Where law meets policy: recent initiatives in Flanders (Belgium)

By Jean-Christophe Beyers, Cathy Suykens, Bram Delvaux and Kurt Deketelaere

JC BeyersSpatial planning is one of the most important instruments to prevent floods. A good spatial planning strategy provides a long-term vision, which pays sufficient attention to all aspects of water. This should enhance sensitisation of inhabitants to water related issues.

Since 1997, the “Spatial Structure Plan for Flanders” forms one of the cornerstones of spatial planning in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. As a science-based policy document, it sets out the main principles for the desired spatial planning structure in Flanders. It thus deals with the question how our limited space should be dealt with so as to obtain a maximal spatial quality. Although citizens are not directly bound by the Spatial Structure Plan for Flanders, it is of utmost importance due to its strategic content.

Cathty SuykensIn the guiding section of the document, a subchapter is dedicated to “spatial support of the integrated water management”. It states that the water system should be managed in such a way that it meets the needs of all functions of water (supply, discharge, transport, recreation, et cetera). This means, among other things, that: “valleys are safeguarded from building on, so that natural flooding possibilities remain open and potential conflicts between buildings and water are avoided”.

Although the Spatial Structure Plan for Flanders has been updated in 2004 and 2011, it is slowly nearing its expiration date (its original long-term perspective was set on the year 2007). The current Flemish Government has therefore announced its intention to adopt a new strategic spatial policy plan. In this context, the “Green Paper Flanders in 2050: human scale in a metropolis?” was adopted on the 4th of May 2013. This policy document serves as a discussion note for the future adaptation of the new “Spatial Policy Plan”. In the Green Paper, the authors took the desired spatial structure in Flanders in 2050 as a long-term perspective.

Foto_Bram_DelvauxCompared to the Spatial Structure Plan for Flanders, the elements of water and floods are more apparent in the Green Paper. As a starting point, the document clearly recognises adaptation to climate change as one of the main challenges for Flanders in the future. Both heavy rainfall and extended periods of droughts and water shortages are expected in Flanders as a result of climate change. In order to cope with these challenges, Flanders must make the necessary spatial adjustments in a timely way. Whereas the buildings are now highly scattered and the open space is fragmented, the space in 2050 must be organised in such a way that all potentially negative consequences of climate change can be tempered. This transformation from an unruly to a resilient space requires that water management, energy and material efficiency will be prioritised in future spatial policy. Furthermore, space will operate as a sponge for the impacts of climate change, by allowing as much water as possible to infiltrate into the soil.

The Green Paper identifies 11 key issues for the future. Many of these issues are relevant to the topics addressed in the STAR-FLOOD project. For instance, the key issue, i.e. “restricting the sealed surface area in the open space” aims to enable Flanders to evolve to a region in which the total built area is no longer expanded. This could lead to less space being taken up by building houses closer together. To develop a more robust open space, the Green Paper points out “the need to reject new applications and even reverse past planning permission for buildings and certain functions in the open space.”

Kurt DeketelaereGenerally, one can say that the Green Paper provides a promising framework for future spatial planning strategies, whereby environmental concerns in general, and water related concerns specifically, play an increasingly dominant role. Whether all of these good intentions will be translated into legally binding commitments, is however a question that remains open.

Pivotal in our research in the framework of the STAR-FLOOD project, is the analysis and evaluation of initiatives and policy papers from the competent authorities related to the mitigation of flood risks in the future. Green Papers such as the one adopted by the Flemish Government on 4 May 2013 provide relevant insights into possible shifts in Flood Risk Management Strategies. They also embody “where law meets policy”, which is crucial to the project.

The relevant documents can be accessed via the following links: