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When it comes to innovation in the spatial domain, you simply cannot overlook the mega-project of the Dutch Environment and Planning Act. Its enactment, originally scheduled for 2019, was recently postponed for the fourth time. One of the reasons for this is all too familiar to the government: persistent ICT problems with the integration of existing systems.

In the spatial domain, the planning pyramid has been turned on its head. National governance has been severely slashed back as a result of decades of deregulation, including the disbanding of the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) and the Environment and the State Office of Environment Planning. As a result, Dutch spatial planning policy is increasingly dictated by choices made at the municipal level. The Environment and Planning Act is the final piece in this process.

Hugo de Jonge, the brand new minister – albeit still without a ministry – for Public Housing and Spatial Planning (VRO) gave the discernibly faded trophy a quick polish in the form of a Tweet (translated here into English): 

Added to that : ‘The enactment is not going to be rescheduled again.’ Cross my hart and hope to die :-).

I am slightly concerned about this, in light of the future. Is this actual policy, or is it still being seriously considered? The government is pretending that with one new law it will be able to address all spatial problems at once. At the same time, it is throwing out a large amount of tried and tested legislation at the stroke of a pen.

I was in doubt for a long time because in principle, there is a lot to be said in favor of an integrated and holistic approach. I am convinced that complexity is actually a blessing in disguise when it comes to solving spatial problems. But the empirical truth, after three years of struggling with this law, now compels me to admit: this can obviously never go well. The Environment and Planning Act is so vast that it is unworkable.

Public participation

Thanks to an integral assessment based on the ‘yes, provided that…’ principle, the emphasis of the Environment and Planning Act is primarily on this ambitious objective. The accompanying standards and rules are vague and far less importance. As a consequence, an integral environmental standard that engages and benefits the entire community simply remains relatively out of reach. While that, ultimately, was the main goal of this law.

This is compounded by the fact that the Environment and Planning Act shifts the use of public participation in construction projects from the government to the market, while at the same time failing to define what such participation should entail, so that it simply does not constitute grounds for refusal of an environmental permit if it proves to be lacking.

I don’t know how you manage to do it. Getting in touch with the right people in government and engaging in meaningful dialogue is still no mean feat. That already costs me a lot of effort even as a professional. Go figure. Just try to be taken seriously as an ordinary citizen. It already starts with the question of who you should really talk to. Usually it is completely opaque who is working on the matters that you are most concerned with. More than you’d like, that is one thing that is certain. Along the way, other islands constantly surface, where the next batch of uninformed people cheerfully stand idly by. With an opinion that needs to be navigated prior to providing you with any service.

Areas for improvement

And slowly, slowly, excruciatingly slowly the wheels of bureaucracy turn. Municipalities are in a comatose state half of the time. An email which you receive a dozen automatic out-of-office replies to, in which they dryly refer you to someone else, is definitely no exception: You understand, I am not available at the moment, but of course you can contact so-and-so. Provided it is urgent of course :-).

No ill will. Only areas for improvement. Don’t get me wrong. Lots of good things are happening too.

For example, the municipality of Eindhoven is devoting a great deal of its capacity and attention to good community consultation. That is quite special. With the project “When is participation good enough?” they are at the forefront of municipalities developing instruments for good environmental terms and conditions.

Conversations were held with city councillors, developers, representatives of special interest groups and officials, drawing on recent participatory practices, about who exactly are the stakeholders that should be involved in major urban developments. When you should do that. How to organize that process effectively and efficiently. And about the need for clear rules and their enforcement.

That last point is also a conclusion reached by Ilke Klasen, a master’s student at the Faculty of Architecture at Eindhoven University of Technology. Her graduation thesis ‘The challenges of participation in urban densification projects from different perspectives’ contains a number of clear recommendations. Many of those clear rules are actually quite obvious. But you have to spot them first, of course. I hadn’t thought of them myself.

Participation

The quintessential thing, however, is that you have to somehow guarantee that these process rules are dealt with in a legally binding way, whether by the municipal council or via an ordinance, the environmental plan, or something like that. This is particularly necessary because the participation process is shifting to the market. And the market – and this is not necessarily a bad thing – has its own interests. Nevertheless, the Environment and Planning Act offers few, if any, guarantees.

In my opinion, this is both a fundamental democratic problem that needs to be fixed as well as a potential stumbling block to the envisaged acceleration of housing construction. If, when all is said and done, it turns out that the participation process is only pro forma, or the process has been manipulated and there is no way to supervise it, let alone have a legal leg to stand on, then the outcome will ultimately be a whole lot of disgruntled citizens.

Photo: Olha Bondarenko (left) and Marte Kappert at the presentation of the Eindhoven project “When is participation good enough? Photo: Municipality of Eindhoven.

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer, PG Kroeger and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles in this column.

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