Daniel Termont, Mayor of Ghent, Belgium
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Mayor of the Month for June 2014
Mayor of Ghent, Belgium
Interviewed by Brian Baker
3 June 2014: Daniel Termont, who has been mayor of Ghent in Belgium since 2007 and a member of the City Council since 1977, has over the years promoted diversity in the city and led it to a prominent role in the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR). Yet concerns about the difficulties posed by the arrival of large numbers of people of Roma origin from Eastern Europe and predictions of a further influx prompted the municipality to write an open letter to the European Commission and the Belgian federal and regional governments in February 2014.
Update February 2015: Daniël Termont awarded the World Mayor Commendation for Services to European Cities
• Mayor Termont in politics
• Ghent, a vibrant and diverse city
• Interview with Mayor Termont
The immediate prompt for the mayor’s intervention was the action of the municipal authorities of Kosice, Slovakia to demolish housing, which had been occupied by Roma people. The mayor’s letter highlighted the difficulties of assisting people with very little schooling to find jobs in a modern society. In City Mayors’ interview with Daniel Termont, the mayor explains the circumstances behind the letter and says that the European Union must do much more to insist that all of its member states act without discrimination towards all their own citizens.
Daniel Termont in politics
Daniel Termont was born in 1953 in Ghent. He attended school in the city and subsequently studied at the Municipal Institute for Business and Secretariat. He has recalled that he first had an understanding of the beauty of his city when he wrote an essay about the Church of St Nicholas.
He is a member of the centre-left SP.A party and has represented it and its socialist predecessors on Ghent City Council since 1977. He was first elected as a City Council member shortly after a period of military service. Following that he managed a holiday recovery centre for five years. From 1988 1995 he was Secretary General of the National Health Service Bond Moysen Gent-Eeklo.
Since becoming Deputy Mayor of Ghent in 1995 Daniel Termont has been a full-time politician. He is married to Claudine de Sutter. He is or has been a member of several boards including Fluxys plc, plc Publigas, Finiwo, the municipal water supply agency TMVW and Ghent Port Authority.
Leading a vibrant and diverse city
Ghent is the second largest city of Flanders with a population, which now exceeds, for the first time, a quarter of a million inhabitants. Some 70,000 young people are enroled in higher education the largest student population in Belgium. It is estimated that this cosmopolitan city 48 kms west of Brussels is home to people of 160 nationalities.
Daniel Termont became mayor in 2007. During his first term he served on the board of the Euro Cities network and has strongly advocated co-operation and extensive contact and mutual learning amongst cities. In an earlier interview with City Mayors in 2010 he said “You cannot be a successful city of knowledge and culture such as Ghent if you are not open to the world.”
Daniel Termont was re-elected as Mayor of Ghent for a second term in late 2012. His centre-left party now leads an administration in coalition with the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats of OpenVLD. During his re-election year the mayor became very active on social media and commentators have linked his Twitter activity to his reputation as one of the most popular mayors in Belgium.
Like many mayors of medium sized and large European cities Daniel Termont must be both moderniser and conservationist. Ghent has the largest number of protected buildings in Belgium to take care of whilst it is also competing to attract bio-related companies and businesses from other 21st century growth sectors. It has successfully nurtured one technology park and is planning a second ( see interview below).
Companies in these sectors know they have to base themselves in places, which appeal to highly educated people. Termont is determined to address the housing shortage in the city, which is affecting both well-paid and poor people. He has also made it a priority to enhance the attractiveness of Ghent through continuing to invest in its cultural offer, public realm and sustainable mobility. In its 2014-2015 European Cities and Regions of the Future report, the Financial Times placed Ghent second in the foreign direct investment strategy category for cities of up to 350,000 people. Ghent was ranked 20th in the overall best cities table.
Interview with Daniel Termont, Mayor of Ghent
City Mayors: For many years and before you became a became full time deputy mayor and subsequently mayor, you served on Ghent’s city council while carry out regular jobs. What were your reasons for seeking full-time roles in politics?
