WHO BENEFITS FROM THE GREEN?

Throughout the articles of  Kairos articles, we often denounce the myth of the  smart city. Inter-environment Brussels has just published a file which highlights what, concretely, we find behind this term which wants to be seductive. We are therefore pleased to relay one of their texts which shows what very mercantile interests are sometimes hidden behind the  greenwashing .

Tivoli GreenCity is a new district located between the canal and the Bockstael square, in Laeken: 397 housing units built in a few years, 271 first-time buyers, and 126 social housing units. Apartments purchased off-plan, an ultra Green project: passive buildings, greenhouse on a roof, integrated grey water treatment plant, central heating with cogeneration system and solar panels. This is for the front side. On the flip side, it’s also a new development scale for CityDev, a flagship project, public-private partnerships, a strange « Third Party Investor » set-up, an obligatory digital platform paid in full. Choices and methods that raise questions, especially as to who benefits from all this?

WHEN YOU COME ACROSS THE POT OF ROSES

For the future inhabitants of the CityDev project, the story begins at the first condominium meetings. They discover that the solar panels they thought they had bought do not belong to them but have been sold to an investment fund whose name had not been mentioned before: WattMatters. The provisional budget for common expenses is also surprising: it is that it includes expenses for items never mentioned in the purchase contract, such as a « digital platform. « We were very surprised when we saw the documents at the General Assembly: we discovered a budget that included a lot of costs we had never heard of.

THIRD-PARTY INVESTOR

If the solar panels of the buildings do not belong to their owners, it is because the developer decided to finance them by calling upon a Third Party Investor. The principle of the Third Party Investor is as follows: you do not have the money to equip your home or a public building with solar panels, but you want to benefit from cheap energy, or you are convinced of the merits of using this type of energy source? You can then call upon an investment fund that will take care of the payment, the investment and the management of the solar panel park for you (this is the Third Party Investor). In exchange, this company receives the green certificates (subsidies granted for a period of 10 years by the region to encourage the installation of solar panels) and sells on the market the additional electricity produced and not used in the building. This deal seems to be advantageous for the owner who wants to install solar panels on his house. In reality, this solution represents on average an additional cost of 30%(1) compared to a direct purchase on which the green certificates would be retouched. The only advantage is that you don’t have to pay several thousand euros at once, or take out a loan for this purpose.

This is the solution that was chosen for Tivoli GreenCity: the panels were not sold to the owners, but to the Third Party Investor: WattMatters. In the case of this new green district, this arrangement makes very little sense. Indeed, the installation having been carried out by the developer, he could have sold directly to the owners the solar panels installed on their roofs. They would have benefited from the green certificates and the resale of electricity to amortize this investment. At a time when bank loan rates are low, this choice made by the developer instead of the purchasers is surprising to the first interested parties. The estimated extra cost for the co-owners of Tivoli GreenCity is more than 200.000€ compared to a direct purchase(2). Part of this additional cost is due to the loss of green certificates, the other part is the dividends paid to WattMatters’ shareholders. The condominiums could have used this money to set up collective neighborhood projects.

This financial arrangement was accepted by CityDev, which is surprising given its mission to make home ownership possible for a public that is finding it increasingly difficult to buy. The way in which this arrangement was made possible is also surprising for a public player who advocates « participation »: there are small lines in the purchase contracts, the implications of which are completely incomprehensible to the average person. In essence, the owners assigned to the developer (Parbam) the right to enter into any contracts it deemed necessary for the project, including the right to negotiate, sell and give rights to the roofs to a third party. In this case, Wattmatters.

At no time in the communication made to the future owners was this option mentioned, neither by the developer nor by CityDev: until their first GA, the future inhabitants were convinced that they were the owners of the solar panels on their roofs. However, during the first 10 years, the solar panels are the property of the Third Party Investor, who will make a profit from them. It is true that in 10 years, solar panels will still be producing energy, however, their efficiency will start to decrease and the regional incentives will simply not be there anymore.

PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP… MOVE ALONG : THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE

In reality, this would be neither surprising nor shocking coming from a private developer. What contributes to the surprise is that the buyers thought they were dealing with a public company that was supposed to be working in the interest of the community, or at least in its own interest. It is the construction of a project in public-private partnership that allows such procedures. In a 2014 article in the periodical Brussels on the Move, IEB already pointed out the risks of CityDev’s systematic use of public-private partnerships(3), the limited number of actors CityDev was working with, and the colossal advantage for these actors of winning a project with CityDev(4). Indeed, if buyers think they are buying from CityDev, they are not: they are dealing with the developer. And Parbam, a consortium of real estate developers gathered in the Tivoli GreenCity project, like all private players, has one objective: maximize profits, reduce risks and losses.

