By Carmen Vitale (external contributor)

The observations below aim to highlight the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on territorial inequalities in Italy. As will be mentioned, territorial inequalities and the differences they cause in citizens’ most fundamental rights (health, education, and culture) are constant in Italian history. In a context that is already remarkably patchy, the impact of the pandemic has greatly accelerated those differences by progressively marginalising some areas of the country.The Government has tried to provide a first, partial response to such issues through the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience (PNRR).

Territorial inequalities in an era of globalisation

Territorial inequalities have multiplied throughout the entire western world in the last 20 years. An OECD analysis shows that between 1995 and 2014, income inequality is constantly widening almost everywhere, but it is much higher in less developed countries. Within such a framework, the issue of territorial imbalances, strictly linked to social inequalities, is crucial for pursuing the agenda of sustainable development.

Moreover, territorial (as well as social and economic) cohesion is a foundational aspect of European citizenship. Faced with growing pressure that threatens the foundations of the European Union (EU) project, such as the consequences of Brexit, the economic crisis, migratory phenomena, and the health crisis, European institutions cannot elude a robust strategy to enhance cohesion policies in reducing territorial inequalities.

Territorial inequalities in Italy

In Italy in particular, territorial inequality has been an unresolved issue since the country was unified in 1865. Figures about inequalities show that Italy's regional areas are as different from each other as the States within the EU are. For a long time, the territorial divide was essentially considered from an economic viewpoint only, and it was taken for granted that economic development would automatically create social wellbeing. However, more recently, a broader territorial gulf in the enjoyment of social rights has come to the fore of the debate. Moreover, besides the classic North-South divide, a significant East-West divide has been growing in Italy.

National strategy for internal areas

The recent approval of the National Strategy for Internal Areas - SNAI (part of the European cohesion policies framework) is to be noted on these issues. In this plan, 'fragile areas' are those far away from the main centres where services (mobility, health, education) are provided. Hence, they are subject to abandonment, depopulation, and low growth. The SNAI has envisaged local development trajectories by using a place-based approach. It starts with recognising local peculiarities and moves along two main axes: optimisation of natural and cultural resources and active involvement of local communities.

It is not possible to provide an assessment of the strategy’s effects yet. It is, however, fitting to point out a few weaknesses: the procedure (from identifying areas to planning interventions) involves too many institutional levels, thus risking complicating and delaying the implementing process. In turn, the involvement of local communities is crucial. In some areas, though, it is one of the most significant difficulties due to the poor quality of the institutional context and the capacity of spreading good practices of active, informed citizenship.

The effects of the pandemic on territorial inequalities

The Covid-19 pandemic has further added to this general picture of territorial divides. The response to the health emergencies in the various Italian geographic areas has been mixed and disjointed in several ways. The adequacy of healthcare services locally has been questioned, as the guarantee of the right to education, and the access to remote teaching and resources. Regarding the healthcare system, for example, recent reports have shown the different resilience of the Italian regions on several indicators: hospital discharge rate, outpatient performance, first aid, exemptions, mental health, home care.

Despite the figures that showed, even before the pandemic, an enlargement of the mentioned gap, the issue of the North-South territorial divide has been neglected compared to other priorities on the political agenda. It must be noted that a massive flow of public funds over the past decades, wasted and managed inefficiently at a local level, has barely affected that picture.

From territorial inequalities to social inequalities: inclusion and cohesion in the Italian PNRR

The current situation shows renewed attention to the topics linked generally to Southern Italy and marginalised areas. This approach percolated through the PNRR (Department for European Policies - National Plan for Recovery and Resilience) within the Next-Generation EU programme, wherein one of the main objectives is social, economic, and territorial cohesion (Mission 5). As is well known, such national plans essentially constitute the EU's primary response to the pandemic crisis.

More specifically, the PNRR allocates 19.8 billion euros for inclusion and cohesion: 6.66 billion for labour policies; 11.17 billion for social, family, and charity infrastructures; 1.98 billion for special interventions regarding social cohesion, of which 83 million will be allocated to the SNAI. As we can see, the most considerable portion of resources is devoted to 'social infrastructures'. On this matter, we must point out that the so-called 'third sector' (socially-oriented charities) has been a significant protection network to address the emergency, particularly in marginalised situations. However, as needs grow, many organisations in the post-pandemic period have been forced to reduce their activities. The PNRR also highlights the crucial role of local institutions in devising measures of social inclusion in partnership with the third sector, particularly in fields such as culture and sport. Social housing, housing improvement, and urban renewal constitute another crucial policy area. To this end, metropolitan authorities should draw up 'Integrated Plans', including smaller centres, suburban areas, and public-private partnership.

The implementation of the PNRR is a major challenge for the Italian institutional system. The Plan includes a variety of so-called 'horizontal' reforms of public administration and the judicial system whose aim is to boost institutional capacity and efficacy.

Institutional quality has been identified as a factor of territorial inequality in a study carried out by the London School of Economics. It argues that neglecting the local institutional dimension in development policies is one of the biggest causes of what is known as 'waste strategies', ie, having short-term effect. Such policies either do not change the situation, or worsen it. However, by addressing the institutional dimension of development policies one can transform 'waste strategies' into 'earning strategies'. Measures that can produce mid/long-term sustainable outcomes, achieve territorial and social cohesion and reduce inequality.

However, as has been noted, beyond the horizontal reforms, the PNRR fails to provide an institutional strategy to face territorial imbalances and the various forms of territorial marginalisation. The territorial divide is still addressed by providing episodic, residual, and fragmented measures and tools.

A comprehensive action aimed to weave together individual needs and places’ characters is necessary instead. In other words, the term 'territorial cohesion' should not be confined to specific measures, but indicate a methodology of policy action targeting marginalised areas of the country, such as urban peripheries, deindustrialized countryside, coastal areas in crisis, etc. Such an action should be tailored to people in their places and involve all the relevant sectoral policies: school, health, mobility, culture, food, landscape, etc.

As a good practice, we could mention the Italian Government's strategy called 'open cohesion' based on principles of transparency and step-by-step public control both on decision-making processes and their implementation. A similar model should be used to implement the PNRR, whilst all the effort is apparently directed towards reducing red tape and disbursing the money allocated with no delay. The risk is that social inclusion and territorial cohesion remain in the books, and Italy falls back to where it stood before the pandemic.