Interview with Eszter Héjj

Thank you for sitting down for this interview Eszter, we are grateful for giving us some of your time. February is the Month of Urbanism in Hungary and we wanted to talk about how urbanism, urban development and related issues are manifesting in the European Union’s new, 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Frameworks (MFF) and the programmes that are expected or planned to be part of this new MFF.

But to understand that, I wanted to ask you about the EU’s main initiatives, agendas or goals in relation to urbanism and urban development.

We can clearly see that the importance of urbanism and sustainable urban development, to use a term used more and more often in all the development goals and documents, is significantly increased in the new programming period. Cities are more and more important and stronger and stronger, which is reflected in the programming.

I wouldn’t say there are specific goals only related to cities or urbanism. However, the overall goals of the EU, which are behind all EU investments in the 2021-27 period, are to create a greener, more digital and more resilient Europe, and to achieve this the EU has five main objectives. The EU wishes to create a smarter Europe, a greener, carbon-free Europe, a more connected Europe (both transport-wise and digitally), a more social Europe and a Europe closer to its citizens. The first four objectives are not that different from the previous period. Yet the fifth objective, a Europe closer to citizens, shows the importance of cities, as it basically means supporting locally-led development strategies and sustainable urban development across the EU. So already on the level of objectives, it appears that sustainable urban development needs to be in the focus. This is the key driver of all urbanism-related EU initiatives.

Cities becoming more important was already visible in the previous period when new structures and programmes were set up to support cities.

We can mention the Urban Agenda for the EU which was launched in 2016 after the Pact of Amsterdam, setting out a multi-level working method for cooperation between the Member States, cities, the Commission and other relevant stakeholders, thus bringing together all sorts of players. It has twelve topics and has working groups setting up agendas for the twelve focus areas. This will be continued.

There is the Urban Development Network which is a formal platform where cities can directly interact with the Commission, again gaining more importance and being continued. Then there are specific, dedicated programmes like the Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) which is built upon the Urban Agenda for the EU and the Urban Development Network.

So all in all what I can say is that the new MFF will work to deliver the overall goals of the EU, and within that cities will play a specific role.

Before going into details about the programmes, do you think the EU is playing a proactive role in centring cities and increasing their importance in EU policy, or is the EU merely following social and economic trends and tendencies, such as increased urbanisation and the increased role of cities in climate change mitigation?

I think it is both. I am not into EU-level policy-making as such, but it must be both. On the one hand, it is the international tendencies and bottom-up initiatives, for sure, and there is a high level of urbanisation and a need to tackle issues locally. For example, challenges set out by the Sustainable Development Goals or the European Green Deal have big implications on the city level. But it is also the EU embracing these initiatives, so it is a conscious decision as well. Nevertheless, I think the tendencies are clear, you’re absolutely right to ask that. There is a clear urbanisation tendency worldwide, not just in Europe, but Europe is specific in that.

And besides the ones mentioned above, there are also several bottom-up European-level initiatives that focus on cities, such as Eurocities or the Covenant of Mayors, to mention just two, that are gaining more and more importance and thus need to be heard and taken into consideration.

Let’s move on to specific programmes. It is still very much the beginning of the new programming period, but as far as you can tell, what will be the programmes related to urban development? Will there be any new thematic programmes, like UIA was in the previous period, and will other programmes have emphases on urban issues? What I mean here, for example, if there is an increased emphasis on urban problems in Horizon Europe (the successor of Horizon 2020) or Digital Europe, or if the European Green Deal is manifested in the programmes in a way that relates back to cities.

Yes, it is quite early, the programmes are still being discussed and developed and while some information is already shared publicly, most information is not yet available. Still, with regards to directly managed programmes, which is our area of expertise, we have a general idea of what is to be expected, so I can give a brief overview of those.