Therefore, with a purchase contract as complex as the one signed by the owners, and negotiations made upstream between CityDev and the developer, the impression for the owners of having been « fleeced » leaves a bitter taste. It is true that the owners bought their property for 30% less than the market price, but for some, « buying » from the public was also a guarantee of « good treatment », of exemplary behavior.

A small anecdote allows us to realize the liberties that the private partners are taking on this project: the promoter, through the condominium manager, had the General Assembly introduce the payment of a digital platform for sharing services and monitoring the consumption of the inhabitants for the sum of 5€ per household and per month… a total of 24.000€/year therefore Unluckily, among the future buyers is a computer developer, and he is quite formal: this sum is much too high. Moreover, this platform has a direct interest for the developer: he will be able to resell it for other projects and it will allow him to obtain precious data on the consumption of future inhabitants, the energy efficiency of his constructions and the operation of his projects. It is therefore highly problematic to put some of the costs of developing a commercial product on the residents of Tivoli GreenCity, and without their consent…« At every stage of the project (from the sale, to the general meetings and in interactions with CityDev), we ask questions but never get answers. CityDev is not transparent and the process is not inclusive. When we vote against optional budgets such as the digital platform, CityDev and the promoter, with the collaboration of the syndic, put pressure on us at the General Assembly. They say that they have already invested a lot in the development (of this platform) and that we have to vote it in the budget. This pressure reached its peak when Benjamin Cadranel, General Administrator of CityDev, invited himself to the General Assembly to reproach us, in a paternalistic tone, for putting too much pressure on them when we should be happy with our subsidized purchase… and vote for the proposed budgets.  »

LET THE PROFESSIONALS DO IT

For prospective buyers, similar surprises and unanswered questions followed one another over the months. « Out of a total annual budget of +/-110.000€ per lot, the syndic gave himself the mandate to allocate — without prior competition — 33.000€ for maintenance or insurance contracts with companies belonging to him. Faced with this situation, we decided to mobilize all together ». So much so that, not having obtained satisfactory answers at the condominium meetings, a meeting with CityDev was organized following a letter of dissatisfaction signed by more than 80 owners. « On the occasion of this meeting, CityDev took the liberty of inviting the promoter (Parbam) and the syndic (Syncura). We came with specific questions about how the project would be managed, the responsibility of CityDev in regulating such a project and the protection of citizens, future owners. This meeting did not bring any concrete answer — worse: CityDev and its two partners kept imploring us to « judging them on their intentions, » when since the beginning of the project, we see that we are the object of abuses as much at the level of the developer, as the syndic, or other actors intervening in the project. »

WHO BENEFITS FROM THE GREEN?

The Tivoli GreenCity project is certainly an ambitious project, both in terms of urban planning (the creation of a new sustainable district in Brussels) and in terms of the environment. But it is also an example of what the « ecological transition » or the promotion of a smart city is for the private sector: a new market. Whether it is on the basis of subsidies (green certificates), concrete contracts, opaque negotiations, or simply by force, many actors have and will generate significant capital gains on this project (and therefore on the backs of the owners/citizens). The green, smart communication that has been made to the buyers is attractive, and undoubtedly responds in part to the growing concerns of many residents: how to live without polluting too much? Far from closing their eyes and being satisfied with the discourse, they started to dig… they tried to understand what was at work and, for the residents who today form the « Green Tivoli » neighborhood committee, one thing is clear: « Private actors behave like birds of prey that flutter around us and wait to have a free hand to swoop down on us and help themselves to our pockets… (…) What we hope today is that this can no longer happen in the future and that public actors behave in a respectful and transparent manner towards citizens, and put in place the necessary safeguards to protect their interests. ».

Sarah De Laet, Inter-environment Brussels in collaboration with residents of the Green Tivoli neighborhood committee

Notes et références
  1. Voir à ce propos l’article de Test Achat. https://www.test-achats.be/maison-energie/energie-renouvelable/news/photovoltaique-tiers-investisseurs-bruxelles
  2. calcul réalisé par le comité de quartier
  3. Les beaux pavés de notre enfer : http://ieb.be/Les-beaux-paves-de-notre-enfer-20298
  4. Citydev et les heureux élus des partenariats public-privé (PPP) : http://ieb.be/Citydev-et-les-heureux-elus-des
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