Mayor Termont: From a very young age I have been active in politics because I wanted to make a valuable contribution to the society: I wanted to help people, fight against injustice, I wanted to realize important things for my city. When you, after having been a member of the city council for many years in a row, finally get the chance to concentrate on a full-time basis on these subjects besides your ‘regular job’, you grasp this opportunity with both hands. And I don’t regret my decision at all. In my capacity of deputy-mayor (from 1995 till 2007) and as mayor (as from 2007) I had to work very hard, but I have been able to accomplish many things for the City of Ghent and its inhabitants.
City Mayors: Despite the perceived or real drifting apart of Flanders and Wallonia, does co-operation between cities in the two regions remain strong?
Mayor Termont: Together with the City of Liège, Ghent assumes a pioneering role for the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR). This network counts more than 100 cities from about 20 European countries. Furthermore, Ghent is one of the fourteen partner cities of Bergen (Mons) which will be ‘Cultural Capital of Europe’ in 2015.
Next, there exists since 2000 the ‘Federaal Grootstedenbeleid’ (Federal Big Cities’ Policy), aiming to improve the liveability of and the social cohesion in big cities (and in particular in the inferior neighbourhoods). Ghent was one of these cities, next to Antwerp, Liège, Charleroi and seven municipalities in Brussels. But: in the meantime, the authority for ‘city policy’ has been transferred from the federal level to the Flemish managerial level. As from 2015, this will be final and there will no longer exist a Federal Big Cities’ Policy. We have to wait, however, whether the budget (approximately 25 million Euros) will be granted to the Flemish City Fund or to the Urban Renewal Fund, or whether it will just be ‘absorbed’ in the total Flemish budget. As far as I’m concerned, the money may continue to go to the big cities!
City Mayors: The administration you have led since October 2012 has proposed to cut spending during the term of office. It envisages that by 2019 the city will employ around 430 or 10 per cent fewer staff. Will important services suffer?
Mayor Termont: No, as a matter of fact, we would like to work in a more efficient way, but we don’t want to save on crucial sectors such as safety, education and child care. Besides: if you take the OCMW (Public Centre for Social Welfare) and the Department for Education and the Police Department into account, the staff will only decrease by one per cent. We keep our service at an elevated level!
City Mayors: In our 2010 discussion you emphasised the importance of international contacts and co-operation between cities as well as of Ghent being an open city. Do you still want the city to be welcoming to newcomers?
Mayor Termont: Yes, Ghent has always been an open and tolerant city and we want to keep it this way. People who want to come to Ghent to study or work are more than welcome. And we will gladly help people who want to work on a better future in Ghent. But we must be careful that not too many people find their way to Ghent. For the first time in its history, more than 250.000 people are living in the city. And Ghent cannot keep ‘growing’ indefinately.
City Mayors: You and your Council published an open letter in February 2014 to the European Commission, Federal Government and Flemish Government highlighting difficulties faced by the city, and others, in accepting and assisting large numbers of newcomers from Eastern Europe, notably Bulgaria and Slovakia of Roma origin. What were your reasons for this initiative?
Mayor Termont: Indeed, during the last years, quite a lot of people from Bulgaria and Slovakia have found their way to the city. The main problem for the local government is that we want to help these people, but will we be able to find jobs for them? Where will these people find affordable but sound accommodation? If too many people in need of help make appeal to our services, this will certainly exceed our capacity. The Flemish and Federal governments in Belgium must help the big cities to deal with these problems. But first and foremost: Europe should make special efforts to eliminate the inequality and to make sure that countries, which discriminate and literally chase away their own inhabitants get financially punished. I argue in favour of a fund in which the ‘fines’ for member states are collected in a way that cities, which take care of these people, get a larger budget.
City Mayors: The influx of people in Ghent from Slovakia has been small so far. Do you regret so publicly believing the prediction of thousands made by NGO Caritas Catholica, following demolition of the homes of Roma people in Kosice?
Mayor Termont: No, that was an important signal. It was hard to predict. It finally turned out that many of the people who wanted to leave had already left and that the rest did not come just to Belgium.
City Mayors: Should the European Union do more to insist that funds meant for housing and schools for disadvantaged groups in the Eastern countries are actually deployed in that manner?
Mayor Termont: Absolutely, I refer to what I’ve mentioned before: EU member states which do not co-operate have to be punished financially and the money should be given to the governments which really need it and use it in the correct way. As far as the City of Ghent is concerned: it should also be given to the Ghent municipality to help the people from Bulgaria and Slovakia who are already living in the city.
