Interview Guus van Steenbergen

Regional Planning in Theory and in Practice

What are the members of Spatial Planning & Strategy up to? In this series of interviews we meet various members of the section and discuss their work and who they are, and have a look behind the scenes. Today, we meet Dr. Ir. Guus van Steenbergen, an independent researcher and previously a government program manager. Last year, Guus obtained his PhD on the themes of Regional Planning and Governance under guidance of Prof.dr. W.A.M. Zonneveld and Prof.dr. E.M. van Bueren. In this interview, we delve into the main, critical insights and conclusions from both this specialized study and a lifetime of experience in regional planning.


Guus started his career at a consultancy firm, preparing reports on nature, recreation, and spatial planning. “It was a great learning experience,” he recalls. “The experience you gain in the work very quickly becomes more important than whatever study you have done.” After four years, however, he transferred to the public sector, to work at the province of South-Holland in the green policy department. Later, he transferred to the ‘water world’, as he calls it. “What I immediately noticed there, is the importance of contacts with the ministries, the different departments, the local authorities and the waterboards. The departments have changed and shifted, but we quickly knew the people we needed.” Since then, governance, planning and theory were never far apart for Guus. “I did not only work with the subjects on a technical level anymore, but also on a procedural level. How does a minister make a decision? How is a Nota ruimtelijke ordening created? And, most importantly, at what moment do you need to intervene? If it is on the news, you are too late.” Guus was thoroughly involved in the restructuring of the South-Holland waterboards and the creation of regional landscape plans. “We had to make sure that those plans not only looked nice on a map, but also got executed, were initiated. Frankly, the trick was to have a role in the governmental process, even though you are not responsible as civil servant.” It is this intersection of theory and practice, of plan-making and execution in regional planning, that still holds Guus main interest, and after retiring from the province department, this was the subject for his PhD-research at TU Delft.


Researching Regional Planning

“I always had the intention of, if the time came to do a PhD-research, using my experience,” explains Guus. Existing research on the regional level was surprisingly limited, he notes. “Thus, I thought to myself: I have to write this down somehow.” The intersection plan-making and the practical ‘how’ in regional planning is reflected in his research too. “Indeed, there are two pronounced themes in my promotion research: there is one substantive theme regarding the content of the planning, and one regarding the governmental process. How have actors interacted and connected? Who had a decisive role? What was the weight of different institutions in this type of process?”

His research consists of an analysis of three case studies in The Netherlands: the inter-urban area between Arnhem and Nijmegen; the Eindhoven city region; and the region east of Rotterdam (between Gouda and Zoetermeer). Guus developed a three-step model to analyse the different regions systematically. “I searched for an existing model; I did not found one. So I had to fabricate one myself from existing parts, and my knowledge and experience.” Step 1 of his model: identify policy practice. “First, you look what the actual problem is in its context and which processes are beneath the issue.” Step 2: network. “As I noted, networking in this field is common sense. So I asked: how does the network work? I differentiated formal and informal actions; the complete network with different ministries – often at odds with each other – the provinces, the city regions in Brabant and Gelderland, the municipalities, non-governmental actors… How does the network fit together?” Step 3: the role of the province, as the main governmental actor in regional planning – at least, formally. “I wrote down four possible roles [of the province]. Are they the ‘initiator’, do they take the initiative to place a certain issue on the agenda? Or, are they the ‘coordinator’, are they in the lead? Or, do they only ‘facilitate’? The fourth role I called ‘regulator’, in fact their legal role. If all relevant parties agree, you have to anchor the plan in some legal document.”

The four roles of the province overlap, and often shift, he finds. A province never holds just one. “In South-Holland, the province had a very initiating function in the development of housing. And, as there was no city region there, they also coordinated and facilitated the development. By contrast, in Brabant and Gelderland, where there are in fact these city regions, the province did initiate the development: let’s sit together, make a cooperative plan. And then, the province gave all authority to the city regions.” This shifting between roles can also have negative consequences, he notes: “In South-Holland, the province thought at a certain moment: the plan is done, municipalities, you can manage it from now on at a local level. This was not a smart move. The development became a local problem again, whereas for years it had been a regional issue – the proposed housing area had to be built for Rotterdam, The Hague, Gouda. The municipalities of Zuidplas and Waddinxveen just started building for their internal demand again. A total waste of regional planning, in my opinion.”


