17 - 18 september 2024 - Gare Maritime, Brussels

UPSI – Digitalising procedures to overcome the current slump in the Brussels market

RRU, PAD, CoBAT, PRDD, Good Living. The planning and regulatory standards that frame land use and urban planning in the Brussels Region have been following one another and crushing each other for more than 20 years, depending on the leaders in office. This lack of long-term vision is harmful to the city and has a pernicious effect on the real estate sector, according to Stéphan Sonneville, UPSI’s president for the capital.

Stéphan Sonneville, the vice-president of UPSI, has seen four minister-presidents and seven secretaries of state for town and country planning since he started working in the real estate sector. In his opinion, this sector, like the city, is in dire need of stability and long-term visibility. But – and he regrets this – the political world is largely under the influence of its electorate, swayed by the latter in its sometimes chaotic and even contradictory decision-making, especially as elections approach.

“I am observing this surface turbulence from a distance. As for UPSI – let’s not take this away from it – it has clearly moved in the course of its history from strictly defending the interests of its members and affiliates to defending the interests of the City in the long term, while trying to make the real estate activity that goes with it as fluid as possible.”  

Don’t say RRU any more, say Good Living!

Faced with the current changes to the former Regional Urban Planning Regulations (RRU), whose new code name is Good Living, he says he understands the objective, awaits concrete results and bitterly deplores the timing, as any new regulatory framework suffers teething troubles. “You have to realise that this new RRU is tailor-made by and for the person who supports it, namely Pascal Smet, the current Secretary of State for Urbanism. I can live with that, because the man who interprets it is must play along with the score that he wrote. But what worries me is that tomorrow, this tailor-made RRU could fall into the hands of another secretary of state with a diametrically opposed personality and objectives. This opens the door to long-term uncertainty at a time when our sector is already under pressure to adapt to the urgent goals of sustainable development,” the UPSI President says.

For Stéphan Sonneville this new RRU, if it partly incorporates the good intentions of the Secretary of State and the current regional government, is also there to compensate for a deficient regulatory framework, an absence of consensus and a lack of political decision: that of not having been able to put in place a clear and sustainable vision for the capital. “In 2018, there was an ambitious and strong policy document on the table from this same government: the PRDD, the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development. This reference document was democratically approved in the correct and due form by the regional representatives. This ambitious plan, which already included the sustainable dimension for the city of the future and its housing stock, had been carefully thought out and was to be put into practice on the local level by means of master development plans (PADs). But all this is being swept under the carpet,” Stéphan Sonneville laments.

No long-term vision: not for offices, not for housing

According to Sonneville, the same is currently true for the Brussels office stock. The regional authority, relying on the direct effects of containment and teleworking, has decreed that there is an excess of available space on the market at the moment and that the development of new projects should be stopped at all costs. “Again, this is a vision that lacks long-term coherence. By taking such positions, the green deal and its imperatives, which have become more and more urgent due to the events in Ukraine, are completely forgotten, skipped over! Of course, it is necessary to be able to renovate existing offices and bring them up to current standards, but it is also necessary to authorise new projects when the context requires it. The same goes for new housing, which is sorely lacking in the 19 Brussels municipalities at the moment. And what are we doing instead of making it easier and faster to obtain permits? We try to impose limits on rents! Once again, we are missing the point. And in order to cosy up to the electorate, we are deregulating the market by disincentivising private initiative, which is already too timid at the moment to respond to the real needs.

Next electoral tipping point

For the president of the UPSI, the pace of politics no longer corresponds at all to that of the coherent and harmonious development of the city in the long term. And the new regulation called Good Living, which will allow the supervisory authority to tell each project owner from the outset what he or she can or cannot do on the designated area for development that he or she is about to buy, will intrinsically depend on the goodwill of the politician in place. “Let’s face it: what can be done on this or that block will be a piecemeal political decision and it will be subject to change over time according to human and subjective economic parameters, as has already been the case in recent months. And just a shame about the lack of stability and transparency. This opens the door to particularism. Recent history shows us that there is reason to have serious reservations about what is being put in place.”

Stéphan Sonneville is already concerned about another deadline: the next elections, which could also disrupt everything again. “They take place within three years. But everyone knows that in Brussels it often takes on average much longer than 36 months to obtain a permit. Where is the stability and long-term vision that we need so badly to think and build the city sustainably?” he asks on behalf of the sector.

The top priority on his wish-list is to limit the damage: that everything be done quickly and intensively to digitalise administrative procedures, to make them faster, simpler, more stable and more transparent.

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