Cities for citizens

Michel Vayssié, Deputy Mayor of Lille, talks about the principal problems facing our cities and the international agglomeration and about criticism in social networks.

One of the themes of our website is that the major cities of the world face broadly similar problems. Do you agree? How would you describe the main problems Lille faces?

I agree that the issues are very similar. There are a few key problems that Lille faces today. The first is the cost of apartments: housing is very expensive in France, and municipalities are trying to reduce costs to citizens. The second problem is transport access: those who live a distance from the centre of Lille need to have a car as travel by public transport is difficult. We need to develop a transport system for people living in remote areas to allow them to get to places quickly. I think this is also a key issue for Perm.

I would like to ask about housing. How are the Lille authorities able to influence the price of apartments in the city?

We try to influence pricing at the pre-construction stage. The mayor’s office sells the land to construction companies at the lowest possible price, so that the price of housing is eventually lower for residents. Every construction company has to give up 30% of new builds for social housing.

What do you mean, give it away? Free of charge?

In France there are organisations that build and manage social housing. They can acquire housing from construction companies with assistance from the state in the form of subsidies or loans at subsidised interest rates, and the state also provides tax reductions for investors who buy housing to subsequently rent out at a reduced price, so organisations benefit, and rents or prices are also below the market rate.

 

The state and local authorities in France provide financial assistance for housing construction or renovation, and for acquisition. These are either direct subsidies, tax assistance in the form of value added tax (VAT), subsidized borrowing, or even tax reductions. Organisations which build and manage social housing are entitled to a reduced VAT rate of 5.5 to 10% (instead of 20%) and loans at a reduced rate for construction or reconstruction of social housing. The State also helps investors to purchase housing for the purpose of renting to households where they keep rents low, and investors benefit from tax reductions. All these benefits are referred to in France as “aid in stone” because they enable construction or improvement of housing conditions. In France as a whole public spending on housing is $40 billion a year, or 1.2% of GDP: ∙ 20 billion euros in personal assistance ∙ 14.5 billion in tax benefits for social landlords and developers ∙ 2.7 billion to finance interest rate cuts on credit ∙ The rest is direct subsidies. Of these 40 billion, 31 billion are invested by the state and the rest by local government.

Lille is a unique city as the primary city in an urban conurbation which covers not just several towns in France but also Kortrijk and Tournai in Belgium. How does the conurbation work?

The Eurometropolis conurbation was set up about 30 years ago together with the two other city authorities. The focus was on existing economic relations and on more efficient transport links.

How are relations between the conurbation participants regulated?

There is no specific document regulating relations and each municipality is autonomous. Cities exchange information so that decisions can take account of the specifics of each city.

 In Russia everyone talks about the “branding” of cities. Is this the case in Lille? How does Lille position and promote itself?

No, we do not specifically promote the city, but we do try to create conditions so that people want to live and work in Lille, and we are developing commercial districts to encourage entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses here.

How does it work? Are there special conditions or reduced rents?

We have done a number of things: for example, in these commercial districts entrepreneurs who set up business less than two years ago pay no rent at all, and the districts are logistically very conveniently located, which means business can be built up more efficiently.

Does Lille have a problem of the population leaving the city?

This is not really a problem in France. Young people can go and study in another city, they can stay, they can come back with no problem. The country is compact: it takes one hour by plane to cross it. Some people live in Lille and work in Paris, and that works fine.

Nowadays, citizens engage actively with what is happening in the city using social networks. How do you interact with these?

Of course, social networks are mostly used for criticism. We try to take the discussion in a constructive direction. The municipality recently invited the citizens of Lille to come up with ideas for combatting air pollution, and this has been useful. Residents suggested reducing the speed of transport in the city from 50 km/hour to 30 km/hour, and it was accepted by the city council.

 Surely this decision has also been criticised?

Of course, and that’s no problem.

The last question is about Perm, which you have been visiting for the first time. Previously, Perm was thought of as an industrial city, then there was a period of cultural revolution, and now the centre is being renovated. How would you define Perm?

First impressions of Perm are that it is a large city with interesting and unusual buildings and modern architecture which is developing rapidly. I think the city has its own style which is different from other cities.

I noticed in the hotel that there are a lot of people who come here on business. One of Perm’s problems is that all notices and signs are in Russian which makes it very difficult for a foreigner to visit anywhere without someone with them, because the staff only speak Russian. We also had the same problem in Lille as right next to us is Belgium, where many people only speak Flemish. To make them feel more welcome in Lille, we trained the staff in cafes and restaurants.

Photo:

The city administration of Perm.

https://www.lille.fr/