The Netherlands is a decentralised unitary state with three levels of government: the national level; 12 provinces; and 355 municipalities (in 2020).
This three-tier structure dates back to 1848. The Netherlands is a parliamentary representative democracy, a constitutional monarchy, and a consociational state (the term consociational refers to power sharing arrangements between different social and/or political groups). The Netherlands was one of the founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community, which started the process of European integration and ultimately led to the formation of the European Union (EU). Like all members of the EU, the Netherlands is subject to EU legislation. The EU can be regarded as a fourth tier of government in the Netherlands since many decisions made in Europe have impacts, either directly or indirectly, on policies and procedures at the national and local levels. For example, European legislation on air quality has a major influence on urban planning decisions at the sub-national level. Since it is one of the wealthier countries in the EU, the Netherlands receives low levels of funding via the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF). Per capita, it is one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget. The country does however receive substantial payments from the EU in the form of agricultural subsidies, and funding for research, development and innovation.
The Netherlands is a relatively small but densely populated country situated in north-west Europe, bordering Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the north and west. Its location on a river delta at the mouth of three large rivers is a major feature of the country’s physical geography. The country is at the centre of an extensive network of inland and coastal shipping routes, which allowed the city of Rotterdam (the country’s second most populous city) to develop into one of the world’s largest ports. The Netherlands has more than 225,000 km of inland waterways, 18,000 km of dykes, and 3,700 pumping stations. Much of the country is below sea level, making water a constant threat. Because of this, the country has a long history of flood management, and invests in strengthening water defences along its coasts and rivers. The impacts of climate change, such as more frequent and more severe storms and rising ocean levels, are likely to pose very severe consequences for the use of land in the Netherlands.
The capital of the Netherlands is Amsterdam, a port city, tourist destination, financial centre and hub for the arts and creative and innovative industries. The seat of government and parliament is located in The Hague (the country’s third most populous city). The country’s official language is Dutch. West Frisian is a second official language in the province of Friesland, while Dutch Low Saxon and Limburgish are recognised as regional languages, spoken in the east and south-east of the Netherlands respectively. The country has a population of 17.2 million across an area of approximately 34,000 km2 (excluding inland and coastal waters which amount to 3,700 and 4,200 km² respectively). The country’s population density is the second highest in the European Union (after Malta) and is a similar order of magnitude to two regions which directly border the Netherlands: Flanders (Belgium) and North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany). The country’s population has experienced growth in almost all provinces over recent decades. Almost half of the country’s population lives in the Randstad (encompassing the country’s four largest cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht), which is one of Europe’s largest and most economically important metropolitan areas.
|Name of country||The Netherlands|
|Capital, population of the capital (2019)¹||Amsterdam, population 870,000|
|Surface area²||41,500 km²|
|Total population (2019)¹||17.4 million|
|Population density (2019)||419 inhabitants/km²|
|Population growth rate (2010–2019)¹||4.8% over 10 years (0.47% per year)|
|Degree of urbanisation (2006–2015)²||4.8% increase in built-up land over 10 years|
|Human development index (2018)³||933|
|GDP (2019)⁴||EUR 810,247 million|
|GDP per capita (2019)⁴||EUR 46,566 per capita|
|GDP growth (2010-2019)⁴||27% over 10 years (2.4% per year)|
|Unemployment rate (2019)⁵||3.4%|
|Land use (2015)²||12% forest and open land 10% coastal waters 9% inland waters 54% agricultural land 15% built-up land|
|Sectoral structure (2019)⁴||70% services and administration 18% industry and construction 2% agriculture and forestry|
Administrative structure and system of governance
The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy where the monarch is the nominal head of state and is responsible for ratifying laws that have been approved by parliament, appointing city mayors and appointing the politician who forms the new government after a general election. Elected ministers and state secretaries (junior ministers), together with the monarch, belong to the government. The prime minister (Minister President) is the head of government. Parliament subjects the government to scrutiny. All Dutch citizens above the age of 18 have the right to vote but voting is not compulsory. The Dutch Constitution, one of the oldest still in use worldwide, sets out the rules for the system of government and lays down the fundamental rights of citizens.
The Dutch Parliament consists of two chambers. The House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer, or second chamber) consists of 150 members who are directly elected about every four years (the constitution specifies that the maximum parliamentary term is five years). Members of the House of Representatives have the authority to approve the national budget, initiate legal reforms, table amendments, and initiate government inquires. The Senate (Eerste Kamer, or first chamber) consists of 75 members who are nominated for four years by members of provincial parliaments. Members of the Senate have the right to accept or reject legislative proposals but not to amend them or to initiate legislation. The First and Second Chamber together constitute the States General (Staten Generaal), which meets in joint session at least once a year but otherwise sits separately in the two chambers.