What we see, on the one hand, that there will be dedicated urban programmes like there were in the previous period, but these are even more emphasised. We know for sure that the good old URBACT programme remains. This is a programme dedicated to cities, supporting knowledge exchange and networking. There is a programme we already mentioned, which was new in the previous period and proved to be successful, which is the Urban Innovative Actions. But UIA doesn’t really remain a standalone programme. Rather, we have a new thing called European Urban Initiative, which serves as a kind of umbrella for urban initiatives. One strand of this will be UIA, while its other strand will focus more on knowledge sharing and networking. As far as it can be known at this stage, a specific knowledge sharing platform will be created and knowledge flow will be encouraged between the various programmes like URBACT and UIA. Actually, just now there has been a call initiated by URBACT, the aim of which was to transfer knowledge gained from successful UIA projects to other European cities, and more of this kind of initiative is expected in the new period. Knowledge sharing is expected towards the mainstream programmes, to ensure that the outcomes of the URBACT networks and UIA projects are taken more into consideration when planning mainstream programmes and implementing mainstream projects. So there is clearly a dedicated set of programmes.

On the other hand, as you also asked, we see that there will be an increased emphasis on urban development issues in other directly managed programmes, too. You, rightly, mentioned Horizon Europe (the follow up programme of Horizon2020), which is traditionally the research, development and innovation programme of the EU: cities are gaining more and more prominence in Horizon Europe calls, mostly in a role of testing out solutions (from an applied research point of view) and serving as demonstration sites for innovations. The same goes for the LIFE programme, traditionally the green programme of the EU, where urban problems and urban issues appeared, especially in its climate strand, but also its biodiversity strand accepts cities and urban issues and problems more and more into its scope. And of course there are the Interreg programmes that consider not only regional but increasingly urban developmental issues. Most of the direct, transnational programmes are focusing more on urban development.

Two more things are to be mentioned. In general, 6% of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) funding available for countries has to be spent on urban development, which also emphasises cities. Finally, in response to the COVID19-pandemic we have the Recovery and Resilience Facility, where local and city governments are supposed to be involved in how the funds are used. Let’s hope that will happen like that, as there are no guarantees yet for the RRF funding actually being spent in the way it was planned to be.

And we can be certain that from time to time there will be specific initiatives dedicated to cities or urban development. Like we can just think of the current European City Facility that was born as part of a H2020 project and that offers cities the possibility to develop investment concepts related to actions identified in their energy and climate plans, thus related to energy efficiency, energy transition etc. Or we can mention the also currently open ERA-NET Cofund Urban Transformation Capacities that invites consortia including cities to create innovation and research projects enabling and supporting capacity building for urban transformations. I am convinced that more of these kinds of initiatives will pop up in the coming period as well.

Could you explain to the readers what are “mainstream programmes” as they might not be familiar with the term?

By “mainstream programmes” we usually mean the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF) funding– that is available for national governments, usually used in the form of national Operational Programmes. We often refer to this as “national funding” but this is the EU funding dedicated to each country and implemented in the framework of operational programmes. Whereas the other programmes we have been talking about are more directly related to Brussels, to put it like that, either directly managed by the Commission, or by specific agencies, but not on national level.

Okay, so what are the main changes compared to the previous period? What I mean isn’t so much on the level of programme details, but on a more overarching level, if you look from the distance. What are the main differences?

It is a good question, but it is a hard question to answer at this point, because we don’t see the full picture yet, only what is being discussed.

Clearly, it is a big change that we will have a European Urban Initiative, which is acting as an umbrella programme, as part of this a clear change is that the focus will be on knowledge transfer, which wasn’t this much emphasised in the previous period. It has always been an aim and as more and more programmes are implemented, of course, the EU always tried to build on the knowledge coming out of them, but such a dedicated knowledge sharing mechanism related to urban issues is clearly new in this period. And it’s also new that cities are gaining more prominence in programmes that were traditionally not welcoming to cities as partners in their projects, such as Horizon Europe. This is part of an evolution, let’s say, which we have already seen in the previous period and is now being, on purpose, strengthened further. I cannot be more concrete yet but we can come back to this question in a couple of months’ time when hopefully we will be able to read all the programmes or at least the draft ones.

This leads to the next question. We talked about the principle of involving local government and local stakeholders and the increasing emphasis of sustainable urban development. What are the roles that local actors – not only municipalities but local civil society organisations, local NGOs, local businesses, local citizens – play in these new programmes?

