Does every region count for the State Commission on Demographic Developments 2050?

The Dutch population is growing substantially due to immigration and this is a cause for concern. It was a major reason for the PVV's election victory. Immigration is blamed for an overcrowded Netherlands. In Belgium, a similar debate is currently raging ahead of the upcoming national elections. Remarkably, even with high immigration and population growth from its current population of almost 12 million to 16 million in 2075, Belgium is still below the population density of the Netherlands. Therefore, as I have argued before, it is not absolute population numbers that are a problem, but large, rapid changes in those numbers.

Considering the past elections in the Netherlands and the upcoming ones in Belgium, it is useful to look at two important advisory reports for the Dutch government. The January 2024 report Moderate Growth (Gematigde groei) of the State Commission on Demographic Developments 2050 and the report Every region counts! (Elke region telt!) by three advisory councils for the Dutch government dated March 2023. The titles of the reports are already telling. But does every region still count in the state commission's latest advice?

The state commission report is comprehensive (407 full pages) and excels in nuanced analyses on population growth, the economy, and dilemmas for policy. The state commission finds that the Netherlands is bogged down by strong population growth in terms of spatial planning and facilities including the housing market, healthcare and education, infrastructure, and the environment. At the same time, the Netherlands is growing only because of immigration. Without immigration, the population is shrinking, which the state commission considers undesirable. The state commission argues that while immigrants fill the many vacancies for the short term, they exacerbate the problems that are already there. Immigration, it says, cannot be a long-term solution to ageing because the immigrant population will itself age.

The state commission sees on the one hand the need for immigration and on the other the problems created by a population that is growing rapidly because of immigration, from the current 18 million to 21-23 million by 2050. It seeks a middle ground in moderate growth to 19-20 million people in 2050. That amounts to an average migration balance of about 50,000 migrants per year. That is roughly almost a halving of the high influx over the last few years. Achieving this and keeping the economy and society on the right track requires both direct policies aimed at labour, asylum and family migration and indirect, flanking policies. Those policies also deal with questions such as which economy and society we want to be. If we opt for a knowledge-intensive economy, a certain influx of knowledge migrants belongs to it, and the influx of unskilled labour migrants for agriculture and horticulture should be curbed. The influx of foreign students into Dutch education should also be adjusted to what is needed in the domestic labour market, according to the commission. Besides making choices about what is produced and supplied, there is a need to increase productivity. Of great importance for this, according to the state commission, are increased labour participation and investments in new technologies, training and lifelong development.

The state commission report also discusses the report Every region counts!, published almost a year earlier, which focuses on the region. Remarkably, both the state commission and the three advisory boards of this report visited Parkstad Limburg, i.e. the city region of Heerlen with six surrounding municipalities. The state commission recognises that there are different demographic developments per region, with growth and shrinkage regions. The latter therefore have different tasks when it comes to housing, care, education and employment. If the national government does not invest sufficiently in these, with a vision of regional broad prosperity, these regions will turn away from national politics. The state commission actually leaves nothing unsaid, for which all praise.

Yet the regional nature of demographic developments easily snowballs, especially in the recommendations. Spreading the population and jobs is mentioned by the state commission as part of the policy in the 1960s, after which policy attention has focused on urbanisation and investment in compact cities. Despite arguing for more direction, there is nothing to show that the commission wants to return to the 1960s era. The analysis that peripheral regions lag behind centre regions, which are filling up and where the disruptive effects of population growth are strongly felt, has largely a demographic cause. This could have lent itself ideally to the next step towards state policy for the regions. It is therefore a pity that the state commission did not make more use of the recommendations from Every Region Counts!
The problem analysis from Every Region Counts! is shorter and less comprehensive than in the state commission report. The recommendations are obviously more region-specific. However, they are also more concrete. The report contains three pillars for policy, which I think the state commission should have endorsed when it comes to state policy for the regions. The three advisory councils that drafted Every Region Counts! want to break the current investment logic of the central government. This first pillar of policy should prevent a return to investing mainly in facilities in the Randstad in the coming decades. These investments are based on the reasoning that the agglomeration benefits of population and employment concentration lead to more economic growth at macro level. Due to the one-sided calculation of agglomeration benefits in the traditional social cost-benefit analysis, too little attention is paid to the pursuit of opportunity equality and broad prosperity (‘brede welvaart’) in all regions of the Netherlands. Initiatives aimed at this must be long-term and substantial, especially for the most underdeveloped regions, according to the three advisory councils, and form the second pillar of policy. It should be possible to combine budgets from various policy fields for the benefit of regional development.

The third pillar aims at better cooperation between the state and the regions, among other things by better representation of the regions in national decision-making processes and by making state officials more sensitive to what is going on in the region. Very concrete proposals are made to this end, such as the establishment of a committee of the regions and an adjustment of the electoral system. This could restore the trust and involvement of citizens across the country. Most strikingly, the advisory councils unabashedly advocate spreading employment of national public services, of knowledge and educational institutions and of housing projects. There is also a focus on the spread of healthcare, culture, and infrastructure.

The location choice for the location policy of institutions over which the government has influence should therefore be more evenly distributed across the Netherlands. Apart from the distribution of jobs, the advisory councils also explicitly mention the distribution of housing projects. How logical would it have been if the state committee had taken up these recommendations, for instance by arguing for dispersed growth in addition to advocating moderate growth? Viewed this way, the state commission's report is unfortunately a step backwards. It also raises the question of the expiration date of key advisory reports for the government. Every region counts! but for how long?



Frank Cörvers (2023). ‘The "the Netherlands-is-full (Nederland-is-vol)" idea leads to policy failure', 23 januari 2023. MORSE blog. 

Staatscommissie Demografische Ontwikkelingen 2050 (2024). Gematigde groei – Rapport van de Staatscommissie Demografische Ontwikkelingen 2050, Den Haag. 

Raad voor de leefomgeving en infrastructuur, Raad voor het Openbaar Bestuur, Raad voor Volksgezondheid en Samenleving (2023). Elke regio telt! Een nieuwe aanpak van verschillen tussen regio’s. Den Haag: Raad voor de leefomgeving en infrastructuur. 

Dries de Smet (2024). Is België vol? Of hebben we méér migratie nodig? De Standaard, 27 januari 2024. 

Jouke van Dijk & Sierdjan Koster (2024). ‘Elke Regio Telt’ uitvoeren is goed voor heel Nederland, 3 januari 2024. Blog Platform31.

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