The Dutch system of democracy is based on a separation of powers: the government has executive power, the parliament has legislative power and the judiciary is independent. The administrative structure of the Netherlands is non-federal. As a decentralised unitary state, central government in the Netherlands is supreme and delegates certain tasks to lower levels of government by law: to the 12 provinces (provincies) and the 355 municipalities (gemeenten). Municipal and provincial elections are held every four years. Municipalities vary greatly in population size (and area), ranging from less than 1,000 residents in Schiermonnikoog (one of the West Frisian Islands) to more than 870,000 in Amsterdam. The cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are further subdivided into smaller administrative areas (stadsdelen). National laws and regulations take precedence over municipal regulations which means that local government activities must not conflict with the rules and requirements set by higher levels of government.
The country is also divided into 21 water districts, whose boundaries are not always contingent with municipal or provincial boundaries, each of which is governed by a water board (waterschap or hoogheemraadschap) with various responsibilities for water management. Dutch water boards are among the oldest democratic entities still in existence in the world and pre-date all other forms of government in the Netherlands: the first water board was established in 1196.
Around one-third of all government spending in the Netherlands is at the sub-national level (i.e. provinces, municipalities and water boards), which is higher than many other European countries. The budget for provincial governments is around one-tenth of the budget that municipalities have at their disposal. The provinces of the Netherlands are mainly financed by the national government but do receive a small amount of income from national vehicle excise duty. In the past, several provinces generated income by privatising utility companies that they wholly or partly owned. Municipalities are dependent on central government for almost three-quarters of their income. The remaining part of local government’s income comes from local taxes, surcharges and parking fees. Because of the taxes they raise, water boards are almost completely self-financing. Water boards levy taxes on residential and commercial properties and usually include charges to cover the costs of the water infrastructure system and water treatment. Water boards can also levy additional taxes on certain land owners or users such as those who discharge effluents directly into watercourses.
Municipal and provincial authorities derive their tasks and powers from the constitution and the Municipalities Act (Gemeentewet) and the Provinces Act (Provinciewet) respectively. Dutch municipalities are autonomous and are able to pass their own legislation and regulations within the limits set by central government. Municipalities increasingly provide services in cooperation with neighbouring municipalities for reasons of cost savings and shared goals (especially in the case of smaller municipalities). Examples of cooperation between municipalities can be found in the areas of public health, waste processing, social services, and information technology.
Different tasks are carried out by the three main levels of government, but many tasks involve cooperation between levels. The division of powers and responsibilities between the different levels of government is summarised below.
Responsibilities for spatial planning are multiscalar: they are shared between national, provincial and municipal governments. Central government decides on land use in general terms (e.g. main roads, railway lines, energy distribution networks, nationally and internationally important habitats). Provincial governments transpose national plans into a regional context, focusing on issues such as landscape management, urbanisation and the preservation of green spaces. Municipalities transpose provincial plans into local policy and allocate land for specific purposes. By law, all three levels of government must prepare non-binding structure plans (structuurvisies) that outline their main spatial policy objectives and the policies to pursue them (cf. Figure Organisation of spatial planning in the Netherlands). In addition to mandatory general structure plans, all levels of government can voluntarily develop structure plans that deal with particular sectors or challenges.
Structure plans are self-binding which means that the plans of a higher level of government are not legally binding on a lower order one. However, if there are disagreements between levels of government, the provincial or national government can impose ordinances to request a change in lower level plans to conform to higher level plans. If the lower level does not comply, it can be forced through directives ordering it to do so. In principle, national or provincial governments can directly impose a land-use plan (inpassingsplan) on municipalities in cases of overriding national or provincial interests. Horizontal coordination at all three levels of government occurs through the legal requirement to coordinate spatially relevant decisions between the responsible public authorities at the respective level of government. Spatial planning operates with a high degree of trust between the different levels of government and is generally based on an assumption that they will work closely together to address common challenges.
The state identifies nationally important land uses in its Spatial Vision on Infrastructure and Spatial Planning (Structuurvisie Infrastructuur en Ruimte or SVIR). The provinces set out their strategy in provincial spatial visions (Provinciale Structuurvisies). Municipalities draw up local plans (Gemeentelijke Structuurvisies) and enact planning regulations in local land-use plans (bestemmingsplannen). Water boards are involved in spatial planning as statutory consultees when municipalities or provinces draft strategies or plans, and when permission for certain types of development is being decided by government.
