MEP Beaupuy: EU efforts to limit urban sprawl ‘non-existent’

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French Liberal Democrat MEP Jean Marie Beaupuy, Chair of Parliament’s Intergroup on Urban Housing, spoke with EURACTIV on 17 October during a seminar organised by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) on the issue of urban sprawl in Europe. 

Jean Marie Beaupuy is a member of the Alliance of Liberal Democrats (ALDE) in the European Parliament.

In what specific ways could the European Union assist municipalities in managing urban sprawl?

The European Union is not directly responsible, but considering the situation in many European cities, we hope that European Union will progressively bring attention to the necessary changes to be made. During the ten-year period 1990-2000, urban sprawl – the growth of urban areas – throughout Europe consumed more than 8000 square kilometres, an area equivalent to the size of Luxembourg.

People often wish to live in the countryside because it seems more pleasant and quiet. However, several years later, some realise that it’s not so convenient: it can be expensive, commuting takes time, and it is not always straightforward for a child’s schooling and activities. If a firm buys a cheap plot of land because it is in town or disused, it saves money, as the land is inexpensive. However, if the plot is not in the right area, it will rapidly become costly for the whole community. 

In light of this, what role can the European Union play in dealing with these problems?

At the European level, the first thing to do is to carry out studies and draw attention to the situation of urban sprawl across Europe. Secondly, the EU can encourage local authorities to tackle the problem. In the next few years, we hope the EU will be able to take necessary action – through the structural funds for example – by setting up projects aiming to reduce urban sprawl and avoiding waste.

A firm may be eligible for structural funds if it intends to move to an existing urban area rather than contributing to urban sprawl, for example?

In fact, the rules of the structural funds already point out that any project to receive funds from the European Union must adopt an integrated approach, accounting for issues such as: environment, transport, social inclusion, competitiveness and the overall costs involved.

But will this not increase the density of urban environments? Would it not be preferable to find ways to manage sprawl in a sustainable way?

We have to respect the principle of “subsidiarity”, which means that the European Union cannot decide on behalf of the national, regional or local authorities. Nevertheless, in the green paper on urban transport for example, the Commission encourages the European Union to initiate directives on air pollution or access to city centres.

Although the European Union will not legislate instead of member states, European regulations will force transport stakeholders to be more sparing and less polluting. This is how Europe can limit urban sprawl. At the European level, there is no legislation that focuses on urban sprawl, but there are different regulations like the green paper on urban transport, which limit it.

Is European policy moving in this direction?

Today’s meeting and the participation of the stakeholders tends to help the acceleration of the European Union’s activity in this area. However, the process to limit urban sprawl is currently quite slow or even non-existent.

You wrote a report on the “urban dimension” in the context of enlargement. What do you think about the way that structural funds are spent in the new member states?

The European Parliament and the European Commission will make sure that the structural funds are correctly spent, but those truly responsible for the projects are the local authorities. For the time being, our work consists of highlighting urban sprawl issues, but European cities will be able to get money from the structural funds – even if their projects do not totally take into account the integrated approach. The problem is that the integrated approach is not yet compulsory. If a project was obliged to apply the integrated approach, we could control urban sprawl more effectively.

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