Reform of the Planning Act

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Reform of the Planning Act
Niels Østergård, Ministry of the Environment, Danish Forest and Nature Agency, Spatial Planning Division
On 17 June 2005, Denmark’s Folketing (parliament) passed the amended Planning Act as part of a comprehensive reform of local government structure. The amendment changes so much in relation to the former planning system that this comprises a Planning Act reform.

The political process
In October 2002, the Government of Denmark pulled a political surprise by appointing a Commission on Local Government Structure with a mandate to work rapidly. Twelve members chaired by Johannes Due (Managing Director, Danmark Voluntary Health Insurance) carried out comprehensive work in about 14 months with assistance from all ministries, the organizations of municipalities and regions and research institutes. The Commission described six models for organizing the structure of the public sector in the future. The results were published on 9 January 2004 at a major meeting with politicians at the Vingsted Centre near Vejle, and the 1600-page report was opened up to public comment for 3 months. Chapter 38 described spatial planning.
The Government then published its proposal for reforming the structure of local government on 27 April 2004. The overall objective was “a public sector organized to meet the needs of the citizens”. The main features included:

  • abolishing the county councils and the Greater Copenhagen Authority;

  • creating five administrative regions to take responsibility for hospitals and other health services;

  • having larger municipalities with more than 30,000 residents be citizens’ main gateway to public services;

  • delegating to the municipalities the overall responsibility for local business development in collaboration with business; and

  • generally gathering the tasks related to spatial planning, nature protection and environmental protection in the municipalities.

Further, the municipalities were asked to express their desires for amalgamation before 1 January 2005.

In the political process related to the Government’s proposal, the Danish People’s Party very quickly announced that they largely agreed with the proposal. For a long time, the subsequent negotiations focused on the Social Democrats and the Social-Liberal Party, but they and the Government could not reach agreement. The Government and the Danish People’s Party therefore announced an agreement about the local government reform at the end of June 2004. The main themes in this agreement’s section about spatial planning were:

  • that the municipalities will have a key role and the municipal plan will be the most important type of spatial plan;

  • that each regional council will prepare regional spatial development plans as a new strategic tool for spatial development in the administrative regions: and

  • that the state will have a more active role in ensuring overall national planning considerations in the more decentralized planning process of the future.

On this basis, a proposed amendment to the Planning Act was opened to public comment from the end of November 2004 to the beginning of January 2005 together with the other 48 bills on the local government reform. On 24 February 2005, the Minister for the Environment introduced the Planning Act bill in the Folketing. The public comments resulted in essential amendments to the provisions about spatial planning in Greater Copenhagen, as the Minister for the Environment now has responsibility for producing a national planning directive that establishes the overall spatial planning principles for the 34 municipalities in Greater Copenhagen.

Main features of the new Planning Act
The municipal plan will be the comprehensive document in which citizens and businesses can find all rules governing spatial planning and land use in a municipality. The municipal plan must contain:

  • the objectives for development and land use both in urban areas and in the countryside;

  • guidelines for the topics previously governed by the regional plans; and

  • a planning framework for local plans.

The municipal plans have also become the basis for administering the rural zones. Helle Witt describes municipal planning in more detail later in this issue of Byplan [also available in English].

The five regional councils and the Bornholm Municipal Council must produce regional spatial development plans within the first two years of the regional and local election period [with the first plans thus required by the end of 2008]. The regional spatial development plans must:

  • describe the desired future spatial development for several high-priority topics; and

  • describe the action the regional council will take to follow up the regional spatial development plan.

The regional council may promote the implementation of the regional spatial development plan by providing financial support to municipalities and nongovernmental entities for specific projects.

Peder Baltzer Nielsen explores the regional spatial development plans and their relationship to the business development strategies of the regional economic growth forums in more detail elsewhere in this issue of Byplan [also available in English].

National planning

Environmental Objectives Act:

Natura 2000

EU Water Framework Directive

Regional spatial development plans


Municipal plans

Local plans

Strengthening national planning became the overall designation for the new and broader tasks the state must manage to ensure overall national planning considerations in the otherwise decentralized and simplified planning process. In the future, the key functions for national planning as a whole will be as follows.

  • The national planning report and its analysis will target regional spatial development planning, municipal planning and the specific spatial planning context in Greater Copenhagen. This will provide an opportunity to develop the previous positive experiences with dialogue between the planning levels about visions and strategies before binding provisions for land-use regulation are prepared. On behalf of the Government of Denmark, the Minister for the Environment must continue to prepare a national planning report after each national election [at least every 4 years].

