Public policies in the field of social and territorial cohesion should question the supposition that economic activities have always to be distributed in an homogeneous way to benefit the poor and vulnerable people, who live in marginal territories without economic growth. The pretension of distributing in the territory of a country economic growth in a balanced way can, finally inhibit economic growth generating very weak outputs in terms of welfare and social cohesion.
The dilemma could be: whether we shall try to develop all the regions simultaneously aiming that people, wherever they live, will improve their incomes and their welfare without having to move or, we should stimulate mobility, economic concentration and migration of people towards the more dynamic zones that create jobs?
Taking into account that spatial concentration of capital, benefits, information, human resources in the large metropolitan centres is the outcome of economic growth, we can conclude that we have to accelerate this concentration to obtain a better rate of growth. That is the reason why international organisations seek to increase density in metropolitan poles and to increase mobility of companies and people towards those sites that offer the best economic opportunities.
From this point of view, to achieve an accelerated economic growth and a balanced development, public policy has to facilitate economic integration among the territories and regions. And that means not to prevent or to limit mobility of people, products and ideas. The focus should therefore be on integration and in territorial cohesion and not in the local (endogenous) development of each of the territories of the whole nation. We have to ensure territorial cohesion and the welfare of the whole population through distribution of incomes along the whole national territory.
Public policy can improve convergence among income levels, to ensure that people living in the less developed areas (with low level of GDP) should not wait for the economic development of the places where they live, to enjoy the basic public services.
The experience of countries that have achieved high levels of development shows that a public endeavour is needed to disseminate and distribute the gains of development in a fairer way.
We must analyse the incomes (and not just the economic activities) that flow in a region. This will allow us to understand the disconnection between production and income in the territories, and the mechanisms of how development, employment, income, consumption and cohesion work at local level.
In a new and renovated perspective of LD, we have to understand that the territory is not just a place where production takes place, it is also an habitat, a community, for whom development is not just defined in terms of “factors of productivity” or “transactions costs”, but in terms of incomes of families, jobs, unemployment and poverty.
That is because it is very important to distinguish between endogenous growth and local development. The first one supposes that the local area is the place where wealth is created, where GDP is increased on the basis of the competitiveness of the territory and of the local companies, with capacities to generate added value, and as a consequence, incomes and jobs.
On the other hand local development does not always suppose that the development and the social cohesion of the place depend on the value created in its own territory. Maybe the strategy could be to attract incomes that have been produced in other areas. The goal is to achieve the welfare of local people and not to increase the GDP produced in the local area; or, perhaps, and this should be the more balanced strategy, to combine wealth created at the local level with and wealth attracted from the outside.
Despite that it can seem a paradox the new context requires going beyond the dominant models of LD. Historically LD evolved from the idea of “aménagement du territoires” or regional planning (according to the different national traditions of territorial public policy) to the idea of the “endogenous development” of the different places or areas. It had emphasised the economic dynamism of local areas as a core idea of LD. The concept of territorial competitiveness was adopted and generalised. The local areas, the cities and the regions become subjects that compete, in the same way as companies do.
The game among territories can no more be established as a zero-sum game, where each one looses what the other wins. In an open economy everybody can win simultaneously. Economic development of the territories is less associated with the mechanic result of a favourable endowment of production factors, and more associated with successful networks of stakeholders public and private, linked with smart institutions that lead innovative projects and initiatives.
The traditional paradigm of LD, of enhancing the development of its own area, has limitations. It is clear that it has positive effects in several areas, where local stakeholders, private and public, have understood that giving added value to local assets and to local resources can improve local areas’ situation and improving the welfare of local people.
But, actually, we have to recognise the limits of this path: multiplicity of local strategies, as many as localities and local actors with decision capacity to promote their own development, exist. And all of them supported with a sort of “optimistically localism”, adorned with drops of local egoism.
In LD localism is a risk. We are experiencing the paradox of more and more local policies in a world more and more structured in a global way. Places are still producing a sense of identity: my neighbourhood, my community, my city, my landscape… But, in this case, it can become a defensive identity, building a trench of well known elements against the unpredictable nature of the unknown and uncontrollable.
Very often decentralisation produces ambiguous effects: for some local authorities where social exclusion is concentrated, it deals with clear problems and contradictions. On one hand, it is true that decentralisation facilitates public interventions in the territory to fight against poverty and social exclusion, but redistribution will be less effective, taking into account that it takes place in a very restricted area, usually homogeneous areas (fiscally and socially) with low resources due to weak economic basis.
We should not forget that what is true for one level could be false for another. While income inequalities tend to reduce among regions and cities within a country, they have increased at lower levels , within urban agglomerations, among neighbourhoods, where social exclusion processes are increasing.
Territorial cohesion is what ensures equalisation of public services beyond the “profitability” or “non profitability” of each area. Public policy for territorial cohesion is what avoids those territorial inequalities (often inevitable) become territorial unfairness.
Political decentralisation processes should be established in coherence with this perspective of territorial development and spatial integration. Regrettably decentralisation is not always focused in this direction and often it is focused just in obtaining more and more “autonomy” for each area instead of enhancing more integration and more interdependence among areas.
One of the biggest expectations of decentralisation is on of the more controversial: what is good for local citizens is good for the region and then for the whole nation. Any strategy of local development will be always good for the national development. In general, the same mechanism that supports the more radical economic liberalism will play at all the territorial scales: the free pursuit of particular interests, in the framework of certain rules, places us automatically in the general interest.
Regarding this issue, it is suitable to mention the “new” local development with liberal label, droved by the New Coalition Government in the UK through the “Localism bill” announcing pompously that in UK “the time has arrived of distributing power along the country”. In this case, decentralisation is associated with the most pure liberalism: “make it your self (IKEA model), forget us (the central government) take in charge your own autonomy, and do not depend on anybody”.
In Europe and mainly in decentralised member states as Spain, a friction between the growing economic interdependence among the regions and an increasing political autonomy of each region takes place.
Economic integration becomes the core aspect of the regional policies that are needed to achieve a real territorial cohesion. Economic integration means: connecting better rural areas with urban areas, distressed neighbourhoods with other parts of the cities. It means connecting the under developed areas with the more developed areas within each country. This is the real challenge for LD. Perhaps we need less LD policies (developing each area through local actors’ initiatives) and more social and territorial cohesion policies (through a coalition of national, regional and local actors).
Not all the development problems find real solutions in the territory. Often, we need to help local development initiatives to relocate them, to cross the limits of the administrative boundaries. That is why we need inter-regional cooperation trying to find appropriate scales and levels that facilitate development. Such cooperation deals with going beyond borders that limit and prevent development in a context of globalisation and interdependence.