© Mendel Giezen


Assistant Professor at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam


Post-austerity neighbourhood policies in the Netherlands (1)

For two decades, the Netherlands had been a frontrunner in urban policies that sought to integrate deprived urban neighbourhoods and their residents through targeted social policies and physical investments. After the financial and budget crises, the national government has ceased funding these kind of area-based policies. This contribution will examine what kind of policies and initiatives are currently in place that actively intervene in deprived urban neighbourhoods.

While the first programmes were already launched in the 1970s, the Netherlands was at the forefront of implementing extensive and well-funded urban policies in the 1990s and 2000s. The fear for divided societies and extreme segregation has led to the policy targeting of low-income and ‘problematic’ neighbourhoods. The programmes sought to be most effective by bundling and combining various socio-economic initiatives and physical interventions and concentrating all efforts on a selection of areas. From 1990 until 2012, multiple successive programmes were launched in the Netherlands, which provided administrative tools and additional funds to transform deprived areas 2 .

A typical example of the approach is the comprehensive renewal of Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam (1992-2012). Half of the modernist apartment blocks were demolished and new low and medium-rise housing were developed instead. The area’s share of social housing dropped from 93% to 55%. Meanwhile, multiple investments were done to improve transportation, public space, social services and commercial centres 3. While it is still unsure whether this type of areal transformation is efficacious for tackling deprivation and furthering social integration, the regeneration has arguably produced more manageable and safer public spaces, and has improved the area’s reputation.

However, in the mid-2000s, the state has been slowly withdrawing its commitment from this type of public-funded urban investments in Dutch cities. This withdrawal was sped up by the 2008 financial crises and the government’s budget austerity politics. In 2012, all remaining national programmes and renewal funds were discontinued: public-funded renewal and renovation project were no longer possible and socio-economic services, and provisions that seek to foster local social networks and help residents in finding employment, have been severely limited. The state, however, has not retreated entirely. Politicians and policy makers remain in favour of integration policies which aim to prevent or break-up concentrations of poverty, and make sure that no neighbourhood becomes isolated. Also, the state has become more focused on facilitating commercial investments and redevelopment in centrally-located neighbourhoods. For these reasons, the state still intervenes in Dutch urban neighbourhoods in three main ways.

Community-based service provision

Inspired by David Cameron’s idea of ‘Big Society’, king William Alexander, speaking om behalf of the Dutch government, proclaimed the end of the welfare state and the dawn of the participation society in 2013. Rather than depend on neighborhood, care and health services that are provided through state structures, the left-right coalition government envisions that these provisions will become the responsibility of individuals, their social networks, and non-state organisations. It is presented as an emancipatory programme that requires the activation of citizens, allowing them to take responsibility. The idea is not new; the rising costs of caring for an ageing postwar generation have loomed over political discussions since the 1990s. The recent financial crises and austerity measures have arguably led to a revival of the community discourse.

For neighborhoods, this has meant that responsibility and ownership of services like community homes, small libraries and youth centres were transferred to residents or would have to be closed. The municipality of Amsterdam, for instance, used remaining budgets to train and support residents in establishing so-called neighbourhood trusts. These trusts, or wijkondernemingen (literally: neighbourhood enterprises), were meant to deliver social and cultural services while sustaining themselves financially through commercial activities.

From 2012, multiple initiatives have been launched across the Netherlands, yet after four years the results seem to be mixed. While there have been successful initiatives, many resident-based organisations collapsed after several years for various reasons. The reliance on raising own funds through commercial means or subsidies means that the initiatives are vulnerable. Also, it has proven challenging for initiatives to navigate state bureaucracies and formal rules. In some cases, administrators may help initiatives out, but in other cases they prove to be obstacles. In addition, middle class residents tend to have the means and ability to communicate effectively and deal with bureaucracies. However, lower class residents in poor neighbourhoods, areas which need social services the most, tend to have more difficulties to organize or communicate their needs effectively.

While community-based initiatives are numerous and may open up opportunities for self-organisation, they are unsuitable to ensure social and neighbourhood services in all deprived neighbourhoods. Perhaps for this reason, local policy makers have been slowly retreating from this paradigm.

Pushing gentrification

A second form of state intervention in Dutch neighborhoods has the facilitation of gentrification. Particularly in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, policy makers seek to attract more middle class residents to poor areas which are close to the city centre. In academic literature, the process is seen as problematic because it often implies the displacement of less affluent residents. Regardless, policy documents are clear in their ambition to establish more middle class housing in their municipal borders for reasons of economic growth and lower social expenditures. For a long time, social housing has slowed down gentrification processes in Dutch cities, yet after the crisis, national housing policies are actively aiming to dismantle the social housing sector by introducing new rules and by taxing the housing associations. As a consequence, more social housing needs to be sold for housing associations to remain financially solvent. Recent research at the Centre for Urban Studies Amsterdam shows that this has accelerated gentrification process and the displacement of poor households.

