Cities play a key role in building back better

8 October 2020

People living in cities have been hardest hit by the corona pandemic and the unfolding economic and social crisis. Poverty and inequalities are rapidly rising in cities, with new groups of people at risk of poverty – the ‘new urban poor’. Addressing this crisis requires bold actions by working together between all levels of government to build a fair and inclusive recovery in the EU. The recovery is the chance to do more than just undo the effects of the pandemic crisis. It is time to ‘build back better’ and put people first on the EU agenda. These were the conclusions of the digital high-level conference Building back better: A stronger social Europe – What role for cities? organised by Eurocities and co-hosted by MEPs Estrella Dura Ferrandis, Agnes Jongerius and Brando Benifei.

25 city mayors and deputy mayors presented their commitments to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights by putting principles into action through dedicated social investments for reinforcing childcare and support to children, improving affordable and social housing and reducing homelessness, providing active support to employment, skills training, and above all ensuring equal opportunities and fighting poverty. These so-called ‘city pledges’ are part of the Eurocities campaign to build Inclusive Cities for All that has so far achieved 60 city pledges, representing 51 million citizens, and pooling together social investments worth over €14.2 billion.

Momentum for EU action in new social policy areas

A key policy area identified where progress is needed is affordable housing. “There is an urgent need to change the approach to housing by treating it as a fundamental right for all people […] by ensuring that at least 30% of new housing is affordable for the lower-income groups and another 30% for middle-income group”, proposed Estrella Durá Ferrandis, MEP, who is working on the European Parliament’s report on affordable housing.

Providing support to the new groups of people facing vulnerability due to the pandemic crisis – the so-called ‘new urban poor’ – is a crucial task for many cities now. In Berlin, new urban poor are mainly EU citizens who move to the city and face difficulties entering the local labour market and finding decent housing. In fact, homelessness affects more EU mobile-citizens than refugees in Berlin. To help them, Berlin has put in place multilingual info points to share information about social rights, proactively fighting discrimination. Despite that, more needs to be done through an EU framework, according to Katharina Niewiedzial, Commissioner of the Senate for Integration and Migration, Berlin. This was echoed by Brando Benifei, MEP, who called for a stronger anti-poverty EU strategy to connect with cities.

In Rotterdam, the effects of the pandemic are seen through increasing debt for vulnerable families. To help them, the city has put in place services to identify the debts early on, provide free counselling and practical support and raise awareness through public campaigns about the taboo around debts. In particular, “tackling child poverty and breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty should be at the core of reinforcing social Europe”, according to Michiel Grauss, Rotterdam’s Deputy Mayor for poverty reduction, who announced that his city is preparing a pledge dedicated to fighting child poverty. He called for the European Commission to prioritise investment in children through integrated strategies covering debt reduction, reduction of stress and quality and affordable public services, supported by at least 5% of the allocated funds from the European Social Fund+.

“People living in deprived urban areas are amongst the most heavily affected by this crisis as regional disparities are deepening”, said Anne Karjaainen, Chair of the Social Policy and Employment Committee (SEDEC) of the Committee of the Regions, who called for strengthening the European Pillar of Social Rights and giving it more territorial focus.

Youth unemployment increased to 17% in the EU, 5 points higher than before the pandemic, as highlighted by Brando Benifei, MEP. As access to social security and welfare schemes is inhibited for young people who haven’t ever had a job, the European Parliament proposed in the context of the Youth Guarantee a financial instrument for income support for youth in difficult situations.

“As part of the binding steps needed at European level, besides tackling the housing affordability crisis, ensuring decent labour conditions and a minimum income for all people is key. A debate at EU level on minimum wages and minimum income is needed”, stressed Agnes Jongerius, MEP.

Confirming that concrete proposals are welcome for the action plan of the European Pillar of Social Rights, Katarina Ivanković-Knežević, Director of Social Affairs, DG EMPL, European Commission, announced that the European Commission is already preparing an EU Child Guarantee initiative for early 2021, a new EU Disability Strategy, a minimum wage framework, an initiative on housing exclusion and homelessness as well as planning a new initiative on minimum income.

EU funding to support social investments

Cities like Berlin use EU funding for many local inclusion measures and projects, but the problem is the lack of flexibility within EU funding sources, as they cannot be easily redirected to address the urgent needs arising from the pandemic. Katharina Niewiedzial called for more flexibility and transparency of EU funding and direct communication between cities and the European Commission, given that the communication through national level can be lengthy, overly administrative and can often overlook the direct needs at local level.

Answering Berlin’s call for more flexibility in how EU funds are used, Brando Benifei MEP, explained how the European Parliament is pushing for the Next Generation EU recovery funds to allow re-targeting and re-prioritising programmes to address current social challenges in cities, such as having clear targets for the national recovery plans to tackle urban poverty and youth unemployment, among others. He stressed the importance of a multi-level governance approach, which is to say a way to include cities in the programming of the recovery funds.

From the side of the European Commission, Katarina Ivankovici called on cities to work with their national governments to push the social and urban dimension into the national recovery plans that will benefit from EU recovery funds. She indicated that so far the national recovery plans tend to focus on green, digital and transport reforms, but there is a lot of potential to use up to 25% of the budget for the Recovery and Resilience Facility for investments in social and healthcare services and social policy reforms.

Governance and the role of cities

“Local authorities are much more aligned with the needs of local citizens”, according to Agnes Jongerius, MEP, who also shared that “EU stakeholders are noticing the efforts from cities and perceive it as a progress from the Pact of Amsterdam to mainstreaming the role of cities in EU policies like the European Pillar of Social Rights”.

Estrella Durá Ferrandis MEP, noted that “change is coming bottom-up from cities that can inspire and move policies at national and EU level”, referring to cities’ inclusive policies to make housing more affordable.

The “local and regional level must be at centre of the action plan on implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights”, according to Anne Karjaainen from the Committee of the Regions, who added that a “successful recovery must include cities and have strong social dimension.”

In his conclusions, Maarten van Ooijen, Deputy Mayor of Utrecht called for a new pact between city and EU leaders to work together on strengthening social Europe, highlighting that “cities should be more strongly involved, with a formal seat at the table.”

From the European Commission, Katarina Ivanković-Knežević invited cities to have their say by sending contributions to the EU public consultation on social Europe until 30 November.

The recording of the full event is available here: