The Netherlands will be a little less crowded
The housing minister has declared the population decline in the Netherlands a national problem. Experts say communities need to begin accepting that there's going to be fewer Dutch people around in the future.
With 16.5 million people and a population density of 488 per km2, the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. It seems an unlikely country for ghost towns, such as can be found in eastern Germany or rural France. Yet that is exactly what experts are warning for.
At a conference on Wednesday, government officials and researchers get together to discuss how Dutch municipalities can deal with a diminishing population.
The Dutch minister for housing, Eberhard van der Laan, said he was "slightly depressed" after visiting the southern cities Heerlen and Maastricht earlier this year. There he saw what is unheard of in the west of the country - unoccupied houses, boarded-up shops, schools closing down and companies moving away. Van der Laan has since declared the population shrinkage a national problem.
Off the map
Villages and cities in the south-east province Limburg are already feeling the pinch. Limburg, which had much of its traditional economy based in mines, has seen a steady decrease of the population since 2002, and is set to lose 7 percent of its people by 2025. Shrinkage has also set in in the far south-west area Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and the outer north-east province Groningen. Last year, there were plans to wipe Ganzedijk, a village of 57 houses in Groningen, off the map, because the responsible local executive said it had no future whatsoever.
Prognoses predict 60 percent of Dutch municipalities will see their number of residents diminish after 2025. Women having fewer children is the number one reason for the decrease. In some areas, most young people are moving away to find jobs and higher education, leaving only the elderly behind.
Apart from the physical evidence of empty buildings, the dwindling populations have a strong financial impact on communities. As long as there is growth, municipalities can make money selling land to real estate developers and value based real estate taxes. When the population goes down, house prices and real estate taxes go down too, and local schools get less money from the government as they have fewer students.
While the influx of money is down, the costs remain the same, or get even higher if empty buildings need to be demolished. Many experts present at the meeting in Rotterdam on Wednesday say communities should think about merging some of their facilities. But first of all, they need to acknowledge that they will probably not flourish in the future.
An analysis made last year by government think-tanks said part of the problem exists mostly in the heads of the local authorities. "Some see [shrinkage] as an executive failure. The initial response from local executives is to deny the problem. Secondly, they attempt to prevent or halt the population decline," the Rob/Rfv report said.
The result is that communities that are suffering from the same problem are competing to hold on to their scarce residents and to attract pensioners who want to move away from the cities. But there simply aren't enough people to go around.
Wim Derks, a researcher at Maastricht University, says it is up to provincial authorities to tell local councils to accept the shrinkage and let go of the idea that they need to grow.
Pieter Hooimeijer, a professor of demography at the University of Utrecht, however, says the problem is overrated. "Shrinkage is portrayed as some kind of virus that is washing over the entire country from its source, the south of Limburg. That is blatantly untrue."