The 2012 Spatial Vision on Infrastructure and Spatial Planning is a national strategic spatial vision for development that focuses on issues that are important for the entire country as a whole. It describes eight major goals for the government up to the year 2040 and sets three national objectives up to 2028. It aims to reduce duplication between levels of government; make the regulatory system less complex; and devolve as many responsibilities for spatial planning down to the relevant subnational level. National government retains core functions across 13 areas of national importance but devolves other functions, which represents a major policy shift for spatial planning at the national level.
Of all the plans in the Netherlands, only local land-use plans are legally binding. Local land-use plans are the main legal document and form the basis upon which planning applications are decided. These plans set out where development may take place, what may be built, the size of the structure and what it may be used for. The fixed components of a land-use plan are: the rules and regulations for the area concerned and an illustration (planning map) that indicates and explains the various zones. Local land-use plans are updated every 10 years and elaborated on the basis of stakeholder negotiation and public engagement. A second type of land-use plan which can be developed by national, provincial or municipal government is the project plan which is used to facilitate the approval of developments that contradict existing land-use plans. Project plans take precedence over land-use plans.
Local land-use planning in the Netherlands goes beyond ‘passive planning’ (waiting for a developer to propose a development and then trying to influence it). Local land-use planning involves ‘active planning’ which can be described as governments taking the initiative to make desired change happen. Municipalities acquire land, prepare it for construction and use, and then release the land onto the market (either for sale or lease). The role that the municipality takes in this regard is not statutorily defined. Since the mid-1990s, three broad approaches to active land development, often combined within a single development area, have been used to pursue active land policies: (i) the building claims model; (ii) joint ventures; and (iii) the concession model (Cahill, 2018).
In 2016, a new Environment and Planning Act (Omgevingswet) was adopted which makes a significant change to the planning framework in the country. The Environment and Planning Act merges 26 separate acts into one; merges 120 Orders in Council into four; and simplifies over 100 ministerial regulations in order to create greater coherency among them. The new Act will come into force in 2022 and municipalities are currently preparing for this change. The aim of the new Act is to further integrate the rules and regulations for the governance of land use across a number of policy areas (including environmental protection, nature conservation, the protection of cultural heritage, water management, mining and earth removal) and to speed up decision-making for spatial projects. A major change at the local level is the adoption of one plan for the whole territory of the municipality that will encapsulate all applicable land-use regulations and relevant administrative laws. It is anticipated that some areas will receive a high degree of protection, such as heritage sites, while others will be subject to far fewer rules and constraints and will be more open to experimental and flexible uses. The act creates more space for discretion and flexibility in planning. As part of the preparations for introducing new Environment and Planning Act, the Dutch national government developed the National Strategy on Spatial Planning and the Environment (Nationale Omgevingsvisie, often abbreviated to NOVI) which aims to provide a long-term national vision on spatial planning and the environment (Government of the Netherlands 2019).
Spatial planning system
‘The Dutch […] do not think that they should accept a physical environment that is shaped predominantly by market forces. In their opinion, the physical environment, even nature can and should be constructed.’ (Needham 2014: 19).
There is a long tradition of spatial planning in the Netherlands. The current arrangements for spatial planning cannot be fully understood without knowing its origins. The historical development of spatial planning in the Netherlands can be described in terms of five episodes: 1900–1940, 1940–1970, 1970–1990, 1990–2000, and 2000–2010. More information about the historical development of spatial planning in the Netherlands can be found in the works of Arts et al. (2017), Faludi & van der Valk (1994) and Ministerie van Infrastructuur en Milieu (2012).
1900–1940. The history of spatial planning in the Netherlands is generally considered to have started at the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of the 1901 Housing Act (Woningwet) which tasked municipalities with providing public housing, mainly to replace the sub-standard housing stock. As part of this task, municipalities were given the remit to develop urban expansion plans and provide basic urban infrastructure. The subsequent Housing Act of 1931 opened up the possibility for provincial governments to develop inter-municipal ‘regional plans’. By this time, there were increasing calls for coordination of spatial planning at the national level in order to address the fragmentation and lack of coordination between municipal plans, which it was argued was leading to the inefficient construction of provincial roads and excessive consumption of rural land.
