Realty opens with a conference on Brussels housing

Tim Harrup

The Realty trade fair opened its doors in the Maritime Station of Tour & Taxis on Tuesday morning. The fair is still very much conference-focused but there are more stands from mainstream companies in real estate than was the case last year. One of the first presentations was on the subject of Brussels and the way in which real estate development is set to be improved over the coming years.

(As an aside, a noisy demonstration just inside the entrance to the premises began towards the end of Rudy Vervoort’s presentation and continued for a few minutes of the following presentation by Nawal Ben Hamou until the demonstrators were removed by the police. To both their credits, the Ministers were not deterred, and carried on. Those of us listening were doing so via closed circuit headsets and although we could hear the noise and the drums in the background, we had no idea who was demonstrating or why. Even if we did, this website would not give them any publicity…!)

The subject of projects becoming administratively paralysed and the modifications to the procedures, evoked by the Minister-President, was dealt with by Nawal Ben Hamou in some detail She has responsibility for housing and said that the public intervention in ensuring access to housing has to be more efficient than ever. In speaking about the need to modify procedures in Brussels (which has been evoked but only partially realized for years, it has to be said), Nawal Ben Hamou gave several concrete options for changing the system. These were all based on the fact that too many pre-project meetings currently tke place, and that one single opinion can bring an entire project to a standstill.

The first option is to hold one single pre-project meeting where all of the interested parties would work towards a common goal. The findings of this meeting would be binding on the public authorities. Option two would see the ‘summer recess’ period in which meetings cannot take place, considerably reduced in length. And the third major option would be to do away with the passage of the project before the ‘Concertation Commission’. Centralised decision-making as is the case in Hamburg, and a ‘single permit as in Wallonia, were also evoked by the Minister.

Change in mindsets

For his part, Pascal Smet is in charge of urban planning and heritage. He also wishes to see a quicker and more efficient system and pleads for the decision-making process not to get caught up in tiny details. A new administrative procedure has received first approval and following consideration by the Council of State, may be ready to be put in operation by the beginning of 2024. The permit procedure is, (somewhat belatedly he conceded) being digitalized. And in terms of what is built, where possible all large projects should be mixed use. He also repeated a new philosophy which he first laid out at Mipim earlier this year: the old way ‘where can we put the green space around this building?’ has to be inverted to ‘how should we integrate the buildings into this green space?’.

Pascal Smet also gave a number of concrete examples, this time of how mindsets (paradigms in his words) are already changing. Firstly, he said that in terms of mobility, this had already happened (bikes, public transport…). His second change would require that, with the opinion of experts, renovation of an old building should always be preferred to demolition. Thirdly, landlords should be persuaded to bring social and private housing together in a single residential development. Next, we have to stop people saying that Brussels is a densely populated city without green areas, because it simply isn’t true. And his last concrete proposal is to make more use of rooftops, not just for bars and restaurants, but gardens, basketball courts… Pascal Smet was pleased to have seen, over recent years, a change of mentality among developers and architects towards these new concepts.

One final point he made perhaps sums all of the desires. Not only do we have to make it affordable for people who work in Brussels to live there too, but we have to promote Brussels not simply as the capital of Europe and somewhere to invest, but somewhere to live as well!