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Brussels Votes! Mobility and citizen participation are hot topics at Bulletin's election debate

11:02 18/09/2018

Mobility and citizen participation were the hot topics at The Bulletin’s Brussels Votes! event this week. The lively debate brought together politicians, candidates and first-time voters from the international community to discuss the big issues ahead of the local elections on 14 October.

The panellists represented six political parties and four Brussels municipalities. Bertrand Wert of Ecolo in Ixelles and Lucien Rigaux of PS in Etterbeek both spoke about the need to reduce the city’s reliance on cars, for the benefit of both the environment and the economy. “Etterbeek is the only municipality in Brussels where a parking card is free,” said Rigaux. “Driving has a cost for society: it takes up space, the traffic jams have an impact on the economy, and the air pollution in Brussels is among the worst in Europe.”

Wert agreed that the way to reduce the cost for society is to make car ownership more expensive. “We need to act quickly,” he said. “We should increase the cost of running a car and offer more possibilities for people to switch to bikes and public transport.” For Johan Van den Driessche (Brussels-City, N-VA), solving the problem of mobility requires radical thinking and structural change: “If it was up to me, I would pass all the powers on mobility from my municipality to the region and hope that other municipalities follow.”

Though record numbers of non-Belgian have registered for October’s local elections, there are still large sections of the capital not engaging with local politics. How can the authorities better reach the people they are elected to serve and ensure they’re meeting their needs?

Ans Persoons of Change.Brussels in Brussels-City said the service foreigners receive at the town hall was often enough to put them off engaging with the city. “The commune has a bad reputation, and we want to see a more service-minded administration – replying to emails within 48 hours, frontline staff with a good knowledge of English and making many more services available online,” she said. “That first contact with the city is so discouraging that people don’t want anything else to do with it.”

For Sandra Ferretti (Watermael-Boitsfort, DéFi), local council meetings should be much more accessible to citizens than they currently are. She would like to see open mic sessions where residents can raise problems and get an immediate, unscripted response from their representatives. “That way they would feel they had a voice,” she said. “We want to make it easier for residents to speak up and reconcile people with politicians. We are privileged; there are lots of people in Brussels who are not. We need to keep this in mind and ensure inclusion of these people in society.” 

“In parts of France they’ve tried to create committees in districts, where councillors meet citizens and create an exchange to try to solve basic problems,” said David Leisterh (Watermael-Boitsfort, MR). “But debates are always better behind closed doors.”

Persoons believes the most important aspect of participation is to follow up on the issues raised. “We have to take participation seriously: giving people a mic and then doing nothing creates more frustration. We must take the time and energy to do it well. Often by the time you know something is going on in your neighbourhood it’s too late, so we need to listen to consultations before the planning phase.”

Structured participation is crucial, added Van den Driessche. “For big projects like Neo, Eurostadium, the central Boulevard, the participation of local inhabitants, commerce and employers was nothing.”

The debate also touched on languages in public schools and teaching politics from an early age, restructuring Brussels’ multi-layered political organisation, interaction between the city’s diverse communities, compulsory voting and taxation.

It was hosted by Science14 in the EU quarter and moderated by Belgian economist and philosopher Philippe Van Parijs.

Written by Sally Tipper