Means and leadership

“My main conclusion,” states Guus, “is this: the province needs to take the lead again. Or, let me put it like this: on the regional level, there needs to be a director.” He nuances it slightly: “It does not have to be the province per se, it can be a city region, but then a city region has to do the job well. It worked in Region Eindhoven, there is a lot of unifying capacity in that region. In Arnhem-Nijmegen, it totally failed. Both cities just went their own way; disagreements arose regarding the distribution of housing, industry and infrastructure subsidies by the national government.” Guus is not a fan of the Metropolitan Region Rotterdam-The Hague either. “I do think the power of this metropolitan region is overstated. What do they actually do? They have, in fact, no authority in spatial planning. They can talk, but they have no means, no authority.” He contrasts this state of affairs with the province: “The province does have the formal authority to direct regional planning. In practice, this metropolitan region is just an institute that distributes some money for infrastructure. Furthermore, the democratic legitimation is weak. All administrators are derivatives of municipal administrators. Not directly elected. Whatever you think of it, a province has a democratically elected Provincial Council.”

A second main conclusion regards the means employed by regional planning institutions. Guus looked into different instruments: legal planning capacity, monetary means, land ownership. “From my experience, I knew: if you control the money flow, you have a very powerful position.” His research reaffirms this notion. “If you say as a government: we pay for x, it gets realized. I have seen clear examples of this in all three regions I researched.” He elaborates a bit on the historical context: “At a certain point (2006), the national government has decentralised spatial planning. You would think: well, now the regions can decide themselves in what direction to develop. However, they remained very much depended on the money flows of the national government. This is in itself not bad, but if the national government decides to cut a certain budget for political reasons, entire regional plans are brushed away. Once, state secretary Bleker (CDA) cut funds in the green sector massively, which meant no green developments in the researched South Holland region anymore: no recreation development, no recreation infrastructure, no new nature – all cancelled.” By contrast, Guus notes: “In the green region between Arnhem and Nijmegen there was a deal for national contribution annulled by Bleker too, but then the province of Gelderland, who had the monetary means, just funded the rest. This is, naturally, only possible if you have the means. Gelderland, in my terminology, is a rich province, Noord-Brabant too; but South-Holland is known as a poor province. They could not counter the cutback.” Other instruments, landownership or planning capacity, were insufficiently powerful, Guus found. He cites the example of South-Holland again: “At the start, they created a Land Company, which combined a large amount of lands and capital owned by the province and municipalities, with a certain internal distribution. It had acquired land to built infrastructure, green areas, nature. It was insufficiently powerful. This was to my surprise, to be frank, I thought: land ownership is a major item in the Dutch situation. Apparently not.” Guus concludes: “It is about the combination: money alone is not enough either. However, if you have other instruments, the legal capacity of making a plan and landownership, and combine them with monetary means, you can realize a lot.”


A call on future regional planners

Naturally, Guus looks forward on governance. “There is integral planning, but at the moment of implementation, an integral instrument is missing,” he concludes. “My proposal, or recommendation, is this: create such an integral executive instrument. We have a lot of knowledge about plan implementation in The Netherlands, but it is very sectoral, broken down into green, housing, infrastructure, etc… Combine this into one instrument!” He thinks many of the issues we discussed – e.g. the hesitant leadership of provinces, the overly powerful role of the financial actors – can be mediated. “Look at the experience we have with developments funds and regional development plans. What can we learn? Look at the old instrument of land development (landinrichting); there is a lot of experience there in combining budgets, creating an implementation plan together. If it were up to me, even the Omgevingswet could be incorporated.”

Thus, as the final message of his research, says Guus: “Continue this line of work! I hope someone will take this on, whether it be in the provinces, or ministries, or universities. You do not have to add these types of recommendation in a promotion research, I added them on my own account. I think this can be useful, because the question is always: what happens to your research?”

“It touches another point,” he reflects. “The connection between governance in practice, between departments, provinces, municipalities, on the one hand, and the academic world, TU Delft, Wageningen, other universities, on the other… it is a marginal connection. If I look at my own experience, the past 30 years; how much contact did I have on this subject with the TU Delft, for example, which is all-too close to The Hague? Minimal. I think there should be more exchange between institutions.” Guus has a message for the students too: “If only students would know how valuable their studies are in planning practice; I think this would be very instructive for students. At the university, you are educated more as researcher, less as planner in practice. However, once you start working, you very quickly learn the policy practice, those ministries are of course filled with people from TU Delft and Wageningen. Exchange somehow, I think, would be very beneficial for both academics and governments.”


More information

[Dutch only] Het proefschrift van Guus kan gratis gedownload worden via deze website: