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Environmental policy decentralization not working

Municipalities take wrong approach
05 October 2011

The decentralization of environmental policy has gone too far. Instead of leading to the tailored solutions intended, it has spawned a minimal environmental policy where municipalities mainly enforce laws and regulations only where required to. In part this is out of ignorance, in part for fear of increasing the burden on local businesses and inhabitants. If the national government desires a more ambitious environmental policy, it must better support the municipalities and require them to increase their demands. This is the conclusion of research by planologist Christian Zuidema, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 13 October 2011.

It seemed like such a good idea, back in the 1990s, to have municipalities design and implement their own environmental policies, as they were more aware than any other parties of the local situation, and the related needs and possibilities. Strict and ambitious national norms and regulations were loosened and made more flexible. Municipalities had more leeway in setting their own environmental goals and in tailoring these to local conditions. In this way they would be able to improve the environment more than the national government would ever be able to.  


Municipalities, however, hardly manage to achieve these environmental aims, Zuidema remarks, with matters verging on the counterproductive: ‘Take noise for instance. The regulations stipulate that 10% of citizens consider 50 decibels to be a nuisance, which formerly was more or less considered the lower limit. Municipalities can now deal with this much more flexibly. And they certainly do just that. Nowadays 70 decibels is sometimes tolerated where with a bit of effort a much improved situation would have been possible.’


Zuidema studied environmental reports and spoke with environmental officers from dozens of municipalities and cities throughout Europe. His main focus was not so much actual environmental developments, as the way municipalities design and implement their environmental policies. He found that many municipalities hardly take the issue seriously. In part this is due to ineffectiveness: ‘Many municipalities simply have too few staff and too little expertise. In addition, environmental regulations have not only become more flexible due to decentralization, but especially much more complicated. Many municipalities lose track of matters. Instead of spending their time and energy on local environmental policy, they’re primarily engaged in what resembles crisis management, trying to adhere to national regulations.’


Unwillingness also plays an important role. ‘Many municipalities are just not bothered about environmental policies. They have economic interests which often weigh more heavily than environmental ones. If they can use flexible rules to build fifty homes somewhere, they’ll often not hesitate to do so.’ The result is that often the bar is set much lower than before the wave of decentralization struck.


If the state really wishes to stimulate municipalities in their environmental ambitions, they must do two things, according to Zuidema: ‘The desire should not be to reverse decentralization, as municipalities certainly do have the local knowledge required to gauge where and how they can best pursue additional environmental goals. The national government, however, must begin by setting clear rules, so that municipalities can apply these as a matter of routine. This would give them enough breathing space to deal with their own policies. Municipalities would then need to be stimulated to actually set to work. They should be rewarded when the environment improves and taken to task when it declines.’

Curriculum Vitae

Christian Zuidema (Hoogeveen, 1978) studied technical planology at the University of Groningen. He has conducted research for the European Union into the environmental policies of European cities. He also conducted research for the Ministry of VROM (the former Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment) on the effects of decentralization on environmental policy. His thesis is entitled Stimulating Local Environmental Policy, and his supervisor was Prof. Gert de Roo. Zuidema works at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen.


Christian Zuidema, + 31 ( 0)50 363 73 23, c.zuidema

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.54 a.m.
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