1940–1970. The State Agency for the National Plan (Rijksdienst voor het Nationale Plan) was created in 1941 and tasked with developing a national spatial plan, supervising regional plans and local land-use plans (bestemmingsplannen), and carrying out research to support these responsibilities. This marked the beginning of spatial planning at the national level. During the two decades following the end of the Second World War, much of the focus of spatial planning was on reconstructing cities, tackling housing shortages and addressing concerns about overpopulation in the western part of the country (in the Randstad) where there were fears that existing cities and industrial areas could grow so much that they would merge into a single metropolis and destroy many agricultural areas.
1970–1990. Various changes from the mid-1960s onwards can be considered as the start of a more comprehensive system of spatial planning in the Netherlands. These changes included the formation of the Ministry of Housing and Spatial Planning (Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting en Ruimtelijke Ordening), the launch of the National Planning Agency (Rijksplanologische Dienst, previously known as the State Agency for the National Plan), and the publication of the first Spatial Planning Act (Wet Ruimtelijke Ordening) in 1965 which established the current three-tier planning system (national, provincial and local). The first national spatial plans for the Netherlands were produced during this period (in 1960 and 1966 respectively), both of which set out meticulous proposals on how land should be utilised. Around this time, legal arrangements for public participation in planning decisions were introduced. During the 1970s, two global oil crises (in 1973 and 1979) and increasing concerns about environmental issues contributed to public opposition to many large infrastructure projects (e.g. the proposed inner ring road in Amsterdam which would cut through parts of the historic city; the proposed motorway through the Amelisweerd nature reserve near Utrecht). Increasing public opposition prompted the government to modify national planning and decision-making procedures in an attempt to make them more open and participative. This wave of public opposition led to fewer large urban infrastructure projects being proposed by government. It also led the government to permanently halt some large infrastructure projects and shelve others (e.g. the southern section of the A4 motorway). The third national policy document on spatial planning (Derde Nota Ruimtelijke Ordening), published in 1974, introduced plans for new towns, otherwise known as growth centres (groeikernen), and national buffer zones (rijksbufferzones) to control the spread of cities. The plan aimed to concentrate population growth near existing cities and in growth centres by means of economic instruments such as land taxes and infrastructure subsidies.
1990–2000. Like most other countries, the Netherlands experienced a major economic recession in the 1980s, putting a brake on urban development for several years. By the end of the 1980s, the national economy was ascendant and urbanisation was gaining pace. There was however some introspection within spatial planning, partly because population growth was lower than originally forecast (primarily due to the recession) and the scarcity of land seemed less urgent. Spatial planning policy turned some of its attention to the closer integration of Europe, including the free movement of goods and people, which was particularly important for the Netherlands as a major European node of trade and distribution. The fourth spatial plan (Vierde Nota Ruimtelijke Ordening), published in 1988, focused on improving the capacity and accessibility of the country’s ‘main ports’ (i.e. the Port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport), including new rail connections to Belgium and Germany for passengers and freight. The plan marked a substantial shift in addressing regional economic disparities: while previous spatial plans aimed to spread economic growth more evenly, this plan adopted the principle of ‘regions on their own’ (i.e. more competition between regions). In a supplementary report to the fourth spatial plan (often referred to by its acronym, VINEX), the government designated locations for large-scale new housing development which mainly took the form of urban extensions. The government allocated substantial funds for infrastructure to support development in these locations.
2000–2020. The adoption of a fifth national spatial plan was halted after a change in government in 2002. The new government sought to liberalise spatial planning in the Netherlands, which was justified in terms of simplifying and speeding up planning procedures in order to increase competitiveness. Major changes to spatial planning policy were announced, particularly the decentralisation and restructuring of responsibilities. The role of the state was in retreat. For example, the National Planning Agency was disbanded and its tasks were divided up between the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) and the Spatial Planning Agency (Ruimtelijk Planbureau), which later became part of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving). The 2006 Report on Spatial Development (Nota Ruimte) set out a number of national policy aims but handed their interpretation, elaboration and implementation to local and provincial authorities. A new spatial planning act was drafted and came into effect in 2008, followed by the National Strategy for Infrastructure and Spatial Development (Structuurvisie Infrastructuur en Ruimte or SVIR) in 2012 which announced that the state’s spatial planning responsibilities were restricted to issues or developments in the national interest (e.g. developments for military purposes), where international obligations or agreements apply (e.g. biodiversity or world heritage) or where an issue transcends provincial or national boundaries (e.g. main road, water, rail and energy networks). In 2016, a new Environment and Planning Act (Omgevingswet) was published and is expected to enter into force in 2022. The act represents a radical revision of legislation since it replaces 15 existing laws (concerning environmental protection, nature conservation, protection of cultural heritage, water management, mining and earth removal) with one single legal document. Like previous planning reforms since 2000, the justification for the most recent act is couched in terms such as modernisation, harmonisation and simplification. It distinguishes between a ‘prevention’ paradigm, characterised by ‘protecting the physical environment by preventing activities’, and a ‘development’ paradigm in which ‘continuous care for the quality of the physical environment forms the focus and creates scope for development’. The act seeks to move towards the latter and away from former. Because of the scale of reform introduced by the new act, it is likely to mark the start of a new episode of spatial planning in the Netherlands.
