Faced with extreme weather, voters in the 1970s responded to a government call to move to drier land. The same spirit of innovation is needed today
What should governments – and people – do, confronted by the terrifying force of nature? It is the question of our age. But one answer, found on mainland Europe, serves as a reminder of human ingenuity in the face of adversity. The Netherlands offers perhaps the most astonishing example of government intervention in the 20th century: acting to deal with North Sea surges, which not only cost lives but threatened food production. The project involved the damming of the Zuiderzee – a large, shallow North Sea inlet – and the reclamation of land in the newly enclosed water. What has been created since 1972 is a new region to the east of Amsterdam, called Flevoland, out of the sea in the form of two great polders – essentially flat fields of reclaimed marshland which together are about the size of the English county of Dorset.
These days Flevoland is a busy place: containing the country’s fastest growing city of Almere, the regional capital of Lelystad, and a vast nature reserve, Oostvaardersplassen. Half a century ago, all were submerged metres below sea level. The country’s youngest province is living proof of how humankind can live with the ever-changing elements. Michel van Hulten, one of Flevoland’s architects and a former Dutch minister, says some of the success of the area is down to the collectivist spirit of the early 1970s when voters instinctively trusted government. He points out that there were no tax incentives or state subsidies for people to move to what were then empty new towns. The public simply answered the government’s call as part of a national mission. The Low Countries remain ideologically and historically close to the UK. The problem is that today’s politics is marked by polarisation rather than solidarity.