“Plea Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving for a new regional economic and social policy is more welcome than ever”
Over the last few months, superlatives have been all around about the economic performance of the Metropolitan Region Eindhoven (MRE), although unfortunately, I wonder whether all 21 municipalities see and feel this as a joint team achievement. The performance was rather in spite of regional cooperation than it was thanks to it. Berenschot typified the collaboration in 2017 as ‘loose sand’, and it was not for nothing. Just look at the regional plummeting and “villageism” surrounding the housing agreements. The plea of the Planning Bureau for the Living Environment (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving, PBL) for a new regional economic policy this week and the call for governments to be able to make a difference (‘backing challengers’ approach) is more than welcome. What concrete issues arise from the worthy plea for ‘regional economic policy that combines the current strengths, but also focuses on the transformation to new activities and technologies’?

Urban regions such as the 21 MRE municipalities are the engines of economic growth. A municipal reorganization is not a solution, but there is an urgent need for action at regional level if we want to remain attractive (see also my earlier plea). Eindhoven is already working on so-called city deals around knowledge and smart industry, but the PBL clearly indicates that regional deals should be developed as an elaboration of the National Brainport action agenda, for example. Do the 21 municipalities see this much-applauded agenda for action as their own agenda? It might be an idea to have all the colleges appoint a portfolio holder MRE or put this task at the mayor’s office.

The region can learn from Munich

The study shows that in economically successful regions (Munich, Madrid, Milton Keynes, Dublin, Amsterdam and Eindhoven) governments play an active role by facilitating growth processes and investing in them. In the region, a lot of attention is paid to growth and innovation, as well as in accessibility and human capital. At the same time, the PBL emphasises the importance of attractive places and facilities for living, working, learning and recreation. This certainly applies to the far too dirty air and increasing noise pollution in the region. According to the PBL, these are factors that hinder economic growth. With some electric transport, banning cars from some roads, some extra trees, and some extra bicycle parking, we really can’t get there. In this context, we will have to make tough choices with the region as to whether and how Eindhoven Airport (crucial for business climate) can continue to grow and how our top (campus) locations should be opened up. This also applies to a rapid reduction (up to a ban on emissions of cars, scooters and buses, especially in the centres, right up to determining locations for clean solar and wind energy. On p. 87, the PBL describes – with due reason – that “the city of Eindhoven has only recently focused on creating an attractive living and working environment, precisely in order to further develop the economy”. The region can learn from Munich in this respect. Since 2010, that city has opted for biotechnology, cleantech, green energy and sustainable transport and has opted for an ‘Umweltpact’, ‘Klimaallianz’ en ‘climate protection’. Amsterdam is also working on the operationalization of the circular economy for a longer period of time. When will the region come up with a strong climate agreement?

Strong regions benefit from the renovation and renewal of inner cities

Eindhoven is a transformation champion in 2015 and 2016 and is committed to compacting, certainly in and around the station and the city center. Strong regions such as Amsterdam, Munich, and Madrid benefit from the renovation and renewal of city centers. Munich’s good living climate is the result of its focus on compact, urban and green areas. Eindhoven will now have to get on with the ongoing compaction and high-rise building, renovation of public space and greening of the city center despite the severe cuts. According to the PBL, density also ensures extra growth in combination with knowledge and culture. This knowledge is more than sufficient, but the call for more attention and investment in the city for metropolitan facilities and culture is not new. The PBL confirms the region’s continued focus on good international connectivity, such as the connection to Düsseldorf, but also to the Randstad region. This results in an even greater effect of density on economic growth. The omission in the study is that nothing is said about the importance of improving intra-regional connectivity.

The region has become recognizable and strong because of its long-term focus on Technology, Design, and Knowledge and making choices. The strong thing about the Brainport National Agenda for Action is that, as the PBL describes, it is a ‘backing challengers’ approach: it is about ‘stimulating innovation within the current structure and the challengers of the established order‘. In my view, there should be even more emphasis on these challengers, especially in the area of sustainability and circularity as Munich shows.

The challenge for the region is that all 21 municipalities together want to remain the smartest region.

Cities can learn from Eindhoven that the policy has moved in time from physical policy (spatial planning and infrastructure) to policy aimed at a total (innovation) system. The PBL concludes that “entrepreneurship, clustering and knowledge and innovation policies have become important elements of a policy mix specified by regional context“. The challenge for the region is that all 21 municipalities will feel ownership of the smartest region’s success and will want to remain the smartest region together. In addition to really regional awards, cooperation, and coordination, an emphasis is placed on climate, climate, climate, climate and working on attractive housing, work, education and recreation facilities. The cities of Eindhoven and Helmond, in particular, will have to play a pioneering role in this and will have to invest heavily in kind and cash in the region. The region will have to recognize the importance of more and better metropolitan housing, work locations such as the BIC and (cultural) facilities in Eindhoven.

No doubt, the period towards the municipal elections will be very interesting.