Heating or eating? Interview with Tom Meeuws, Deputy Mayor of Antwerp

27 October 2020

In contrast to the trend in the rest of the country, Antwerpians mainly live in apartment blocks, and they mainly rent. At the same time, according to the city’s Deputy Mayor, Tom Meeuws, roughly one third of Antwerp’s 530,000 people face energy poverty.

For Meeuws, who combines responsibilities for both social and environmental services within his official portfolio, this is one example of where we can bring together climate and social cohesion goals.

No one should have to “choose between heating or eating,” says the Deputy Mayor, in an interview with Bianca Faragu, Senior Policy Advisor at Eurocities.

Antwerp recently made a pledge to Eurocities inclusive cities for all initiative, which sees cities make concrete commitments to the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Out of 60 pledges so far collected, Antwerp’s is the first to be made towards principle 20 on access to essential services, with a focus on reducing energy poverty.

So, what is special about Antwerp’s approach?

Ecohouse Antwerp is a one-stop-shop for households offering all city services on sustainable building and living. Its focus is on energy reduction and using renewable energy, and it has a special programme dedicated to vulnerable groups. It offers workshops and advice on energy retrofitting and can also give loans or grants.

The Ecohouse works in parallel with a dedicated ‘energy team’ within the social affairs department that helps citizens with individual requests for help related to energy or water. Antwerp currently spends around €150,000 a year on debt relief from energy poverty, but the unique aspect of the city’s approach is that it does not end there. In fact, the city takes a proactive approach to tracking down vulnerable households and helping them with debt relief, mediation with energy suppliers and even leasing eco-friendly electro-home-appliances, as well as through behavioural change and infrastructural improvements.

In the coming years, the Deputy Mayor wants to intensify efforts for public-private partnerships to reduce energy poverty and support renovations, as well as continue efforts to bring together tenants, private owners and energy suppliers to encourage the uptake of energy saving solutions.

In total the city invests more than €4 million each year to reduce energy poverty. While half of the money for all such measures comes from the municipal budget, around 30% comes from the federal and regional governments, and 20% is from EU funding sources, such as through the SONNET project, which seeks to bring social innovation to the energy transition.

When asked what piece of information he would like to share with other cities, the Deputy Mayor said that it is essential to work across city departments, such as in Antwerp’s example of combining social with energy policies to prevent the escalation of energy poverty as we make the shift to green energy.

On a European scale one of the goals of the Green Deal is to ensure that the transition towards climate neutrality by 2050 is just, which must include tackling energy poverty. This subject will be discussed in more detail by city representatives at Eurocities’ upcoming Social Affairs Forum. For now, tune in below to listen to the full interview: