Small is beautiful? Lessons from a decade of decentralisation in Antwerp


This discussion paper analyses the intra-municipal decentralisation process in Antwerp and evaluates the working of the districts, since their first direct election in 2000. Although scientific evidence is relatively limited and we often had to make judgements through a glass darkly, we nevertheless build on a number of important indicators to conclude that districts did not fulfil the expectations of increasing democracy and efficiency, set out by their initiators. They did not seem to bring politics closer to citizens, or citizens closer to politics for that matter. The competences of the districts are few and largely advisory. However, coordination issues as well as spillover effects limit the prospects for further decentralisation. We attribute this relative failure in part to the misfit between the district boundaries and the socio-demographic fabric of the city. We also believe that the creation of districts is an institutional and rigid answer to the dynamic and fluid problem of political alienation. We therefore argue that direct participation, neighbourhood-based as well as project-based, may be an attractive alternative to districts. The ideal would be to have strong neighbourhoods in a strong city. The question what Brussels could learn from Antwerp needs to be answered cautiously, as the context is partially different. Brussels has for instance a larger scale and a more complex political landscape. Yet, to the best of our knowledge, two points come to mind. First, it seems that if anything, the strengthening of the city government at the level of the region of Brussels should be considered. Antwerp, but also Ghent, benefited a lot from a strong city government that could govern at a scale that mostly coincides with the sociological city. Although we do not think the districts have been a great succes in the Antwerp context, it could be a step forward for Brussels governance to reform the current 19 Brussels communes in the direction of the Antwerp district model. In the Brussels context this would imply an important strengthening of the city government at the regional level, while not entirely dismissing the local dimension that still seems crucial to Brussels politics at the moment. But secondly, Brussels could also simultaneously look at the participatory approaches that connect citizens with policy and politics beyond elections. Instead of decentralising, Ghent chose to organise participation in neighbourhoods using city staff with direct access to power in the city. The aim should be to combine the best of both worlds; political decisiveness through representation and accountability at a level that is relevant for policies (i.e. the sociological city), and involvement of citizens at a level that is relevant for citizens as users of the city (i.e. the neighbourhood).

In Must Brussels’s communes be merged? The experiences of Antwerp, Berlin and Vienna. Re-Bel e-book: Brussels