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Post-Covid recovery cash to fund completion of Justice Palace renovation

An aerial view of the justice palace (Justitiepaleis - Palais de Justice) as a police helicopter flies over the city centre of Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO THIERRY ROGE)
09:46 09/02/2021

The federal government has approved its share of the post-Covid stimulus package. In particular, the government intends to allocate €170 million to the renovation of those public buildings most in need of urgent work, including the Justice Palace in Brussels.

Some have questioned the logic of investing in such projects during a global pandemic but for Mathieu Michel, secretary of state for digitalisation, and the minister responsible for administrative simplification, privacy and buildings, renovating the Justice Palace in particular is essential.

"The Brussels Palace of Justice has a place in the recovery plan,” he said. “It is a landmark of the Brussels skyline, a proud part of our heritage. It is one of the images that Belgium sends out to the world. I make it a top priority."

Thomas Dermine, secretary of state responsible for the recovery policy in Belgium, also underlined the importance of renovating the Justice Palace. "Investments in education and the economy are needed, but we also need to think long-term,” he told L’Echo newspaper. “The judiciary plays an important role in our society and is one of the cornerstones of our society. An iconic building such as the Palace of Justice deserves due attention."

Mathieu Michel also stressed the importance of this project. "In terms of recovery, removing scaffolding, laying railway and tram tracks, renovating schools, the short-term impact of these things on the economy is real."

"When you look at a painting in the museum, you have to look at the painting as a whole and not focus on a little corner,” he added. “The money for the Justice Palace is less than one percent - about €60 million - of the total amount of the stimulus package."

As well as completing the renovation of the building itself, plans to pedestrianise the area in front of the Justice Palace were revealed last week when the Brussels councillor in charge of urbanism and public spaces, Ans Persoons, announced that parking in front of the courthouse, on its access ramps and on the adjacent Place Poelaert will be strictly prohibited from 1 March.

The better use of the underground parking lots in the area will be promoted in an effort to reduce the strain on parking areas on adjoining streets. Currently, these underground parking lots remain 30-35% empty during peak times. Details on the revamp of the area to make it more citizen-friendly are expected in the coming months.

In total, Brussels is receiving €395 million from the European recovery fund designed to help economies bounce back from the detrimental financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

This sum will be divided among various policy themes. Mobility and public works take the biggest bite out of the budget with €140.65 million. This is followed by social well-being (€129.5 million), climate and sustainability (€120 million), productivity (€69 million euros) and digitisation (€67.9 million euros).

Together, this totals €527.05 million, which means that in the coming months there will have to be further cuts to reach the €395 million allocated by the European Commission. Belgium will have to submit its final declaration on the distribution of funds to the Commission on 30 April.

The Brussels government of minster-president Rudi Vervoort came under fire from opposition parties in parliament on Monday for its plans on where the money allocated to the capital should be spent. Currently, there are 16 projects on the books but according to the opposition, the region's plans have little to do with the current reality and recovering from the pandemic. "A large part of these are old policies that have been part of the Brussels agenda for a long time," said Gilles Verstraeten of the N-VA.

One of Verstraeten’s colleagues in the N-VA, Cieltje Van Achter, said that the Vervoort government’s plans lacked clarity. "It's good that action is finally being taken after months of just talking numbers, but we still don't know where we stand."

In response to the opposition claims, Vervoort therefore listed more measures. A digital government platform will be set up to facilitate contact with citizens and part of the budget will go towards the purchase of teaching materials for vulnerable young people. Again, Gilles Verstraeten was not particularly impressed. "It is not only too little, but also about old policies,” he told the house. “Investing in study materials for disadvantaged young people has long been on the Brussels agenda."

Written by Nick Amies



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