In order to cushion the combined effects of the crises of the last two years, the Walloon public authorities have gone into debt beyond the expected margins. In order to rebuild, partnerships with the private sector will have to be increased without delay.
At the last meetings bringing together all the parties involved in the reconstruction of the urban areas deeply affected by the floods of July 2021, all the stakeholders were on the same wavelength: if the Walloon public authorities do not quickly review their ways of working with their private partners, the essential long-term work cannot be carried out to the necessary extent and in the necessary timeframe.
At any rate, this is the opinion of Aubry Lefebvre, representative of the UPSI (Professional Union of the Real Estate Sector) in this strategic dossier. “I think that the issue with flooding is that a disaster on such a scale can make the citizens of the affected areas – and indirectly all Walloons – understand that the guidelines of the new Schéma de développement territorial (SDT) and that its programmed densification in residential areas, which are often difficult to accept without force majeure, make sense in this case to move things thoroughly in the right direction,” he notes.
According to Aubry Lefebvre, it is therefore up to the Walloon regional authorities to get things moving, with the approval of local public representatives. “The latter often do not have the skills or the financial means to rethink urban planning and construction in the affected areas in depth, particularly to launch ambitious public-private partnerships and to frame them technically and legally so that they bear fruit quickly.
When asked how, concretely, to launch the manoeuvre in, he called for the creation of supra-communal and provincial study and working groups that would identify the needs beyond local limits (catchment areas) and associate public actors at all levels (region, provinces, communes, neighbourhood committees), private actors and technical experts (CSTC, universities, etc.) upstream of the drafting of the specifications and public contracts.
No more “plasters on wooden legs”
In order to prevent similar disasters in the future and “not put sticking plasters on wooden legs” each time by spending public and private funds on temporary renovations, it will obviously be necessary, according to Lefebvre, to mutualise the rehousing of certain local residents by explaining to them the merits of certain inevitable compulsory purchases. Each municipality could draw on its reserve of building land to exchange with the flooded built-up land of a private owner, which would revert to the community as a green space on the banks of a water course. And thus build housing complexes on stilts, with common areas (parking, etc.) on the ground floor that can withstand future flooding from the neighbouring rivers.
“Without this,” Aubry Lefebvre emphasises, “the existing residential accommodation in these flood zones is condemned to relive the situation experienced last year at regular intervals, with the same catastrophic human and economic results. Everyone is now aware of this, and not to take urgent and concerted preventive measures would be tantamount to failing to assist a person in danger,” he concludes.
Mutualisation, the only viable economic leverage effect
Some built-up areas subject to flooding must be downgraded to temporary immersion zones. In other flood-prone areas, mutualisation and new housing grouped together in these flood-prone areas is, for Aubry Lefebvre, the financial key to overcoming the problem of the cost of reconstruction. “It is imperative to densify the buildings in these disaster areas and to allow town planning permits to compensate for the loss of the flood level of the ground floor by raising future constructions by one level – and therefore passing, for example, from a ground floor + 2 to a ground floor + 3 as the zoned reference height. In this way, private operators are permitted to amortise the additional costs of works and structures dedicated to preventive flood management. But for that to happen, the Walloon government must adopt a regulatory framework adapted to certain specific free zones delimited by experts on an objective basis,” the UPSI representative adds.
Registry of available local public land
According to the latter, if we do not go through this residential densification, there is still a risk, in the urban areas concerned, of spreading out the built-up areas, of making land scarcer and more expensive and housing even more inaccessible to the less well-off. “I may be wrong, but I think that a lot of local authorities are still simply sitting on a lot of well-situated land that is easy to subdivide because they don’t always know how to develop it. In order to identify this existing historical potential, it would probably be necessary to launch a registry of these public lands at regional level and to help the municipalities to exploit them, via conditional sales, by defining in advance how to find their interest in them and meet their urgent local needs. Work with local public owners (OCMWs, land registries, municipalities, etc.) to see how they can be intelligently developed via autonomous municipal or supra-municipal registries. By remaining the owner of the land by means of, for example, a superficiary right (emphyteusis) to limit the cost of the land in the final cost price for future private developers; this could provide a leverage effect we could generalise without further delay.” This is another thought Aubry Lefebvre pitches into the discussion, like a cobblestone into a river in spate.