“We need each other more than ever before”

4 May 2021

Unemployment and poverty are rapidly rising across Europe – especially for those citizens that are already most vulnerable.

“First of all, what we see in all our cities, is a deepening of social inequalities,” says Maarten van Ooijen, Chair of Eurocities Social Affairs Forum and Deputy Mayor of Utrecht, in this podcast interview. “The second thing we see in the midst of this crisis, is that we need Europe more than ever,” he continues. “We see that we are all facing the same problems.”

“And the third thing…We now have to make an effort to build back better…because what you can see is a tremendous change in our way of life… this is an opportunity we cannot afford to let go.”

Indeed, as van Ooijen goes on to explain in this wide-ranging interview on the status of social rights not only in his city, but in Europe at the present time, with work for so many people no longer available, new groups are now more at risk, such as those that have migrated to find work in other EU countries.

“Homelessness in my opinion is one of the most explicit problems of this crisis,” says van Ooijen, “because if people cannot pay their rent, cannot pay their homes anymore, then we need to act.”

With this in mind, Utrecht has acted fast to ensure people can have access to shelters 24 hours per day. The city has also increased investments in more affordable housing, such as through a Living Lab to create 200 Housing First apartments. In addition, the city is also creating more mixed housing projects with a view to investing in inclusive neighbourhoods and inclusive communities. And the city has done a lot of work with people facing debt issues, among other actions.

“Debt is at the basis of so many social problems in our city…and it has a huge impact on the personal life of so many people,” continues van Ooijen. “Indeed, our ambitious goal it to become a debt free city.”

“First of all, it’s very important to talk about debt as a debt and not as a guilt,” says van Ooijen. Another aspect of breaking this taboo, according to the Deputy Mayor, is also ensuring people get counselling very early on in their potential debt cycle. Otherwise, he explains, “most of the time people start with very low debt, not so much, but when this rises there comes an explosion where the debts are rising so high that people cannot get over it again.”

One aspect the city is working on is to transfer people into job markets that are more stable – such as the healthcare or ICT sectors. “We invest first of all in the people, but we also invest in the economy and the broader scale of the economy of our city,” says van Ooijen.

On the EU’s current approach to the recovery, van Ooijen suggests that “there is now a commitment and a coalition of the wiling that is really trying to combat this crisis.” But he also highlights the social impact of the crisis, which has the highest impact on the most vulnerable groups. “If we don’t want to leave anyone behind, then we need to invest more in those groups that are hardest hit.”

In doing so, “cities play a crucial role,” he says, “because they can invest in local partners, local initiatives, the people who are at the frontline of this crisis. But they also have the relationships to the national governments, to the European level, and they also have relationships with the national coalitions. And cities can see the results of EU policies, we see it in our neighbourhoods, on our streets, and we know what works well and what doesn’t.”

His messages to the European institutions as they navigate this recovery stage: “Give cities a permanent seat at the table with EU leaders […] don’t set the cities apart, but play them at the centre where they are already,” “there cannot be a green transition if it’s not a social transition” and that if we try to do so “without the people, if we do it without looking to the social impacts of these investments, then we are making the wrong choice.”

Listen to the full podcast interview here:

Utrecht is one of the more than 40 cities to commit to Eurocities Inclusive Cities 4 All initiative, having made its own pledges on fighting homelessness, fighting child poverty, and ensuring access to healthcare and equal opportunities.
The Eurocities Cities Social Summit, taking place this week on Thursday 6 May, will discuss many of these topics, including the role that cities should play in delivering the European Pillar of Social Rights action plan, including the EU target on poverty reduction. Interested to learn more? Register here


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer