Schaerbeek, Saturday 25 April. Bulldozers and excavators come to disturb the silence and the quietude of the Josaphat wasteland, digging a 140m long and 7m wide trench in the middle of a natural site. For the president of the Region, Rudy Vervoort, it is a question of « minor levelling work » that would have simply caused the concern of a handful of local residents and that did not require planning permission. To continue on the register of emotion, the Minister of the Region deplores the lack of communication around these works that have « generated reactions of great sensitivity » from some actors who could not « keep their calm and composure »(1). So what? An event without gravity, dramatized by naturalists? However insignificant they may be, according to Rudy Vervoort, these levelling works have attracted the attention of journalists and the Minister-President of the Region was far from suspecting that this trench would appear to us as a piece of thread protruding from a knotted bag, a piece of string on which to start pulling to untangle the rest…
This scar, dug just where the future access road to the site will be, is the responsibility of the SAU, Société d’Aménagement Urbain. Owner of the land since 2005 after having bought it in 2006 from the SNCB, the SAU is waiting for the green light from the Region to start a new PAD (Master Plan). Blossoming in the four corners of the city, the PADs are urban development tools with regulatory value that allow for exemptions from certain rules in order to accelerate construction projects. Clearly, the PADs are a godsend for real estate developers who thus get rid of the restrictive measures hindering the realization of projects (such as the height of buildings which can largely exceed what is provided for in the PRAS(2)). Currently, there are about ten in the Brussels-Capital Region. The recent proliferation of PADs since the CoBAT(3)4 reform in 2017 is indicative of a system that relies on informal collusion between the public administration and the real estate development sector. In this respect, the Josaphat wasteland is a textbook case to better understand the issues involved in urban development in Brussels, a sector that is organized in a vast and complex network of public or semi-public companies, linked together by key figures, often closely linked to the world of politics. Opening the Josaphat file is like opening the Pandora’s box of Brussels urban planning.
A LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
The primary characteristic of CSAs is the lack of transparency surrounding the project. Indeed, in the case of the Josaphat wasteland, the procedures are very opaque and the vagueness is voluntarily maintained on the financing of the project: we know absolutely nothing about the economy of the project, and the attempts to try to lift the veil remained dead letter, with the pretext of not » compromise the competitive dialogue procedures ‚ » as one former IEB member was told when he asked Marie Vanhamme, who is in charge of the Josaphat project at SAU. It is impossible to know, for example, how the transfer of land from the public to the private sector will be set up, given that the project foresees 55% private housing (and only 45% public housing) on land that belongs to the Region! However, these are questions that were asked during the public inquiry, but which received no satisfactory answer… This opacity prevents a clear and precise vision of the financial set-up of the project and constitutes a real attack on the control of the citizens on the development of the Brussels territory.
AN ANTI-DEMOCRATIC PROJECT
The public inquiry has itself been criticized on several occasions, notably by members of Inter-environnement Bruxelles who denounce a democratic deficit in the citizen consultation procedure, notably because of the complexity of the documents that served as a basis for the public inquiry. Indeed, a file of nearly a thousand pages has been sent to the residents of the neighborhood who must read it in a very short time since the public inquiry lasted only 2 months between October 3 and December 2, 2019. On the other hand, this file has several parts, including a strategic and a regulatory one: most of the sensitive measures, such as the protection of biodiversity, are included in the strategic file, and not in the regulatory file, which means that they are not binding and can be overridden. The distinction between these two parts of the file is not always obvious to the neophytes that are (mostly) the inhabitants of the district. This distinction is very important, however, because it is clear that the regulatory section is much shorter (only 14 pages) in order to give developers room to maneuver, which ultimately provides few guarantees to residents in terms of quality of life and biodiversity protection.
But that’s not all: in addition to being complex and difficult to access, the environmental expertise documents made available to citizens during the public inquiry are also of poor quality and present biased or incomplete data. This is particularly true of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and its « non-technical » summary (NTS), which, despite its reassuring name, does not provide a clear picture of the environmental implications of the Josaphat project. The height of hypocrisy: these documents even claim that the project could have a positive impact on the biodiversity of the wasteland by promising to » tokeep it and make it evolve « .(4) thanks to a better « connectivity » of the green spaces, which is an aberration according to naturalists for whom the project will necessarily lead to an impoverishment of the biodiversity in the wasteland.
