Netherlands

Decentralisation poses a threat to the selection and protection of sites and buildings

Numerous buildings and sites in the Netherlands are still under threat

In 2011 we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Bond Heemschut, the organisation for the protection of cultural monuments in the Netherlands. In 2011 it will also be 50 years since the introduction of the first Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act by central government. Though much has since been achieved by preservationists in the Netherlands, numerous buildings and sites are still under threat.

This is explained partly by the fact that the Netherlands is a small and densely populated country with many important heritage sites, a buoyant economy and a constant need for space for offices, houses and roads. But it is also the result of the government's decision back in the 1980s to decentralise power in favour of local and provincial authorities. This policy poses a threat to the selection and protection of additional sites and buildings, for example those dating from the post-war reconstruction period (1945-65), but also to existing, well-preserved and (we believe) well-protected areas all over the Netherlands. Decentralisation gives city councils the right to decide to de-list buildings. For example, the decision to build a new library for the University of Amsterdam on the Binnengasthuisterrein in Amsterdam's historic centre involves demolishing two listed buildings. The greater the influence of property owners, especially those who own groups of buildings, such as entrepreneurs, commercial developers and housing corporations, the more difficult it will be for local authorities to make decisions that favour our national and local heritage.

Owing to the strict regulations regarding national monuments introduced in stages by the minister for cultural affairs, Ronald Plasterk, since the end of the 1990s, the monumental, 19th-century gas factory in Bedum, Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, will not be protected as a listed monument. And the mayor and aldermen of the municipality of Bedum are against listing the building because of pressure from the large energy company Essent, which is all too aware of the economic potential of that site for building houses.

In some regions, like the former mining area in south-east Limburg, economic development is regarded as far more important than the costly preservation of our heritage and landscapes. With the support of provincial politicians and substantial funding for local development from Europe, these decisions are often pushed through all too quickly. An example in the Province of Limburg is the plan to construct an 18-hole golf course in the grounds of Rolduc Abbey, which has the only abbey watermill in Limburg. This unique landscape is one of the best-preserved places in Kerkrade.

In Bergen op Zoom, a project developer has come up with plans for a modern tower on the former site of a medieval belfry. Most distressing of all is that the government’s department for cultural heritage is against a historical reconstruction, but favours a modern interpretation, against the wishes of the local population. There is nobody except local citizens and organisations such as Heemschut to protest. It remains to be seen whether or not Bergen op Zoom's city council makes the same mistake other cities have made in the past 50 years.

The village of Nagele, the only village built according to modernist concepts on one of the newest polders, the Noordoostpolder, is not a protected area. Though every expert and even the government department recognises its architectural value, the state has taken no action, apart from stating that three schools are important and should be listed. A housing development now threatens the whole structure.

Bond Heemschut is very concerned about the new ideas of Mr Plasterk, who is trying to incorporate all the rules and regulations regarding protection into a single act: the new Environmental Planning Law. On the bright side, this may mean that cultural heritage acquires the same status as nature and archaeology.

When deciding whether or not to develop a particular area, local authorities should weigh up the pros and cons and consider our heritage. And yet all too often they lack an awareness of the importance of preserving monuments and historic buildings. After every four-yearly election, new councillors appear on the scene with no knowledge of this area, and smaller municipalities in particular don't have the expertise, money or time to provide the necessary instruction.

Central government would like to do away with statutory protection in the form of the national directory of listed buildings and replace it with zoning schemes, but this would still leave many imponderables and open-ended issues. For example, a historic interior cannot be protected by the zoning plan.

It is no longer always necessary for municipalities to seek the advice of central government departments; in fact, they only need to do so in the case of demolition or radical alteration work. The municipalities now act on the advice of their own committee, which is not always sufficiently knowledgeable or independent. The result is an alarming lack of clarity.

In the meantime, the battle for money for restoration work continues. Luckily, many provinces provide additional funding for restoration, but the €2.25m for maintenance grants for country estates is nearing depletion. The ministry of agriculture believes this funding should come not from itself but from the ministry of education, cultural affairs and science. So a budget dispute now jeopardises an effective subsidy system that has helped many an owner of a country estate maintain his listed property.

Along with other organisations, Heemschut is doing its best to persuade politicians and local, provincial and national authorities to retain the good aspects of the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act and to facilitate the preservation and maintenance of our national heritage. This is an ongoing battle, but we view every small success as a victory.

Vvisit www.heemschut.nl and click on “Bedreigd erfgoed” (Endangered heritage) to find out more.

Karel Loeff is an architectural historian and general director of Bond Heemschut.

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