In the first part of the anthology, we attempt to describe and discuss the regional changes that have taken place and the regional challenges we are facing. In Chapter 2, Hans Westlund describes how metropolitan regions with their global networks are becoming increasingly important for economic development. Around the metropolitan regions, functional regions form consisting of suburbs, smaller towns, small communities and rural areas that are close to towns. Together, these form functional urban regions. Beyond these urban regions, there are extensive rural areas which basically have no links with larger towns. This change has caused two pronounced effects. Firstly, the traditional link between town and countryside has gradually been broken and the question is whether it is possible to build up new links between urban and rural areas and if so, what would they consist of? Secondly, rural areas located beyond reasonable commuting distance from a larger town are going to be at a major disadvantage in the emerging knowledge-based economy.

In the second part, we reflect on how Sweden and our Nordic neighbouring countries are endeavouring to handle the more comprehensive changes and what attempts at reforms have been executed to try to create better prerequisites for effective implementation of growth policy on the regional and local arenas. We can see that our neighbouring countries have responded to these societal changes by implementing structural reforms targeted at regional and municipal level. In Finland and Norway, there is an ongoing regional and municipal reform that aims to strengthen the ability of municipalities and regions to meet expected future challenges. Denmark carried out a structural reform in 2007 which meant the sub-national level in Denmark now consists of 98 municipalities and five regions. Both Finland and Norway are in an ongoing process of creating fewer and larger regions and municipalities. A general conclusion that can be drawn from the comparison of countries presented by Siv Sandberg in Chapter 3 is that all the Nordic countries are facing relatively similar problems when it comes to the possibility of developing effective collaboration between municipal and regional levels. It seems the possibility of regional levels taking a leading role in development policy is limited.

Considering the common problems that the Nordic countries are facing, one can ask what obstacles are impeding the building up of effective cooperation between municipal and regional level. This is discussed in Chapter 4 by Jörgen Johansson, Lars Niklasson and Bo Persson. One of the conclusions the authors draw is that the size of the municipality is of major significance for the possibility of creating functional interaction concerning the most important development and growth issues in a large region. There is power asymmetry among the municipalities in a region and the prerequisites for different municipalities to actively contribute to development issues vary greatly. The authors point out that the municipalities associate the forming of a new megaregion with a number of risks, not least democratic legitimacy and increased costs for negotiations.

Regional management is another important aspect of the implementation of regional growth policy. In Chapter 5, Hege Hofstad and Gro Sandkjaer Hanssen analyse which preconditions are needed in order for clear regional management to work. This chapter explains how changed framework conditions have created a greater need for more pronounced and proactive regional management in Norway. The analysis of the regions’ prerequisites for regional management indicates that current practice must be further developed before Norway’s regions can be counted as a strong regional player in regional development issues. Even though Norway’s regions have instruments for controlling the municipalities as regards planning issues, they are unwilling to make use of this possibility and utilise the instruments. This unwillingness can be summarised as a fear of functioning as a supra-municipality and thereby interfering with municipal autonomy.

To sum up, the anthology highlights specific challenges linked to attempts to bring about effective implementation of regional growth policy. Some of these difficulties are probably linked to the players’ own abilities and capacities while others can be attributed to a system perspective and the orientation of the regional growth policy. On this basis, two papers discuss alternative ways of organising regional growth policy.

In Chapter 6, Anders Lidström discusses asymmetric regionalisation logic. The point of departure of his proposal is the affirmation of the urbanisation that is taking place in Sweden with expanding metropolitan regions. The proposal implies a division into two types of regions: urban regions and rural regions. It is proposed that in urban regions, municipalities must relinquish certain tasks to the regional level, primarily matters that are essentially cross-municipal, for example, physical planning, urban regional infrastructure, and specialised social services. However, municipalities that are located in rural regions can retain most of their current tasks since they operate in a larger geographical area. With this proposal, regional development policy would be different insofar as the urban regions would essentially have to rely on their own power of development while rural regions would need more targeted support from the government and the EU. This would imply a clearer focus on governmental regional policy.

In Chapter 7, Hans Westlund discusses an alternative approach by launching the concept of network-based regional development policy which includes both metropolitan areas and peripheral regions. The basis of this proposal is that the global economy has increasingly developed into a global network economy with hierarchical levels of metropolitan areas. Metropolitan regions are in themselves clusters of many different areas of activity which benefit from the agglomeration advantages that co-location implies. At the same time, metropolitan regions consist of many different clusters of sectors which are part of international networks to a varying degree. The proposal argues that policy should support the development of clusters in distance-bridging hierarchical networks.

The anthology is concluded with comments from three elected representatives with somewhat differing views about the implementation of regional development issues. Lars Stjernkvist, Norrköping municipality, argues that there are grounds to seriously consider the idea of creating two levels of decision-making in Sweden - a municipal and a national level. Stina Munters, Vansbro municipality, argues for the need for increased co-operation among Dalarna’s municipalities and Region Dalarna. In her view, the fundamental prerequisites for creating fruitful cooperation are quite favourable. Finally, Erik Bergkvist, Region Västerbotten, describes the huge variation in size and capacity of the municipalities in Västerbotten. To handle the structural prerequisites, the municipalities of Västerbotten have chosen to organise themselves in three sub-regional constellations where one larger municipality can function as an engine.

Regional growth policy challenges – Is there a need for structural reforms and new collaborative solutions?

Serial number
PM 2017:10

Reference number

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