Valuing the interior, between centralism and localism

Internal imbalances that persist are a faithful mirror of our political choices and our collective trajectory as a country and as a nation

I return, once again, to the theme of valuing the interior. The Portuguese interior has been trapped for decades between excessive localism and excessive centralism.

Municipalization guarantees proximity to citizens and the distribution of small party political powers, but its small size does not ensure economies of scale and agglomeration with sufficient size to reverse the cycle of depopulation and desertification.

On the other hand, the central administration is in an apparently comfortable position in that it allows it to manage the devolved regional administration in the most convenient way and to dialogue with the municipalities in an almost always advantageous position.

Whenever a new period of programming European funds is discussed, the political country's compadres meet again and a new edition of the bipolar, centralist and localist country takes place.

Almost forty years after our entry into the EEC, after so much public and private investment financed by European funds, in a country as small as ours, the internal imbalances that persist are a faithful mirror of our political choices and our collective trajectory as a country. and as a nation.

At the precise moment when, exceptionally, we converge three major public policy instruments – Portugal 2020 (until the end of 2023), Portugal 2027 (until 2030) and the Resilience and Recovery Program (until 2026) – with a contribution extraordinarily relevant amount of European funds, we have a unique opportunity to structure the next regional operational program (POR) as a compromise between major transitions – the ecological transition (the valorization of natural heritage), the energy transition (decarbonization and the new matrix energy), the demographic transition (the rejuvenation of the population), the digital transition (the digitalization of activities) – and during the decade carry out the transformation of the socio-productive and socio-cultural model of the regions through an innovative compromise between nature, the economy and culture.

In Portugal, territorial imbalances follow a well-known pattern. On the one hand, metropolitan, suburban and peri-urban areas, accumulating increasing external costs of a social and environmental nature that taxpayers socialize through taxes, on the other, devitalized and desertified urban and rural areas incapable of generating sufficient network and agglomeration economies to reverse this vicious circle.

The outcome is also known. In an economy that has high public debt, bank credit with high interest rates and a low internal savings rate, the country is at the mercy of creditors and foreign capital and large portions of the national territory and many other valuable assets pass hands. , practically without realizing it. We don't want to talk openly about the issue, but it is a substantial part of our territorial sovereignty that is being called into question.

Having said that, and to escape the logic of the bipolar country, I believe that the middle ground between localism and centralism has its own headquarters, it is called the regional operational program (POR) at NUTS II level and, through subcontracting and/or delegation, the territorial development programs of intermunicipal communities (CIM) at the NUTS III level, that is, the regional and sub-regional levels can therefore operate with convenient programming and planning freedom if, for this purpose, a favorable procedure is adopted and expedited contracting with the central administration and local administration.

We know that the valorization of the interior has no short-term solution, but it is in the short term that we have to take appropriate measures towards the future. Over the next decade, with such substantial financial resources, it is imperative to overcome the diffuse and dispersive effects that reach the territories through separate applications with reduced agglomerative impact and to promote, within the Regional Operational Program and the CIM Operational Program, the contractualization of public support through regional subsidies that adjust with more criteria and equity to the needs and priorities of the territories. In summary, here are the lines of force that can correspond to this purpose.

Firstly, before being agricultural, industrial or rural, the correct framing of the problem of valuing the interior must be placed at the territorial level, the NUTS II level (nomenclature of territorial statistical units) corresponding to our coordination and development regions or CCDR and the NUTS III level corresponding to intermunicipal communities.

Secondly, to give political consistency to the entire exercise and create an effective chain of command in terms of programming and planning, a mission structure for the same purpose should be created in the Ministry of Cohesion.

Thirdly, it is necessary to create a regional actor-network that has sufficient centrality and rationality, so that the policy focus is placed on the CCDR coordination regime, within the framework of a regional operational program (POR), intensifying and improving the integration of regional territorial development services.

Fourthly, it should be openly discussed whether the NUTS III/CIM level (sub-regions and inter-municipal communities) is an adequate level of relevance for the integrated management of territorial policy instruments and what are the conditions for an effective decentralization/contracting of the respective competences.

Fifth, the centrality of the CCDR coordination and development regime should imply the creation of a regional executive council, a regional planning and territory administration service and multi-service mission teams for the management of inter-municipal communities (CIM).

Sixthly, regional and intermunicipal development programs may be the subject of territorial development contracts and provided with global subsidies for this purpose; the regional operational program (POR) will be the apex of this contractual and operational building. The ministerial model of sectoral silos pouring tender notices, separate measures and public expenditure onto territories is exhausted. Territories need network actors, collective territorial intelligence and the creativity of citizens through participatory and collaborative innovation platforms.

Seventhly, local and regional territories run the serious risk of being captured by algorithms, servers and templates operating remotely, in Brussels and Lisbon, and practically invisible; This fact is a warning and should be used to reinforce its political representation, namely through a major political-administrative decentralization program.

Finally, this is a great opportunity for low-density areas that need territorial innovation and, in this way, can benefit from a new planning culture with emphasis on networks of small and medium-sized towns and cities in the interior in different socio-institutional formats. innovators of self-government, in particular, in everything that concerns territorial digitalization platforms and their interconnections, for example, business areas, community agriculture, forestry intervention zones, programs to combat forest fires, integrated landscape management areas , cooperative and associative groups of various types, etc.

Final Notes

In this strategy of valuing the interior, there is, however, a risk that should not be underestimated, namely, that this contract with intermediate levels will excessively increase the list of infrastructures and equipment of a public and collective nature, to respond to clientele. and old and new corporations, with obvious harm to incentive systems for private investment, business rejuvenation and innovation. I remind you that in terms of territorial cohesion, in particular, how to deal with the major transitions mentioned above, the so-called smartification of the territory is an excellent opportunity.

The driving idea, once again, is the polycentrism of the network of small and medium-sized cities that connects not only the different business areas, but also municipal ecological structures and green corridors and allows for more effective planning of new common infrastructures and utilities.

This way, we will have more city in the countryside and more countryside in the city. At the same time, the digitalization of the territory, using various information and geographic location technologies, allows us to add augmented and virtual reality to the pre-existing territory and, in this way, expand the symbolism of the territorial distinctive signs that are the basis of a desired sentimental geography.

In the end, there is always an additional risk in perspective, namely that regional, sub-regional and inter-municipal jealousy will increase, to the exact extent that subsidies and support are now closer to the beneficiaries and recipients.

And, at the end of the day, once again, the expenditure execution rate could serve to disguise the true program to enhance the interior.



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