City Mayors: A recent survey suggested that you have many more Twitter followers than any other mayor in Belgium. You are also considered by many to be very popular. What is your view about the use of social media by politicians and what persuaded you to engage with it so much?
Mayor Termont: I have worked long and hard in order to become popular. My recipe for success is: always stay who you are and have a thorough knowledge of your responsibilities and policies, but the most important thing: keep visiting the inhabitants of your city and listen to them, learn what they approve and disapprove, exchange thoughts with the public. I’ve started rather late with Twitter, sometime in 2011. Some young creative Ghent inhabitants convinced me of the fact that this was an excellent way to receive news fast and explain my view all over the world; and this is of course essential for a politician. I don’t feel the need to share my private life with the world, but for a mayor and party politician it is an awesome means of communication to reach a lot of people in the fastest possible way.
City Mayors: You were reported in the EU Observer as saying that a lack of affordable housing was a major problem for Belgians as well as for migrants. Should you do more to build more housing in Ghent?
Mayor Termont: At this moment a lot of public and private housing projects are being executed or will be executed in the near future. It is obvious that we would like these projects to proceed in a much faster way, but we have to observe the regulations and procedures. And we attach great importance to the involvement of the inhabitants in the decision-making process, and that demands time.
Thanks to projects such as ‘The Old Docks’, ‘Tondelier’, ‘Ghent Saint Peter’s’ and ‘the Loop’, hundreds of new homes will be constructed. These projects will provide for many activities such as: living, working, education, sports, playing, business and trade. The social housing companies also add hundreds of homes to the local housing market. Through these large- and small-scale projects we truly hope to have some influence on the housing market and to be able to present a more diversified choice. And above all, these new homes (apartments and houses) will meet the most recent climate and energy standards.
In Ghent, we have, of course, many older houses which can be found in the 19th century part of the city. Through grants and group purchases we encourage owners to improve the quality of the houses with for instance insulation and green roofs.
Our city is popular and attracts many incomers students, people from other countries and others. This influx of people pushes up house prices.
The need for affordable housing in our city remains high. We have insufficient means to construct or to have constructed the number of social accommodations we need. It is therefore impossible for us to guarantee everybody on a low income or, as I already mentioned, incomers from other EU countries, accommodation.
We therefore expect that the next Flemish government allocates a large-enough budget to construct affordable homes for socially vulnerable people as well as provides finance for new social housing but also for the renovation of the outdated social housing units. And it is clear that Europe must support action to enable EU-citizens to build a decent existence in their home countries. Forced migration, for whatever reason, should no longer necessary.
City Mayors: The recession has had an impact on big developments across Europe. You have scheduled substantial developments around Sint-Pieters station and in ‘The Loop’ area. How quickly do you expect these schemes, especially offices, to be delivered as the economy improves? Are the bio-related businesses, which you set out to attract to Ghent arriving in significant numbers?
Mayor Termont: At ‘The Loop’ area, a lot has changed since 2010. Several tens of thousands square metres of office buildings were delivered for companies such as KBC (financial sector), Planet Group (IT and HR services) and VMM (environmental research). New offices are currently being built for Deloitte and several other private companies. The building of the retail area is expected to start by the end of 2014 as the first plans have been approved.
At the ‘Gent Sint-Pieters’ station area, the first new developments are now being delivered for the Flemish Government. New office buildings are currently being planned for some private companies in the financial, services and IT sectors. There are some delays in the delivery of the overall project but these are not due to a decline in demand.
We see that, even in today’s economy, our office market is performing very well. “Ghent takes the lead” was the title of the international broker JLL (formerly known as Jones Lang Lasalle) annual report on the Flemish property market. With this statement, JLL referred to the fact that Ghent outperformed Antwerp and all other cities in terms of take-up of new offices, with a steady growth over the past few years.
IT, biotechnology and new materials are the three sectors focused on in Ghent’s investment promotion strategy. This strategy was awarded by the Financial Times in their “FDI European Cities and Regions of the Future 2014-2015” ranking, as runner-up among the small cities (up to 350,000 citizens). In the overall ranking Ghent was included as one of the 25 most attractive cities. We are the only city in Belgium in the overall list. We are outperforming a lot of bigger European cities.