Contrary to what the project provides, there is a real gap in the pseudo-democratic approach of the Josaphat PAD, since the citizens only have incomplete and oriented information that does not allow them to make a critical and enlightened judgment on the project. The announcement of the realization of a public inquiry is symptomatic of a purely communicative use of citizen participation, where transparency and clarity are not required.
The other problematic point of this project is the involvement of actors with ambiguous profiles and interests, maintaining a blurred border between public management of the file and private interests. This is notably the case of Henri Dineur, ex-director of cabinet of Charles Picqué at the Region in 2006, reconverted in urban planning. He is now a member of the SAU Board of Directors. We make it clear that our objective is not to make accusations ad personam, but simply to point out the problematic nature of a man who has held a mandate in the Region being a director of a public-private company whose development activities depend on a decision by the Region. The mandate of the administrator at the SAU is all the more strategic since the SAU also plays an evaluation role in the competitive dialogue procedure that puts different private or parapublic actors in competition for the award of a public contract such as the Josaphat site. However, Henri Dineur’s sulphurous past may legitimately lead one to question the principle of neutrality that should normally govern this competitive dialogue procedure. We need to go back in time so as not to lose our readers.
HENRI DINEUR: PORTRAIT OF A MAN WITH A SULPHUROUS PAST
2006. Dineur is Piqué’s manager. » This lawyer cultivates the gift of ubiquity, explains the journalist Gwenaël Brëes.(5) From 2000 to 2006, he will be the main alderman of Saint-Gilles in charge of many communal competences that he will find the time to cumulate with his functions within the PS, his new regional responsibilities, as well as with various administrator positions in public or parapublic companies! Dineur is defined by some of his relatives as « a killer », an uninhibited negotiator, without scruples or qualms, who pushes through his boss’s projects « . After his electoral setback — which caused him to lose his seat as a local councillor — Dineur resigned from his position at the Region in the middle of the legislature and joined the board of directors of the Palais des Congrès s.a. as part of the International Development Plan(6) in 2007. At the same time, he is piloting the redevelopment of the Heysel plateau, within EXCS, a limited company financed by the public authorities, but which escapes any democratic control. In 2008, the company was renamed NEO scrl. Its objective is to use a private entrepreneurial structure to get rid of the constraints of democratic decision-making. This has become a common practice in CBR through public limited companies and public interest organizations (PIOs). Nine years later, the Court of Auditors(7) pinned NEO for unjustified expenses: two credit cards had been made available to Dineur; which allowed him to pay more than €10,000 in travel and entertainment expenses (between 2014 and 2015). Dineur is also accused of non-compliance with public procurement legislation. Dineur will justify himself by saying » I was a public official without knowing it « (8).
Behind the PAD tool, the question arises of the links between the contracting authority (in charge of managing a public contract) and the real estate development world. Thus, in the case of the Friche Josaphat that interests us here, the problem is not simply the presence of Henri Dineur on the Board of Directors of the SAU, but rather the potential activation of a whole network of cronies among a plurality of public and private actors, via informal exchanges. Even if there is no proven conflict of interest involving Henri Dineur in the Josaphat PAD, it is the existence of such a network that is problematic, and which should be enough to question the ethics of this project.
THE NATURALIST-CONCRETE-MAKER COMPLEX
Speaking of ethics, the best is yet to come. As you can see, Henri Dineur is a man with many strings to his bow. Since 2017, he has also been a managing director of AVES-Natagora. No, you didn’t misread. We can write it a second time to take away the benefit of the doubt: Henri Dineur has been the managing director of AVES-Natagora since 2017, where he replaced Emmanuel Sérusiaux as head of the largest association of naturalists in French-speaking Belgium. But faced with the incoherence of this position of the « naturalist-constructor » pointed out by his opponents, Dineur has found the answer by championing urban densification as a means of avoiding encroachment on the countryside in order to preserve biodiversity; a theory that he publicly supports in the editorial of the magazine published by Natagora, where he writes: » Let’s concentrate in the cities, let’s restore biodiversity in the countryside « (9). Why is this argument preposterous? Firstly because it seems absurd, when one wants to protect nature in general, to claim that one must sacrifice urban biodiversity to preserve that of the countryside; but above all because there are thousands of abandoned dwellings on the territory of Brussels, which are only waiting to be restored to serve again. There is no need to build new ones and to continue to encroach on the last remaining natural spaces in the city.
