Fifth column: The retail experience


The NV-A is defending the decision to grant planning permission to the controversial Uplace shopping and leisure centre in Machelen, just outside Brussels

In the driving seat

The government of Flanders has given the final go-ahead on the gigantic retail project Uplace in Machelen, albeit in a slightly smaller version. Uplace has been controversial almost from the start.

In 2009, the government, then composed of CD&V, Open VLD and SP.A, made a “brownfield agreement” with Uplace (pictured), allowing it to transform the abandoned Renault factory site under the Vilvoorde viaduct into a “retail experience centre”, including shops, offices and cinemas.

The parties that made the decision soon felt uncomfortable about it, as they faced more and more criticism. CD&V and Open VLD were sensitive to arguments that Uplace would deliver a death blow to small business as far away as Leuven and Mechelen. SP.A, too, changed its mind, most because of the mobility aspect: Uplace is expected to attract another 25,000 vehicles a day to the already overburdened Brussels Ring Road, resulting in not just more congestion but also more pollution.

As support for the project crumbled, the only party to stand by the original decision, ironically, was the one that was not involved in it: N-VA. And as N-VA is now in the government’s driving seat, it has become Uplace’s strongest defender.

Uplace has become something of a symbol to N-VA. The party abhors the idea that “nothing is possible in this country”. Major projects, such as Uplace and Antwerp’s Oosterweel Ring Road, are dragged down by procedure after procedure, on environmental or planning grounds, until support has dwindled and nothings seems to come of them. This is not the signal we should give to investors, N-VA believes.

The green light for Uplace, however, has only sparked more criticism. Economy professor Paul De Grauwe even speaks of “crony capitalism”, East Asian style. “We are not short on shops, rather there is a shortage of schools. Governments should make a priority of society’s needs that the market will not solve,” De Grauwe stated.

He believes politicians and developers have become too close, “seeing each other all too often, at receptions and on the business seats in football stadiums” – a reference to Uplace developer Bart Verhaeghe, who is also president of pro league football team Club Brugge (see p3).

His remarks have infuriated Flemish mobility and public works minister Ben Weyts (N-VA). “Critics should call a spade a spade, or keep quiet. You will never see me in Club Brugge seats. I am an Anderlecht supporter – as if that even matters.”