That very much depends on the programme. If we take UIA, the goal of that is to provide room for experiment for cities, so cities can try out completely new solutions for urban issues, urban problems according to the twelve topics of the Urban Agenda mentioned earlier, which includes among others climate change, transport, urban poverty, cultures, so a variety of topics. To implement these experiments, cities need to be in the lead, but need to collect around them all relevant local stakeholders.

So “partnership” is a key word here and I can say, in general, that local players, stakeholders need to work in partnership with cities. This is a formal requirement in certain programmes, while in others it is not, but can still be an informal requirement. To be successful, and we have seen this in previous projects, partnership is key. Working together, building on one another’s knowledge. This relates to localism of the whole thing again, sustainable urban development done locally, with local players as well. So involvement and partnership, I would say, are the key words here.

You’re one of the partners and managing director of Grants Europe Consulting. I want to ask about your company and how your company is helping municipalities, and organisations applying for funding more generally. Both in relation to programmes in the old MFF and upcoming programmes, how can you be of help?

Our company is specialised in these direct European funding programmes, and we can help our clients, who are mostly cities, at all stages of the development process, from scratch to successful project implementation. We can help cities identify what and how they wish to develop, what they should focus on, what are the strengths they can build upon. We can help them develop a strategy to apply for funding, by matching ideas to potential sources of funding, and also generating project initiatives and project ideas together with them.

It is very important to emphasise that it’s always very close and intensive cooperation, a joint effort. We are there to support cities – to help them think strategically, to help them plan, and to help them turn ideas into projects. And once we reached this phase, we are there to help them develop actual project applications for the programmes we’ve talked about and help them submit these applications. Once the application is successful – and, thank goodness, we were quite good at developing successful project applications in the previous period, with a success rate of around 80% – we can give them support on how to kickstart their project and then all the way through the project implementation we can be behind them and help them both in the administrative and even in some content-related issues.

Finally, what are your recommendations for municipalities in this new MFF? What should they look out for, what should they be aware of?

What has always been important and we can never emphasise it too much, is that cities should think ahead, they should plan, and they should think strategically. Now, we are still in a waiting period, because due to the delay in accepting the EU budget for this new period, the programme development is still ongoing, so there are no calls out yet. What we see and this may be important, the urban programmes we were mentioning previously will probably not have calls out before the end of 2021 or even more likely before early 2022. The same goes for Interreg-type programmes. But it is expected that some programmes will come out with calls this year. In fact, it is still forecasted that some programmes will come out with calls this spring, including Horizon Europe, LIFE and Creative Europe (we have not mentioned the last one yet -Creative Europe is focused on culture and creative industries).

So there will be some calls this year, but most of it is expected next year, which gives a kind of opportunity for cities to plan ahead. As more and more information is available on the programmes and funding opportunities, there is more and more room for them to identify their priorities, their strengths, what they can and want to build on, how they want to continue to set up strategies, plan ahead what they could apply for and how they could apply for them. Our advice is that it’s always very good to think in steps. It is always good to plan ahead and have projects that build on one another, serving the same purpose. So, for example, a municipality focusing on aging can start with an Interreg project, then use an URBACT project, and if they come up with a very innovative idea, this might culminate in a UIA project, this all building on one another, at the same time also setting up and / or strengthening the related local ecosystems. So that is my basic advice, to think strategically, to think in steps, to think ahead as much as possible. Don’t commit the mistake of waiting, waiting, waiting, then there is a call out and you find yourself thinking “what shall we do? We want some funding, what could we do?” Be ready.

Eszter Héjj is one of the partners of Grants Europe and responsible for the company’s international project development department since 2015. In this position, she has been successfully coordinating the development processes of dozens of international projects (in UIA, URBACT, INTERREG Europe, Interreg CENTRAL EUROPE, Interreg Danube, Interreg NWE, Creative Europe, H2020 etc.) across Europe. She is specialised in bridging regional/urban and European policies and associated funding programmes by connecting clients’ needs to funding opportunities.

Before this position, Eszter was responsible for the international management unit of the company, guiding the implementation support provided to a multitude of European projects for clients across Europe in all the above mentioned programmes and more. Before joining Grants, between 2004 and 2006, Eszter worked for the Hungarian Managing Authority of the Regional Development Operational Program and INTERREG Community Initiative, gaining important experiences in Programme implementation as well.