  • Immediately before each regional and municipal election, the Minister for the Environment must prepare an overview of the national interests in municipal planning, including a description of the restrictions for municipal planning resulting from legislation governing other sectors.

  • The Minister for the Environment has the right and an obligation to veto regional spatial development plans, municipal plans and local plans that are not in accordance with overall national interests. This includes the provisions for the coastal zone, overall water resource planning, Natura 2000 planning, national infrastructure projects and retail trade. Thus, the previous monitoring of municipal planning by the county councils and the Greater Copenhagen Authority will be transferred to the state.

  • The Minister for the Environment will prepare national planning directives as required on such topics as major electricity, natural gas and transport projects, planning for wind turbines, retail trade provisions and projects that are unpopular and difficult to locate.

Greater Copenhagen constitutes a single urban region with a coherent housing and labour-market area and common regional recreational and green spaces transcending the municipal boundaries. This is why the previous provisions about specific regional planning for Greater Copenhagen have been retained. In the Planning Act sections about Greater Copenhagen, the finger city structure (with the five fingers being urban corridors extending radially from central Copenhagen along railway lines) has been retained as the fundamental principle for urban development in Greater Copenhagen. Greater Copenhagen includes 34 new municipalities (the former area plus the Municipality of Stevns). The main provisions of the Planning Act for Greater Copenhagen are as follows.

  • Greater Copenhagen is divided into four zones with differing provisions for the municipal planning: 1) the core urban region, 2) the peripheral urban region (the finger city served by the suburban railways or regional railways), 3) the green wedges and 4) the rest of Greater Copenhagen.

  • In dialogue with the municipalities and the two administrative regions in Greater Copenhagen and the affected national authorities, the Minister for the Environment must concretize in a national planning directive the overall planning principles for the spatial development of Greater Copenhagen. The first national planning directive to be used for the first generation of the new municipal plans is expected to be issued in 2006 and be based on the 2005 regional plan adopted by the Greater Copenhagen Authority.

  • To ensure dynamic adaptation between development and planning, this national planning directive is expected to be revised continually. Further, as mentioned before, the national planning reports must include a specific section about Greater Copenhagen. This can strengthen the dialogue between the state, the two administrative regions and the 34 municipalities in Greater Copenhagen.

Transitional arrangement for 2006–2009
The 2005 regional plans will maintain their legal status through a national planning directive entering into force on 1 January 2007. During 2006, the county councils and the Greater Copenhagen Authority are no longer allowed to adopt supplements to the regional plans, except for supplements governing environmental impact assessment.
Thus, the 2005 regional plans will be the overall guidelines for the municipalities’ spatial planning and administration based on the new rules. However, in specific cases the Minister for the Environment may change these guidelines during the transition period. As the municipalities adopt municipal plans in accordance with the new rules, the Minister will repeal the regional planning guidelines for each municipality if the municipal plan complies with these guidelines. Nevertheless, guidelines governing nature protection and water resources will be maintained until the national water resource and Natura 2000 plans pursuant to the Environmental Objectives Act are adopted.

The Ministry’s new regional environmental centres
The local government reform is transferring to the Ministry of the Environment about 700 of the current employees of the counties and the Greater Copenhagen Authority working under environmental legislation. Of these, about 10% have tasks related to administering the Planning Act. The local government reform is creating seven decentralized regional environmental centres as an integrated part of the Ministry. The counties, the Greater Copenhagen Authority and the Ministry are currently cooperating intensively on establishing the framework for this. The forthcoming merger process means that offices have to be found, information technology systems have to be connected, the structure of each regional environmental centre has to be determined and the future working routines for all topics have to be determined. During autumn 2006, the people currently employed by the counties and the Greater Copenhagen Authority must relate to whether they will end up working for a municipality, the Ministry for the Environment, another ministry or an administrative region.
The establishment of regional environmental centres will set the stage for strong regional environmental administration. A high professional standard and delegating of competence will enable the centres to manage local tasks in cooperation with the municipalities and other actors. Good coherence between the regional environmental centres and the national agencies in Copenhagen must also be ensured so that overall environmental protection is administered uniformly in the country as a whole.
All regional environmental centres will assume responsibilities within nature protection and water resources, including the environmental impact assessment of animal-rearing installations. To ensure professional competence, the employees within spatial planning and certain environmental protection tasks will be gathered in three centres: in Aarhus, Odense and Roskilde. These centres will monitor the municipalities’ planning, coordinate with other national authorities and, if necessary, formulate vetoes of plans by the state.