As mentioned, the local state facilitates this process by investing in public space and by providing temporary accommodations for novelty shops and restaurants, as well as cultural entrepreneurs and artists in working class and lower class areas. This may be seen as a strategy to make areas attractive for young middle class households to settle in. Together with my colleagues Willem Boterman and Myrte Hoekstra, I conducted a study of a working class neighbourhood in Amsterdam where this strategy was implemented. Our analyses revealed that long term residents feel a loss of place and do not understand why new middle class residents receive cultural services while their community centre was closed because of austerity measures.

Act Extraordinary Measures for Urban Problems

The Act Extraordinary Measures for Urban Problems (Wet bijzondere maatregelen grootstedelijke problematiek) is a national urban policy which allows municipalities to refuse unwanted businesses and residents who live in the urban region for less than six years, from settling in designated deprived areas. The rationale is that these businesses and residents will further harm living conditions. Furthermore, the absence of inflow of poor households may give local practitioners ‘breathing space’, meaning that they are able to improve local conditions more efficiently. It was introduced in 2005 at the behest of the city of Rotterdam, which got permission to implement it in four neighbourhoods in Rotterdam South in 2006, which was expanded to five neighbourhoods and several streets in later years. To be clear, the Act does not provide any funds to regenerate deprived areas or help residents but gives municipalities more discretionary powers to regulate populations in their territory. When conceived the Act sparked controversy for its exclusionary premise. Liberty to move and choosing residence are enshrined in the Dutch Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet, these legal tracts also allow states to circumscribe these rights when it serves the public interest and democratic society. In the first ten years, Dutch government has been able to defend its policy from legal challenge by demonstrating necessity, subsidiarity, proportionality and suitability by making use of socio-spatial statistics. In 2016, the Act was expanded to be able to exclude residents who have a police record (even when not convicted), have been reported to have caused nuisance and suspected of jihadism.

While controversial in principal legal terms, the Act is widely supported by political parties from the Right and the Left. Proponents have argued that stern measures are required to combat persistent urban problems. However, a parliament- requested evaluation of the socio-spatial effects in Rotterdam by Cody Hochstenbach, Justus Uitermark and myself could not find any improvement in terms of nuisance and crime. It also revealed that the housing market position of excluded residents has deteriorated significantly after introduction of the Act. Given the costs –in terms of democratic principles but also the actual significant financial costs of implementing the restrictions – the Act raises serious questions.

A shift from combating urban poverty to fighting the urban poor

Even before the recent financial and budget crises, the Dutch central state has been withdrawing from directly funding urban policies. With austerity measures, the national government increased its efforts to reduce social housing and devolve social responsibilities to local governments, housing associations and individual households, who were all also facing serious budget constraints.
Municipalities have tried to foster local resident initiatives. On some occasions, these initiatives have led to an improvement of service delivery and an impulse to an area’s liveability and social life. The opportunity and possibilities for residents to self-organise should be seen a positive development. However, because these initiatives are linked to budget cuts, they are also problematic. Without some level of basic support and fail safety, these type of initiative are an unsustainable solution for reliable service provision in the most deprived areas.

The transformation of deprived areas is mostly restricted to neighbourhoods which may see a spill-over of demand for middle class urban housing. Pro-gentrification policies already existed in the 1980s when they were seen as a lifebuoy for an economically struggling city, and local states still celebrate their transformative effects on inner-city neighbourhoods. For this reason, municipalities are still providing means to make areas more attractive for middle classes, by allowing and funding culture, amenities and entertainment in working class areas. However, with the increased sales by cash-strapped housing associations and the increasing demand for urban housing, the process increasingly seems to spiral out of control and threaten to make inner cities unaffordable and inaccessible for low and middle income groups.

While the Dutch state may have withdrawn from funding, its urban political agenda is still shaped by a wish to prevent concentrations of poverty and stark patterns of segregation. The focus on social integration and socially-mixed neighborhoods is still present. Yet, with the push for gentrification and the institutions of the Act Extraordinary Measures for Urban Problems reveals a further shift away from seeing urban poverty as something to be prevented or remedied to seeing poor households as a problematic presence, who seemingly have no right or claim on living inner city neighbourhoods.

  1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Urban Studies Seminar at the University of Glasgow in November 2016. The author would like to thank the participants for their comments and suggestions.
  2. What constitutes a deprived neighbourhood and which neighbourhoods are selected for intervention have always been somewhat allusive. Policies have used terms such as ‘problem cumulation areas’, ‘chanceful neighbourhoods’, ‘power neighbourhoods’. Designation was done in consultation with large urban municipalities. In the 2000s, statistics were also involved in designating areas, but they did not replace consultation.
  3. Please note, while the Bijlmermeer serves as a typical example of the integrated policy approach, it stands out because its physical regeneration was mostly funded by the Amsterdam municipality and housing associations.
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