Cross-border Impact Assessment 2020

Dossier 2: Implementation and possible effects of the Dutch Strategy on Spatial Planning and the Environment (NOVI) from a Euregional perspective


Dr. Vincent Pijnenburg

Martin Unfried

Saskia Bisschops


The Dutch Environment and Planning Act is an integral law bringing together and modernising 26 existing regulations and laws concerning the physical environment (leefomgeving). The environmental strategy (omgevingsvisie) is an important tool that gives expression to this law. The environmental strategies that ought to be drawn up by the central government, provinces, and municipalities must ensure greater coherence in policy with regard to the physical living environment. The national government has been developing a National Strategy on Spatial Planning and the Environment (Nationale Omgevingsvisie, NOVI) since 2017 and delivered a draft version in June 2019. The NOVI concerns spatial planning in the Netherlands in the long term and was created in an open process, in which civic participation played an essential part. The final NOVI is expected to be published after the summer of 2020.

Although the NOVI is a national strategy, thinking about the living environment does not stop at the national border. Cross-border spatial planning is an important theme in the NOVI, partly because changes in the physical living environment in the border regions can have consequences for the physical living environment in the neighbouring country. It, too, is relevant because cooperation can lead to qualitatively better solutions when it comes to themes such as infrastructure, energy, nature, and water.

Purpose and method

Based on the current state of affairs, this study evaluates to what extent the NOVI and the related implementation instruments, such as the regional “environment agendas” (omgevingsagenda’s) and designated “NOVI areas”, create opportunities for improved cross-border cooperation within the physical domain. Several indicators were considered, such as participation from neighbouring countries (as a strengthening of European integration), existing cross-border governance structures within spatial planning), common spatial tasks on both sides of the border (to strengthen socio-economic competitiveness, and the scope for the formation of integrated cross-border strategy (as a prerequisite for Euregional cohesion).

Since the Province of Limburg is nestled between the two neighbouring countries, the investigation focused on the cross-border area of the Euregio Rhine-Meuse-North and the Euregio Meuse-Rhine. By means of document analysis and in-depth interviews with German, Dutch, and Belgian stakeholders, data were collected on the current challenges in the physical living environment in these border regions and the possible effects of the NOVI on these regions.

Results and conclusions

All layers of government are involved with the design of the physical living environment. At the European level various types of spatially related guidelines have been developed in recent decades. This includes guidelines related to nature conservation and agricultural policy. This ‘spatial’ European policy is implemented vertically, meaning that, depending on the differences between the objectives pursued and the current situation, each Member State implements policy according to its own requirements. However, there is a lack of horizontal coordination between the Member States. Moreover, European directives often come with an ‘assessing’ disposition, which is not directly in line with Dutch development planning.

In addition, the cross-border networks along the Dutch-German and Dutch-Belgian borders pay little attention to the theme of spatial planning. This theme is especially relevant to Interreg projects, such as the construction of a cross-border cycling route. When it comes to spatial planning, interview partners quickly refer to concrete area development plans, such as the redevelopment of a business park. However, joint activities to develop a cross- border spatial strategy are virtually non-existent and only a limited number of examples can be given. A cross- border approach to economic developments such as housing or the spatial dimension of the energy transition are not yet part of the process. Economic clusters such as agriculture or industry/chemicals have not yet been described in terms of a cross-border approach.

One of the possible causes of the limited cross-border cooperation is the mismatch between the spatial planning culture of the Dutch planning system and that of North Rhine-Westphalia. The Dutch system, and certainly the NOVI, is characterised by its integral, informal, and participatory character. In contrast, the planning system in North Rhine-Westphalia is sectoral, hierarchical, and formal, and formulating a long-term strategy is not part of the approach to spatial planning in Germany, let alone thinking about it in co-creation with citizens. Instead, everyone is restricted to their own jurisdiction and territories.

However, this does not mean that there is no horizontal cooperation at all. Various cross-border cooperation meetings, such as about the catchment areas of rivers, take place mainly at the sectoral level. Still, a clear connection between sectoral cross-border cooperation (GROS) consultations and the existing cross-border spatial planning bodies, such as the German-Dutch Spatial Planning Committee (DNLCRO) and the Euregions does not (yet) exist. Moreover, the consultations within the German-Dutch Spatial Planning Committee do not take place on a structural basis, despite the fact that this was agreed when the Committee was established in 1967. This forum is therefore also being insufficiently used for a structural exchange between those involved on the German and Dutch sides of the border.

Since the planning systems differ considerably and the existing cross-border spatial planning forums are not used optimally, we regard NOVI primarily as an opportunity for better cross-border cooperation within the spatial domain. The formulation of a joint strategy might still be a step too far. The designation of the NOVI area South Limburg could be an interesting pilot for this purpose.

Nevertheless, the NOVI currently appears to be relatively unknown in the neighbouring countries. Only sporadically were representatives from the neighbouring countries involved in the development of the NOVI in the preliminary phase, during which, for example, various workshops were organised to share ideas and input for the NOVI. For example, a one-off workshop was organised for Dutch stakeholders active in cross-border cooperation, and a one-off workshop was organised for both German and Dutch stakeholders, as well as Dutch and Belgian stakeholders. During the development phase of the NOVI, the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations informed the State Chancellery of North Rhine-Westphalia about progress and the draft plans. Through the State Chancellery, this information was further distributed to the Bezirksregierungen (district governments) in North Rhine-Westphalia. Despite these attempts and the long preparation process of the NOVI, which does not even compare to the even longer preparation processes of many German plans, we note that the NOVI is not yet a generally known concept in our neighbouring countries. Above all, also the citizen participation process pertaining to the NOVI has so far failed to take into account the citizens across the border.

Our research furthermore shows that, despite the cross-border ambitions, there is no clear vision on the further implementation of the cross-border cooperation theme, including governance. Different environmental agendas are being drawn up for the implementation of the NOVI, including for the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg. However, it is not yet clear what actions will be taken concretely in the area of cross-border cooperation. Possibly the cross-border dimension will be included more actively within the various NOVI areas along the border, including South Limburg. This ambition has been declared – nonetheless, in essence there seems to be a national focus on priorities regarding the Dutch physical living environment. In fact, the definition of a clear role for cross- border working groups or organisations is missing. To date, existing structures such as the German-Dutch Spatial Planning Committee have not been able to play a special role in this. Similarly, the Euregions have so far had a very limited role in the field of spatial planning, although they are the only stakeholders that formulate strategies for the cross-border area.

In short, the NOVI is still a strategy in the making, in which attention is paid to cross-border cooperation but neighbouring countries have only had limited involvement so far. The potential opportunities of the NOVI for cross-border cooperation on both sides of the border have yet to be recognised. Meanwhile, also the strategic objectives contained in the various implementation instruments have yet to be specified. The question is whether the NOVI will be a catalyst for better cross-border cooperation. On the one hand, relating to the different approaches to the physical environment represented by the NOVI and the planning system in North Rhine- Westphalia and, on the other, regarding the major issues at stake, such as sustainability, economic growth, and population shrinkage, which are being approached from a national perspective.