The tribulations of Oosterweel have not yet come to an end

Ringland and the other action committees have already collected nearly 70,000 signatures, more than enough to hold a referendum.

The time has truly come to involve citizens in a comprehensive way in infrastructure projects, starting with a needs assessment. The people have been overlooked for far too long in the Oosterweel project. Hopefully this was the last time.

The Oosterweel project has not seen the end of its tribulations. Ringland and the other action committees have, apart from their legal pursuits, collected nearly 70,000 signatures. More than enough to force a referendum. It is reminiscent of the inhabitants of the island of Lilliput, from the fictitious adventures of the seventeenth century captain Lemuel Gulliver. Gulliver is the main character in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, the satiric novel from 1726 by the hand of the Irish novelist Jonathan Swift. Due to a shipwreck, Gulliver comes into contact with a people twelve times smaller than him. They speak a language he doesn’t understand and they hold him captured, and he can only win their trust through his mild disposition. By showing patience, discretion, generosity and righteousness, Gulliver regains his freedom. Even though the thousands of tiny arrows they shoot at him hurt quite a bit, Gulliver could have escaped immediately if he had wanted. Did he stay out of curiosity or because he, even in the capacity of a prisoner, was the most powerful man on the island?

Public private partnership

In the autumn of last year, Eurostat and the European Investment Bank presented A Guide To The Statistical Treatment Of PPPs. The new manual for the classification of public private partnerships in the national accounts turned out to be far less strict than what earlier EU guidelines, amongst other for Oosterweel, made appear. Therefore, we can expect that after this reshuffle of the beacons, more and better projects will be realised. The first fifteen years of PPP in Flanders have certainly resulted in a story of delays and hesitations, in which wrong accents predominated. This is because PPP is no panacea for budgets gasping for breath, nor a synonym for privatisation, and it doesn’t need needlessly complicated structures either. Now that the budget-technical discussions regarding PPP are out of the way, the Flemish government can fully focus on the true power of the instrument. Surely, a robustly structured PPP makes for much better and more beautiful projects, which are designed in a far more sustainable way than infrastructure entirely prescribed by the government.

Civilians

For quite some time now, builders, architects and banks have understood the power of integration. The administration too also has a clear view on the success factors. Far too often, though, things go sideways in the field. The time has come to not only involve private partners even earlier in the process, but also to include civilians in a comprehensive way in PPP projects, starting with the needs assessment. In the case of the design of the cable bridge over the Wilhelmina canal in Tilburg (the Netherlands), local and regional stakeholders, besides the policy makers and architects, were given 30% of the decision making power.

Groenplaats

In Flanders too, steps have been taken, in particular regarding the redesigning of the Groenplaats in Antwerp. The winning team managed to convince the jury using a stakeholder approach, making sure everyone would be involved in the development of the new design from the beginning. When it comes to projects on a regional level, this can be an extremely uneasy exercise for a government who can crush its opponents just as Gulliver did. But it is the only way to collectively achieve a result which is optimal for society as a whole. Moreover, whereas action groups can simply limit themselves to negative input, it can get people to take responsibility. The Flemish administration is best placed to take the lead in this solution-focused approach, and it largely has the instruments to do so. In this way, a fourth and crucial P, for ‘people’, is added to PPP. A P that was overlooked for too long in the Oosterweel project. Hopefully for the last time.

Author

Karel Joos

Partner, Belgium

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