LIKE A HAIR ON THE SOUP
But before criticizing the substance of this position (defensible since Dineur is not the only one to defend it in the naturalist milieu), this argument first calls for a criticism of form: what is the purpose of such remarks in the editorial of a naturalist journal? This reference to urban densification comes as a surprise in a magazine dedicated to a public interested in nature, and not to specialists in urban planning. Promoting the densification of cities as a tool against the artificialization of land that causes the destruction of biodiversity in the countryside … This is something irredeemably grotesque and shows a total confusion of roles(10). In other words, the problem is not so much to defend such an argument per se, but rather to know that it can indirectly serve the interests of the one who makes it. In other words, when Dineur writes his editorial for Natagora, what role does he take on? Who is speaking? Is it the nature enthusiast, the real estate developer, or the UAA administrator? Probably a bit of all three, but when we know that the observations.be website, which lists all the observations and which is a reference among naturalists, is managed by the Natagora association, it is obvious that Dineur gets some political power from it, which could potentially serve his interests.
The challenge is therefore to be able to assess the consequences of this multiplicity of hats that can be worn or taken off at will, depending on the subject being addressed. In the case of the Josaphat file, he defends himself from any accusation of conflict of interest by claiming that he is not involved in the debate on the Josaphat wasteland, either at the SAU or at Natagora: » As a matter of good form, I would like to point out that when this type of issue is dealt with at the UAA, I refrain from participating. As for Natagora, I myself had our statutes changed as they were not very clear on this matter, and I obviously do not participate in the debates either. « He justifies himself after being questioned by a naturalist on a public forum.(11) According to him, his good faith would be sufficient to rule out any suspicion of conflict of interest. However, if we look closely at the changes in the statutes recorded since Dineur became a director of Natagora, we can see no trace of such a change. Some articles concerning the management of Natagora’s real estate have indeed been modified, but the article on conflict of interest has remained the same and when we wanted to know more about the mechanisms of counter-power within the Board of Natagora, we were told that « If a conflict of interest is suspected, the person is asked to leave the room when the matter is discussed . So nothing is set in stone. In other words, if Dineur had really wanted to have the bylaws changed significantly on the issue of conflicts of interest, he had the means to do so. His anti-conflict of interest lobbying could therefore have been more radical. Therefore, if he puts the same energy into defending the Josaphat wasteland as president of Natagora, as he did into preventing any conflict of interest within the association as a member of the Board of Directors… the real estate developers can sleep on their two ears!
PLAYING THE CLOCK: A TOOL OF INDIRECT CENSORSHIP
This posture, which is a typical wait-and-see attitude, is revealing of the role that Henri Dineur could play (or rather not play) as president of Natagora in the Josaphat case: if no one suspects him of putting obstacles in the way of the association, by preventing it, for example, from filing a potential appeal against the Josaphat PAD, it would be more difficult to believe that he would be the one to initiate such a legal action. It is therefore not a question of direct censorship on the part of Dineur, but rather of a voluntary inertia, not without incidence in the file which interests us. Dineur is used to this kind of procedure and knows something others don’t: time is the best ally to overcome any activism that smacks a little too much of democracy (and is reckless enough to file a lawsuit). In the urban development sector, playing for time is a classic strategy that has already proved its worth, as we shall see in another section of this dossier.
