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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Regional Planning in a Decentralised State: How Administrative Practices contributed to Consensus-Building in Sixteenth-Century Holland

Milja van Tielhof

Environment and History 23 (2017): 431-453. doi: 10.3197/096734017X14979473873885

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This article examines how a regional drainage system in the northern part of Holland in the Late Middle Ages could emerge despite the fact that the weak central state was hardly able to provide the necessary coordination nor prevent free-riding. Institutions, defined as rules and norms, including practices, procedures and techniques, play a key role in the argument. Four traditional administrative practices are identified as essential to the emergence of regional water control: a broad consultation process, by which opponents of new plans were also heard; landowners giving their explicit consent to plans and their costs; the proportional division of the costs; and the use of compensation for damage suffered. These practices respected local autonomy and broadened the level of support among the local stakeholders. The effectiveness of the practices was strengthened when they were used in combination with a technique provided by the Habsburg state: the enqueste or inquiry. This was a technique for gathering reliable, relevant and detailed information at the local and regional level. In this case study, the information on landscape and water use, collected by the 1544 Commission of Inquiry, facilitated cooperation between communities that enjoyed a high degree of self-governance.

KEYWORDS: Water management, institutional history, state formation, The Netherlands, early modern history

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