News - November 2, 2017

‘You can’t move a pole around here’

Stijn van Gils

In Wageningen, discussions about town planning can go on for ever. Showdowns between the municipal council, major landowner WUR and educated, politically active townspeople are not uncommon and are described by some as ‘the Wageningen syndrome’. Others prefer to talk of ‘Wageningen common sense’.

Is there really a Wageningen syndrome?

text Stijn van Gils illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

Traffic jams form at the entrance to Wageningen Campus every day. Some see this as a serious problem, making a new ring road a matter of urgency. Others think more asphalt will just attract even more traffic, and that it would be better to discourage car use by incentivizing cycling and slapping charges on parking. After years of talking, neither camp has come up with a solution that everyone can live with. Gelderland provincial council got fed up with waiting and recently took the reigns over from Wageningen municipality.
The accessibility dossier is not the only one on which the municipality has trouble finding a satisfactory solution. Feelings have been running high on the question of the redevelopment of the old football stadium on the Wageningse Berg ever since 1992. Admittedly, the municipal council has now reached a decision on this, but thanks to objections from local residence, the dossier is now with the Council of State, the highest administrative court in the country.  

Panda carpark
There were long discussions, too, about the expansion of the golf course on the Zoomweg (the licence was cancelled by the court in Arnhem), the expansion of the Nude industrial estate (objections were rejected by the Council of State), the repurposing of the tropical greenhouse on the Arboretumlaan (all the plans were rejected and the greenhouse was demolished), the heavy bicycle traffic in the Tarthorst neighbourhood (there are now plans for a cycle lane) and the extra Panda carpark at Ouwehands Zoo (Wageningen granted permission and then withdrew it).
‘The Wageningen syndrome’ is what residents, councillors and civil servant often call the spatial planning paralysis that Wageningen seems to suffer from. One of the reasons is said to be the dominance of left-wing and local parties which tend to listen to the locals, with indecision as a result. The current council, for instance, wants to do ‘everything with the townspeople’,  says Marc Kiel, councillor for the conservative VVD party. ‘And then the municipal council itself ends up with its hands tied, defending that because it is what has been agreed with the town.’
The relatively high level of education of the local population – brought here by Wageningen University & Research – is another frequently cited reason for what WUR spokesperson Simon Vink calls ‘academic inertia’. Councillor Erik-Jan Bijleveld of the green party GroenLinks: ‘Most of the input comes from academic types. They know their way around, and will find their way both to the municipal council and the Council of State.’ VVD member Kiel: ‘It is typical of researchers to go on researching something for ever. And to add to that, environmentalism is highly developed here, so you get a lot of resistance from that corner.’

The power of WUR
Willem Straatman, columnist at the local weekly paper Stad Wageningen, also cites ‘academic sentiment’ as a cause of delays. ‘University education people don’t really know any better than other people in the town, but they are better at making themselves heard. They know how to lodge an objection, and they are quicker to do so if there is something they don’t like. I don’t think that’s right. It’s not fair that people from the university should have more influence in the town.’
According to Straatman, people at WUR often have political connections at high levels. ‘You can see that in the case of the ring road. It’s impossible to prove, but I reckon WUR has more connections with the provincial executive than with the municipal council. Ultimately, WUR is in charge.’
It is also argued that a relatively weak civil service faces the all-powerful WUR. ‘Things are done so ineptly here sometimes,’ says VVD man Kiel. ‘After the municipal council had decided the Olympia Hall should be demolished, it transpired that the users of the sports centre had not been informed. Court cases are also frequently lost due to procedural mistakes.’ It is quite difficult for a small municipality such as Wageningen to hold on to good staff.  ‘A talented civil servant soon moves on to a larger municipality,’ says Rien Bor, former spokesperson at WUR and now municipal councillor for the City Party.

Beautiful Wageningen
But Bor doesn’t think the situation in Wageningen is so terrible. ‘The municipal council often deals with important themes that are sensitive. You do have to weigh up these decisions carefully. That can take years in other places in the Netherlands too. On a number of issues that have been around for years, we have now taken a decision. But what you see then is that someone raises objections. In a manner of speaking, you can’t move a pole around here without somebody going to the Council of State about it.’
According to Bor, the Beautiful Wageningen foundation, led by WUR teacher Patrick Jansen, is particularly inclined to go to court ‘right, left and centre’. ‘Up to now, the municipality wins most of the court cases, but they cause delays and additional costs.’ The VVD agrees that the role of Beautiful Wageningen is disruptive. ‘As far as I’m concerned, we needn’t bother to consult Beautiful Wageningen anymore. Whatever you agree with them, they end up taking you to court anyway.’

Sheer framing
Patrick Jansen, chairperson of Beautiful Wageningen, says the term ‘Wageningen syndrome’ is ‘sheer framing’. He says there are long-running cases on sensitive dossiers in all municipalities. ‘Our foundation does not hamper democracy; it is the people who bypass the municipality to stir things up at provincial level who do that. We come up with initiatives and we help think things through. And indeed, sometimes we lodge objections, but only to decisions which conflict with other agreements. And, please note, we all do this in our spare time. Isn’t that kind of civil society participation fantastic? That is why I prefer to talk about Wageningen common sense about bad planning.’
On this point, Jansen has executive councillor Han ter Maat of the City Party on his side. ‘I hear a lot about that Wageningen syndrome, so something of the sort must have existed, but I don’t see it. I have worked at Gelderland province and Arnhem municipality, and people raise objections to things there too, you know. And WUR, yes, WUR is very important to us but it is the municipal council that decides.’ Petra Borsboom, spokesperson and communication advisor at Gelderland province, agrees: she does not see Wageningen as radically different to other municipalities. ‘It is noticeable that people are getting more outspoken everywhere, and participation is changing.’
There are no hard statistics on this, says Leonie Janssen-Jansen, professor at the Land Use Planning chair group. ‘It is common sense that in municipalities with a lot of highly educated people, more objections are raised, but I don’t expect major differences. Ultimately, anyone can lodge objections: there is a perfectly good explanation of how to do so online. So, yes, that Wageningen syndrome exists. But you get that sort of thing in every municipality.’