Overall assessment
John Jørgensen’s thought-provoking and inspiring article in Byplan no. 03/2005, “The limitless city – new challenges for urban policy and urban planning” describes the new trends in which monocentrism must be abandoned in favour of a new reality with more centres and peripheries in the future urban regions. In the light of Denmark’s local government reform, Jørgensen, who is a researcher, concludes by saying: “It will be exciting to observe”.
I would add: it will be exciting to participate. One of the prerequisites for the success of the reform of the Planning Act is that planners and politicians understand the importance of the far more complex contexts urban development is facing in a society with extended mobility, changing patterns of settlement, clear trends for jobs to concentrate in an H pattern in Denmark (with the two vertical axes centered on eastern Jylland and Greater Copenhagen) and unavoidable declining socioeconomic trends in the peripheral regions. An additional trend is the increased focus on policy on nature protection and environmental protection in spatial planning.
In the brief period allotted to political and professional debate about the local government reform, spatial planning was often on the agenda. Many people especially advocated maintaining the former comprehensive regional planning. Others argued for simplifying planning rules and increasing the competence of the municipalities.
The debate is over. The new reality is on the way. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. I am certain that the range of instruments stipulated by the new Planning Act can meet the challenges. However, the crucial prerequisite is that the actors fulfil the responsibility they have been delegated. Equally important, political durability must be established for the new rules. Several years are needed to establish the new spatial planning structure. Many aspects of the spatial planning culture have to be changed.
First, the municipal councils and their planners must become aware that they now have sole responsibility for the quality and content of the specific land-use planning in town and country. The municipalities now have the right to propose first. The previous situation in which municipalities strived for broad autonomy for urban development and retail trade within regional plans is history. The traditional argument that municipal spatial planning regulations must be okay if the regional authority accepts them is no longer valid. The new Planning Act provides considerable autonomy integrated with responsibility. We need to avoid the state having to intervene in municipal planning too often.
The regional councils’ efforts in regional spatial development planning in cooperation with the business development strategies of the regional economic growth forums can be developed into a fabulous instrument for dialogue with the municipalities and the state. This can provide spatial planning some of the desired impetus. Each municipality will have enhanced opportunities to interpret its own prospects within the regional spatial development strategy.
Nevertheless, another prerequisite is that the strengthened national planning needs to be accepted politically. After all, the Planning Act’s general provisions on purpose and the special provisions for planning in the coastal zone and planning for retail trade have not been changed.

Statutory regional planning was a success
Many countries envy the regional planning Denmark has developed in the past 30 years. Other countries, especially those in eastern Europe, have adopted some of Denmark’s rules. The efforts of the counties and the Greater Copenhagen Authority have created an overview and established guidelines for spatial development. Protecting the qualities of the countryside has been given high priority, as documented by several articles in this issue of Byplan.
I find it urgent to emphasize that the fundamental basis for the new Planning Act is not a critique of the former regional planning. The principles of the overall local government reform resulted in the comprehensive changes in the Planning Act. It is important to acknowledge what has been achieved and do everything to maintain the personal competencies, the accumulated knowledge and the numerous data of the counties and the Greater Copenhagen Authority in the present situation in which the regional planning and the competencies will be distributed to the new entities. This is a fundamental precondition for progress.

Regional environmental centres of the Ministry of the Environment

Administrative region centres

New municipal boundaries

Regional environmental centres of the Ministry of the Environment

Administrative region centres

New municipal boundaries

Population forecast for Denmark,


The map shows a computer projection of the demographic changes towards 2030 if the trends in the past 4–5 years continue unaltered. This is a purely theoretical assumption, but the map clearly outlines the current development trends, in which the inhabitants are drawn towards the large cities in eastern Jylland and development in Greater Copenhagen extends to larger parts of Sjælland. The challenges for national planning, regional spatial development planning and municipal planning differ vastly in the different parts of Denmark.


The number of municipalities in the illustration above is in total 103 – but the number of municipalities following the reform of local government structure was at that moment not finally cleared off. The reform ended up with 98 municipalities in total.

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