Regions play an essential role in the transition to a low-carbon economy (LCE) and meeting European emissions reduction targets. To this end, many territorial entities have developed LCE strategies, primarily Sustainable Energy (and Climate) Action Plans (SEAPs/SECAPs) and Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs), setting out targets and actions to be implemented to meet climate obligations. SEAPs and SECAPs are established within the framework of the Covenant of Mayors, and whilst most cities and municipalities establish individuals strategies, multi-municipal strategies are also encouraged.

In response to project demand, the Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform arranged an online discussion with partners from the APPROVE, COALESCCE, INTENSIFY, SUPPORT and ZEROCO2 projects on 10 July 2019 to discuss challenges related to governing multi-municipal low-carbon strategies.

Multi-municipal strategies – best for smaller municipalities 

The group discussed at what level and scale multi-municipal strategies could be established. Cities and urban centres typically have their own strategies, making it challenging for surrounding municipalities to co-operate with them on a single strategy. It was emphasised though that cities should co-operate with their surrounding municipalities on common actions, particularly where they are economically and socially reliant on a large, neighbouring city. Multi-municipal strategies were instead deemed most relevant for small municipalities, which may find it difficult to elaborate a strategy alone, enabling municipalities to share resources and plan more efficiently by developing joint actions.

For those municipalities that do decide to enter into a joint strategy, numerous governance challenges arise, related to keeping all participating municipalities motivated, balancing different priorities, and sharing responsibilities and resources. Such challenges have been considered in a Peer Review in the German Speaking Community of Belgium, which has established a joint SECAP amongst its nine municipalities, under the co-ordination of the regional ministry. The outcomes of the peer review formed the basis of the discussion, the conclusions of which are presented below. 

Governance structure as the backbone of the joint strategy

Strategies need to consider not only what actions to prioritise, but also how to organise the different participants and manage institutional arrangements. The discussion emphasised the need to have a strong co-ordinating entity, able to oversee the whole process, facilitate and prepare meetings, divide responsibilities between municipalities and oversee implementation. The central governance structure should also include a Steering Group (SG), made up of both political and technical participants from each of the participating municipalities, with responsibility for co-ordination and overall strategy development and implementation.

The actual implementation of tasks, however, should be planned and implemented in Working Groups (WG), comprised of civil servants, stakeholders, and political representatives and consultants (if external expertise is needed). The Working Groups answer to the Steering Group, and the co-ordinating entity can choose whether to take part in the WGs (as chair, participant or secretary), or simply monitor through the SG. If the co-ordinator is not to chair the WGs, then leadership can be revolving, or assigned to a municipality with particular interest or expertise in the topic. 

At the Municipal Level, the discussion stressed the need to assign a single responsible person with time dedicated to the energy strategy, including training colleagues and running meetings, as well as establishing Energy Teams in public buildings and structures to implement day-to-day activities and train staff.

Allocating tasks and responsibilities at all levels

Responsibilities must be clearly assigned to the different governance levels, to ensure that strategies can be properly implemented. In particular, it must be clear what role the municipalities play, and what support they can expect from the co-ordinating entity. 

Internally, the co-ordinator, with input from the Steering Group, should direct the actions of the Working Groups, organising meetings, requesting reports, providing expertise and guidance (including procurement of external guidance if required), and arranging joint projects and funding applications. Municipalities and WGs can, of course, also be encouraged to apply for funding and projects, but direction from the SC as to who is responsible needs to be clear. The co-ordinating entity should also provide joint tools such as monitoring software and reporting documents. Externally, the co-ordinating entity should manage promotion of the joint strategy and engage stakeholders and wider society in the decision-making process.

In setting up the Working Groups, consideration should be given to the main interests and expertise of the municipalities. Placing a municipality with well-developed expertise and interests at the head of a relevant Working Group ensures that other municipalities can benefit from their involvement, whilst also keeping the WG chair interested. The co-ordinating entity can also establish binding agreements to ensure that municipalities follow through with their obligations. This has the benefit of ensuring that political disruption is minimised, as municipalities are still bound to the agreements, even if political leadership changes.

Monitoring performance and communicating progress

Co-ordinating entities need to be able to monitor the performance of the individual municipalities, ensuring that all are contributing, and that the strategy is on track, as well as using the information to promote achievements and keep up momentum. However, it can be challenge to get information from so many different sources. To solve this, a centralised system should be set up, using monitoring tools and reporting documents. The lead person in each municipality should be responsible for gathering data and reporting to the Steering Group. Whilst the process should aim to be as uncomplicated as possible, the lead person may still require training.

Monitoring should be focused primarily on actions and impacts, bearing in mind that different municipalities will be looking at different challenges and implementing different actions. The discussion recommended that three sets of indicators be used: process-based indicators, related to implementation of the plan (milestones, number of stakeholders reached); risk and vulnerability (up-to-date information on specific challenges faced by the region), and impact (progress towards targets, mobilisation of resources).

If the strategy being implanted is a SE(C)AP, then the co-ordinating entity should ensure that collected data is in line with the requirements of the Covenant of Mayors. The discussion highlighted that lots of tools are already available, developed for use by regions across Europe for monitoring and data reporting, many of which are open and available for other regions to use (see the presentation for a selection of tools).

Click to read more about the Peer Review on multi-municipal strategies, or to see the presentation from the online discussion. For more on Interreg Europe’s work on low-carbon governance, see the Policy Brief, ‘Governance Change for Energy Efficiency in Buildings’.

Image credit: Photo by RawFilm from Unsplash