Moreover, while he does not openly oppose legal activism against the Josaphat PAD within Natagora, his tenure as president and director of the association gives him some power over the organization’s operations. The positions taken by the Board of Directors, the items it decides to put on the agenda, its weight in the deliberations, the vote on the association’s budget… all these governance instruments can have material consequences on the organization and be translated into human resources, for example, which then has a direct impact on the association’s activities. However, the staffing and time required to file an appeal while continuing the « regular » activities of the association should not be overlooked. By having the power to influence such organizational decisions, Dineur puts himself in an awkward position, and as one nonprofit member summarizes, « The problem is that Dineur has the status of president…I would really hate to be in his shoes. »
But if the case of Dineur raises questions, it would be unfair to discredit the association. On the contrary, the turmoil caused by its president’s editorial has raised many questions internally: not all employees share their president’s position on urban densification. « Until now, we had never really taken a position on the protection of nature in the city, and the Josaphat file allowed us to begin a collective reflection »(12). Following this, a working group was formed without Henri Dineur to try to develop a collective position on the issue of protecting biodiversity in urban areas. The truth is that Natagora is not sufficiently armed to oppose its managing director head-on. A few years ago, Natagora experienced financial difficulties that probably caused it to develop a dependency relationship or at least a sense of accountability to its president. Today the Board of Directors of the association supports him on all his positions and voted for him unanimously (20 members, 20 votes by show of hands…), which gives him a strong legitimacy. The complexity of the situation in which Natagora finds itself with respect to its managing director should not be underestimated. However, one thing is certain: Dineur is not devoid of flair and methodically places his pawns on the chessboard. Its positioning is always strategic. As Gwenaël Breës sums it up, he has the gift of ubiquity and may well have a head start on the Josaphat case…
A UTILITARIAN RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE
For now, the Regional Development Commission has issued a negative opinion(13) on the development project of the wasteland, which is encouraging from the point of view of naturalists, the Josaphat wasteland being one of the last sites of its kind in RBC, « A unique place, the last big wasteland of Brussels » explains the naturalist Benoît de Boeck. Its main characteristic, which makes its biodiversity rich, is to be an open space with several different environments such as ponds, hedges and embankments, which allows the coexistence of species that like this type of open space, such as migratory birds or wild bees(14). By allowing the construction of towers and high-rise buildings, the PAD risks drastically reducing this openness and the green spaces planned in the project will not allow the conservation of the biodiversity present on the wasteland. At most, the project will allow the recovery of a « banal » biodiversity made up of pigeons, squirrels and sparrows, which will replace dragonflies, flycatchers and grey herons… As a naturalist explains: « Park biodiversity is not biodiversity. Lawns are ecological deserts compared to wasteland vegetation. « . In other words, nature is not preserved for what it is, but in the name of the benefits that mankind derives from it, which explains why it is not given priority over the economic interests of a handful of property developers. Not very profitable, the biodiversity of the wasteland does not weigh heavily in the balance compared to the promise of a sanitized nature, made of parks and green roofs, provided that some people can benefit from it. So, can we really talk about a new paradigm, as Dineur claims in his editorial of Natagora? Or are the recent works on the Josaphat wasteland just a demonstration of an eternal return of the same, sacrificing without remorse nature to the insatiable appetites of real estate developers? And what other sacrifices are CSAs the name of? To be continued in the next episode…
- Commission Territoriale de Développement, 11 mai 2020, réponse de Rudy Vervoort à l’interpellation des représentant.e.s de partis sur la question des travaux de la friche Josaphat : https://youtu.be/FFvZGj6uHAc?t=2796 ou p.12 : http://weblex.irisnet.be/data/crb/biq/2019–20/00096/images.pdf.
- PRAS : Plan Régional d’Affectation des Sols. C’est le règlement ordinaire, la règle du jeu de base de l’urbanisme en RBC. Par rapport au PRAS, les PAD ont une valeur dérogatoire.
- Code Bruxellois de l’Aménagement du Territoire.
- Perspectives Brussels, Résumé Non-Technique (fourni par ARIES consultants), « incidences du plan sur la faune et la flore », p.55, disponible en ligne : https://perspective.brussels/sites/default/files/documents/rie_josaphat_02_rnt_fr.pdf
- Voir Gwenaël Breës, Bruxelles-Midi, l’urbanisme du sacrifice et des bouts de ficelle, Aden, 2009.
- Le PDI est un programme d’urbanisme présenté par Charles Picqué et visant à faire renforcer l’identité de Bruxelles comme capitale de la Belgique sur la scène européenne et internationale à travers de grands projets comme la construction d’un palais des congrès : https://www.ieb.be/Le-Plan-International-de
- 22ème Cahier de la Cour des comptes, Session ordinaire 2017–2018, adressé au Parlement de la RBC, p. 178 (disponible en ligne)
- La Meuse, 12 décembre 2017, « Henri Dineur (Neo) : «J’étais mandataire public sans le savoir» »
- Magazine de Natagora n°96 mars-avril 2020, édito : Vers un Nouveau Paradigme ?, Henri Dineur
- Voir Ezelstad/La cité des ânes, Densifier la ville pour sauver les campagnes ?, 15 mai 2020
- Propos recueillis auprès d’un membre de Natagora, qui désire rester anonyme.
- Avis de la Commission régionale de développement, 30 avril 2020, PAD Josaphat : http://www.crd-goc.be/wp/wp-content/uploads/20043_1988AD_PAD_JOSAPHAT_20200430.pdf.
- Podcast Par Ouï-dire, RTBF, Il faut sauver la friche Josaphat, 29 novembre 2019, disponible en ligne : https://www.rtbf.be/auvio/detail_par-ouidire?id=2571768.