In 2011 the first phase of the bio-accelerator was delivered at the Ghent Technology Park Ardoyen, with 16,000 square metres of lab space. It is 100-per-cent privately funded and designed for bio-related industries. The first phase of 8,000 square metres was delivered earlier this year and the second phase is in planning. In 2014, at the same park, a new IT cluster will take off, with over 20,000 square metres of office, lab space for multiple international R&D hubs of private companies (TP vision, Huawei, Daiki) and an IT research center of the Ghent University and iMinds.
The plans for a new technology park are currently on the table to make further growth possible.
City Mayors: In your first term as mayor, Ghent set itself to be carbon neutral by 2050. Is progress towards this on target? Will it be affected by the reduction in the City spending plans?
Mayor Termont: We are still on schedule for the first milestone of the 2020-objectives (20 per cent CO2 reduction). In 2011 we already recorded a reduction of 9.5 per cent since 2007. The City of Ghent spends more than 120 million euros on climate-related matters. Various great projects are being launched by the city, by businesses and private individuals, each trying to make a contribution towards climate-neutral urban development. Planned and projects in progress include ‘Oude Dokken” (Old Docks) development, generating heat from waste materials at Stora Enso, attempts to increasing the number of car-free streets, planning of wind energy, a low energy library and a climate-neutral media centre.
City Mayors: You have partnered with the regional government and the transport agency De Lijn to introduce improved late night bus services, seven days a week, in Ghent. Is this night-time economy a crucial element of living and working in the city?
Mayor Termont: As from the middle of this year, the provision of night buses in Ghent will again be improved and extended, after it had (undeservedly) been cut back. By doing this, we want to respond to the needs of the Ghent citizens and reflecting a vibrant like Ghent. We also pursue sustainable mobility in Ghent and many people support this idea, but it is obvious that sufficient alternatives have to be offered to the public. Ghent is a very active city, a student city, a city of culture, a city of events. A number of large events are being organized every year and there are many specific evening activities such as late-night shopping. To this effect, night buses will be operating every day of the week. This means that people who want to go to a restaurant or to a theatre performance or to the movies can use the bus to return home.
But this is not only a matter of mobility. A vibrant city has a direct importance for the economy: people spend money in the hotel and catering industry, at the theatre, undertake training, attend events, meetings … but there is also an indirectly positive effect. Owing to the many activities, which are being organized in the city, Ghent is a very agreeable place to live. As a result investors can find the right talent they are looking for. The creativity of a city reflects whether a city is doing well economically. To this effect you need a vibrant and thriving city where people influence each other. And in order to achieve this goal one really needs sound and sustainable mobility.
City Mayors: Your plans for your second term include up to ten new parks and more support and encouragement for cycling. Ghent is already a cycle friendly city. Do you see these investments primarily as health driven or are they quality of life facilities, aiming to keep residents content with the mayor and council?
Mayor Termont: It is obvious that we take these measurements to make Ghent liveable for everybody - for the inhabitants, but also for the visitors. We cannot keep using fossil fuels as we are doing right now and all the motorized traffic causes loads of fine dust particles in the city. That’s the reason why we already have the largest car-free city centre in the country. To this effect, we promote cycling and construct better bicycle routes for instance we have reserved about 15 million euros for the coming years to achieve this goal. And that is also the reason why we concentrate on more and better public transport, in close co-operation with the Public Transport Company De Lijn.
City Mayors: New York City’s most famous mayor Fiorello La Guardia once said “A Mayor who cannot look fifty or seventy years ahead is not worthy of being in City Hall.” How do you see the future of Ghent?
Mayor Termont: Allow me to directly look ahead to the year 2050. By that year Ghent will be climate-neutral, everybody will have a good job and a decent house which produces its own energy, young people with children will be living in Ghent and the city will still be vibrant and full of creative activities. And everybody will be smiling and will have good contacts to fellow-citizens. There will no longer be so-called ‘energy poor people’. A utopian fantasy? Maybe. But that’s why we do it, isn’t it? After all, it is a noble ambition and fortunately many Ghent citizens are willing to co-operate.
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