Sam Bright examines how Britain can learn from the city of Groningen in the Netherlands, and how our recent political history provides a warning to the Dutch establishment

In keeping with the flatland topography of the Netherlands, Groningen in the northeast of the country is flanked by water. A canal intersects the city, its narrow path soon winding out of the metropolitan centre – just 1 square kilometre in size – and tracking east for 30 kilometres before flowing into the Ems Estuary, on the border with Germany. 

Forecasts suggest that, by 2050, Groningen will be underwater, submerged by rising tides caused by global warming. As the Dutch political map continues to be redrawn by protests from farmers unhappy with central government plans to reduce the industry’s emissions, the region is being placed on the front line of concurrent political and climate crises.

Faced with these threats, it would be easy for policymakers and businesses in the area to project a sense of impending doom – tasked with fighting fires that threaten the very survival of the city. 

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Indeed, this is a familiar story to the UK – the perma-crises of the last 12 years saddling ‘left-behind’ towns and cities with ever-mounting problems of poverty, debt, unemployment and insecurity. The fight for survival has been a campaign of bleak endurance in these places, many of which belong to the fabled ‘Red Wall’ areas in the industrial Midlands and north that supported Boris Johnson’s Conservatives at the 2019 General Election.

In the wider Groningen region, 22% of people were at risk of living in poverty in 2018, the highest in the Netherlands. However, a sense of optimism and idealism brightens otherwise gloomy environmental and economic prospects – the city ostracised from the country’s metropolitan hub, Amsterdam, which takes two hours to reach by train.

I was shown around the city by local city planners a few days before the Let’s Gro Festival – an annual meeting of politicians, businesses and citizens, during which the future of the city is deliberated. The bulk of the festival was hosted in the Forum, Groningen’s community colosseum – a 10-storey building featuring spaces for reading, music, childcare, cinema and socialising. The all-white, hollowed-out core of the building, through which escalators zip up and down, is purposefully designed to convey a sense of openness: a place in which the resources of the city are shared by all, not stowed away by a distant elite. 

The atrium of the Groningen Forum. Photo: Sjaak Kempe / Flickr

The design of the building, though not uncontroversial, was voted on by the public – and, as part of the festival, the foyer contained plans drawn up by local students for the regeneration of disused public buildings. Democratic participation in Groningen is an ongoing event, rather than something confined to periodic election cycles.

And while, in the UK, students are portrayed by politicians as ‘cultural Marxists’ largely occupied with ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, Groningen’s large student population – representing 30% of the city’s inhabitants – is used as a source of pride and energy. The subsequent makeup of the local council, heavily skewed towards green and left-wing representatives, conveys the feeling that Groningen’s political makeup is 20 or 30 years ahead of the rest of the country and much of the West.

Recent local innovations include the revamping of a site in front of the city hall, now accommodating student accommodation, a high-end hotel and glass-clad apartments. Underground depots, owned and run by the council, have been built to allow for the mass storage of bikes that dart through the city in their thousands. The local hospital, through which 18,000 staff, students and patients pass every day, is located in the city centre and collaborates closely with the university on healthcare innovation. Social housing, which constitutes almost 50% of housing in Groningen, is generally well-maintained and well-integrated into the architectural vernacular of the city. 

As the UK looks set to allow local authorities to hike council taxes, in response to ever-mounting Government debt, Groningen displays a viable alternative. Rather than applying a flat fee to all properties, meaning that a townhouse millionaire pays the same rate as a debt-ridden graduate on the neighbouring council estate, Groningen levies an annual fee that increases based on the value of the property – a wealth tax.


The Rising Tide of Populism

Yet, for all its efforts to embrace the future, the city suffers from many of the same problems that afflict peripheral towns and cities across Europe and the West. Private investment is limited and the city experiences an annual brain drain that carries its highly-skilled student population to jobs in other cities, notably the capital Amsterdam.

The parallels with Durham in the northeast of England are striking. Housing one of the country’s leading universities, a third of its population being students, Durham was ranked as one of Europe’s 10 poorest regions in 2016 – the area failing to capture the long-term economic benefits of the students that it educates. 

Meanwhile, Groningen and much of the Netherlands is struggling to manage the transition from traditional, high-pollution industries to a more sustainable economy.

The farmer’s protests have arisen from Government measures to reduce the country’s livestock; a response to EU directives on nitrogen output. Despite being the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products, the Dutch Government has demanded that regions cut nitrogen emissions in the farming industry by half, estimating that more than 11,000 farms will be forced to close nationwide as a consequence. 

The farmer’s protests have been ongoing for more than three years – farmers using their vehicles to block roads and occupy city centres since October 2019 – and have increasingly become a catch-all campaign for grievances with the political establishment. 

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The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) is currently logging 13% in nationwide polls – the joint-third most popular party in the Netherlands. Populist and anti-establishment, the BBB claims to defend those caught in the updraft of globalisation. 

“I’ve seen for a long time how much anger there is outside the four big cities at the way The Hague leaves the countryside in the lurch,” the party’s leader, Caroline van der Plas, has said. “People outside the cities ask: who’s speaking up for us? I speak up for the welders and lorry drivers too. In the Netherlands, 70% to 80% of people have a vocational education, but the policies are made by university graduates.”

This protectionist instinct – seeking to preserve the economic and social status quo – couched in a cultural resentment of the liberal intelligentsia and headquartered in the left-behind industrial heartlands, has echoes across Europe. Marine Le Pen twice came close to winning the presidency on a promise to represent “forgotten” France, while the Vote Leave campaign similarly exploited the grievances of Britain’s rust belt, propelling the UK’s departure from the EU and unleashing a new wave of climate scepticism.

These examples are an omen to the Netherlands, showing what can happen if old industries are razed against the wishes of local communities, with no economic backup plan. People do not simply move to new places to find jobs – they stay in their small towns and cities, their resentment building at an aloof elite that trashed their way of life. These are fertile conditions for populism to thrive.

As for Groningen, it stands at the apex of the new world and the old, between industrial change and climate change, trying desperately to stay afloat. 

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