Parliament raises questions on Beeckestijn arrangement

In a predictable turn of events, the arrangements surrounding Beeckestijn have led to questions in parliament (Tweede Kamer). Mrs. Snijder-Hazelhoff, member of parliament for the oppositional liberal party (VVD) and -according to her profile- dairy farmer in the northeastern part of The Netherlands, directed questions to the Minister of Agriculture (Gerda Verburg –CDA) on the legitimacy of the process, and whether other parties (read: market parties) have been considered in the process.

The last point should have been quite clear for someone with only the slightest grasp on the recent history of this estate: just over a year ago plans to sell the estate to a market party were blocked by both local and national politicians. I know we have had Italian-style changes in national and local politics in the past few years, but one would expect that someone would do some reading into a subject, before going public with questions like that.

However, one can see why she questions (pdf-link) the process followed in this case. As a farmer she must have dealt on a regular basis with the ministry of agriculture, and maybe its subsidiary Dienst Landelijke Gebieden (DLG -national service for rural areas) as well, and she might be worried. When local politicians were looking for a solution for Beeckestijn, DLG stepped in with a solution favourable to almost everyone: DLG would be taking over the estate and some surrounding grounds in exchange for areas in DLG‘s possesion in Velserbroek, part of Velsen. In addition to that, Velsen would get the opportunity to use these new grounds as a development area, in which way they’d secure a bigger revenue for losing the estate than by just selling it to the highest bidder. In the mean time, Beeckestijn would be ‘passed on’ by DLG to nature preservation society Natuurmonumenten and partners, who declared they wanted to restore and maintain the estate. Everybody happy.

Except for the farmer whose land lies in Velserbroek, within the area given away by DLG as development plot. He suddenly sees his livelyhood threatened as a result of a political form of ‘my garden is your garden’. Before Velsen can actually develop these newly acquired areas, they need to find a solution for this farmer, so the revenues for Velsen are nowhere near certain. Furthermore, reports from local newspapers suggest that Velserbroek is riddled by underground infrastructure for the heavy industries located in and near Velsen, making it difficult, expensive and possibly dangerous to build houses there. And that’s where the member of parliament comes in with questions like “are these types of exchanges as now between DLG and Velsen normal” (question 2), “what does ‘pass on’ exactly mean in this case and under which conditions will this be done” (question 3).

Good questions. I must confess that, although I am happy with the way things turned out for Beeckestijn, the arrangement itself has caused me to raise an eyebrow or two (not simultaneously, that would just look stupid). And again, looking deeper into the matter and the argumentation used by different parties, an eyebrow arches more than usual: the MP raised her questions two weeks before the Velsen council discussed this arrangement. The minister’s answers came twelve days after Velsen decided in favour of the plans. In her answer, she states that within the guidelines concerning rural areas, the province (Noord-Holland in this case) can order DLG to use so-called ‘exchange grounds’ (ruilgronden) when certain important objectives can be met by doing so. The objective in this case was, according to the minister of agriculture in her answer on question 2, strengthening of the ecological values (in Dutch: de Ecologische Hoofdstructuur). It is true that by passing on Beeckestijn and especially the lands adjacent to it, DLG gives Natuurmonumenten some plots of land which are part of the ecological structure. But these plots of land were only acquired by DLG after the exchange they made with the Velsen council. Ecology only comes into play at the ‘passing on’ part of the deal, not in the exchange part. The areas originally in possesion of DLG are exchanged with ‘development opportunities for Velsen’ in mind. The Velsen council literally -and happily- announced precisely that in their press release on the subject (“ontwikkelbelang“), spurring applaus as well as debates and protests in the local community. Thus: the minister explains the use of the arrangement questioned by the MP in her second question, using arguments that belong to the third question.

But that is not all. The eyebrow’s arch climaxes when we compare the minister’s argumentation with the official press release of the new owners, Natuurmonumenten and Vereniging Hendrick de Keyser: the emphasis is on the garden proper, not the ecological areas. Words like national heritage, history, culture and garden architecture are used -sometimes plainly wrong, but that is not the issue here. The issue is that the press release lacks the term ecology, or any other term that can loosely be associated with something deemed so important by the minister.

Where Velsen sees development plots, Natuurmonumenten sports a new site with cultural historical values and the minster tries to calm down a lurking farmer’s unrest with a false argument about ecological values, we must conclude that we are looking at something that is more and more resembling a mess. I am still happy with the result, and I do still believe the arrangement is beneficial to (almost) all parties. But can these parties at least try to get their act together and decide on which way they want to go with both Beeckestijn and the development areas in Velsen? If the minister’s answer is taken literally, Velsen will miss out on the economical development opportunities it so desperately needs, in favour of ecological development opportunities in Velserbroek. From more than one point of view and in light of the connected rescue of Beeckestijn I couldn’t care less, to be honest. But I do wonder what will happen when people who are opposed to the deal succeed in setting up a structured protest, based on these publicly available announcements.

A final thought goes out to the questioning MP. She has raised some good points, possibly without knowing to what extend. But -if the above is anything to go by- with her talent for reading into matters, do I think she will even notice the argumentational discrepancies? Let’s see.

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