The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken en Koninkrijksrelaties) is responsible for spatial planning. The government has powers via the ministry to develop and impose legally binding land-use plans (rijksinpassingsplannen) although these powers are seldom used. The ministry prepares policies (and legal acts) and submits them to parliament (e.g. Environment and Planning Act; Spatial Vision on Infrastructure and Spatial Planning) which are then subject to debate in the House of Representatives and Senate.
The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving or PBL) is an autonomous government agency which monitors and assesses public policy on environmental and regional planning issues (including sustainable development, energy and climate change, biodiversity, transport, land use, and air quality) and provides independent policy advice to government.
The provinces are responsible for preparing provincial spatial visions (structuurvisies) and rural development plans (landinrichtingsplannen), advising on plans made by municipalities, and developing land-use plans to be imposed (inpassingsplannen) if necessary (but these plans are seldom made). The provincial executive (Gedeputeerde Staten) is the executive branch of provincial government which ratifies provincial planning policies and plans.
The municipality (gemeente) is the primary agent of local land-use planning. It is responsible for preparing municipal spatial visions (structuurvisies) and has legal powers to propose planning policies and plans which are ratified by the municipal executive (College van burgemeester en wethouders) which comprises the mayor (burgemeester) and aldermen (wethouders).
Housing associations (woningcorporaties) have historically played an important role in the construction of residential property in the Netherlands although this role has become more limited since the revision of the Housing Act in 2015. Almost 30% of the current housing stock in the Netherlands is owned by housing corporations (i.e. 2.2 million homes).
|Institution/stakeholder/authorities||Special interest/competences/administrative area|
|Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken en Koninkrijksrelaties)||Drafts planning acts, policies, spatial visions and imposed land-use plans (inpassingsplannen)|
|Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (Ministerie van Infrastructuur en Waterstaat)||Responsible for developing policy in the areas of mobility, water management, aviation, maritime affairs and the environment (except climate)|
|Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat)||Executive agency of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management with responsibility for the development and maintenance of the main road and waterway network|
|Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving or PBL)||Monitors and assesses public policy on environmental and regional planning issues and provides independent policy advice to government|
|Province (provincie)||Prepares provincial spatial visions (structuurvisies), rural development plans (landinrichtingsplannen), and imposed land-use plans (inpassingsplannen)|
|Municipality (gemeente)||Prepares municipal spatial visions (structuurvisies) and local land-use plans (bestemmingsplannen)|
|Housing associations (woningcorporaties)||Have historically played a major role in constructing housing in the Netherlands|
Planning level Country.pdf (895.09 KB)
Planning level Province.pdf (786.29 KB)
Planning level Municipality.pdf (855.78 KB)
Location of the Netherlands (PDOK Viewer, n.d.)
Provinces in the Netherlands (PDOK Viewer, n.d.)
Municipalities in the Netherlands (PDOK Viewer, n.d.)
Water boards in the Netherlands (PDOK Viewer, n.d.)
Organisation of spatial planning in the Netherlands (OECD 2017a)
List of references
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³ United Nations Development Programme (2020): Human Development Reports. Available at: https://hdr.undp.org/en/data (Accessed 11 February 2022)
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⁵ StatLine (2021): Arbeidsdeelname; kerncijfers. Available at: https://opendata.cbs.nl/statline/#/CBS/nl/dataset/82309ned/table?dl=BF87 (Accessed 11 February 2022)
Arts, J.; Filarski, R.; Jeekel, H. & Toussaint, B. (eds) (2017): Builders and planners. A history of land-use and infrastructure planning in the Netherlands. Eburon, Utrecht. Available at: https://eburon.nl/product/builders_planners (Accessed 31 March 2021)
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