Election watch: Groningen, a young city rebuilding for the future

Groningen was in the Hanseatic League. Photo: Wikipedia

DutchNews.nl publishes 10 articles on the 10 cities where most international residents live in the run-up to local elections in March. Part 4: Groningen.

The landscape is changing dramatically in the northern city of Groningen, and not just in political terms.

For half a century, the city and surrounding province fueled the post-war boom with gas from the Slochteren field.

But the extraction has triggered hundreds of earthquakes that have prompted the government to cut production by 2030 and compensate people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed. In a village affected by the earthquake, Overschild, 80% of the houses were demolished and rebuilt.

It is not only the ground of Groningen that has undergone seismic changes. For decades the city was a stronghold of the Labor Party (PvdA), but in 2014 D66 became the council’s largest group.

Four years later, when the city merged with Haren and Ten Boer, GroenLinks won 20% of the vote, winning 11 seats to lead a four-party coalition with D66, PvdA and ChristenUnie.

Energetic transition

The impact of the earthquakes has made renewable energy a hot topic in Groningen: sustainability topped the list when the council recently polled residents on their priorities for the election.

“I lived in Ten Boer for a while and my old house was demolished due to gas extraction,” says Mirjam Wijnja, head of the GroenLinks group on the council. “We’ve had so much first-hand experience of the consequences of using fossil fuels that that became the reason not to do it here.”

The city is on track to become carbon neutral and stop using natural gas by 2035. The province is investing in technology to become a producer of green hydrogen, helped by a grant of 70 million euros of the European Commission, and the council has identified two sites on the outskirts of the city for the wind farms.

The Groningen Museum. Photo: Michielverbeek via Wikimedia Commons

The Christian Democrats (CDA) have criticized the proposed location of wind farms and would prefer them to be built offshore. “We want wind turbines, but only where they have local support,” says candidate Etkin Armut of the CDA.

The council has also set up an energy transition fund to divert all revenue from its renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar farms, into grants to help people insulate their homes or switch to energy. green.

Redesign of the Grote Markt

The city center is undergoing a €14 million facelift that will turn the Grote Markt into a car- and bus-free zone and create more underground storage for bicycles. It is part of a wider council strategy to ‘reclaim public space’ which will also introduce more 30km/h zones in residential areas while the number of parking spaces is reduced.

Groningen is a young city: more than 60% of its inhabitants are under the age of 45 and people in their twenties represent more than a quarter.

In recent years, the challenge of accommodating its growing student population, 24% of which are international students, has become a contentious political issue. In 2020, nearly 37,000 students enrolled at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG), an increase of 10% compared to 2019.

Guidance in English

The council released its ‘stemwijzer’, or voting guide, in English for the first time and several parties launched a ‘get out to vote’ program in English to let international students know they are eligible.

“It’s really important in these elections because political parties have very different views on the position of international students in particular,” says Wijnja. “It’s a real problem in this city.”

The council plans to build an additional 1,000 to 2,000 units at the Zernike campus on the northern outskirts of the city; some opposition groups, such as the Socialist Party (SP), want to go further and build 5,000 to ease the pressure on downtown housing.

Student housing

GroenLinks is against large-scale campuses, arguing that students should have the choice of living in the city. “Groningen is a city where everyone lives together and we have to find a balance,” says Wijnja.

Other parties want the RUG and the technical college, the Hanzehogeschool, to limit the number of students they take in.

“We believe that the RUG and the Hanze must take their responsibilities,” says CDA candidate Armut. “It’s just not fair to keep encouraging more students to come here. He needs to calm down.

“We can’t have a situation where international students and other students can’t start their academic year because they don’t have a bed to sleep in.”

temporary shelter

All parties agree that the shortage of student accommodation is a chronic problem. Last September, some 600 international students contacted the voluntary organization Shelter Our Students for help finding temporary accommodation.

The student party Student en Stad, which has been on the council since 1994, believes that regular and temporary accommodation needs to be better organised. “It sounds extreme, but there were a lot of international students who had nowhere to live last September,” says party leader Steven Bosch.

“The university has a role to play and is responsible for continued growth, but the board must also assume its responsibilities.”

Groningen station is a listed building. Photo: Wutsje via Wikimedia Commons

Rent assistance

The lack of housing also makes students vulnerable to exploitation. “There are hardly any owners who ask for a fair price,” says Bosch. “We hear stories of blackmail, intimidation, unexpected arrivals and eviction of tenants because landlords want to sell or renovate them.”

Wijnja says the council has taken steps to help international students by posting more information in English and directing them to facilities such as the rental assistance service, but acknowledges that more needs to be done. “Over the past few months, I’ve told a lot of people about it who didn’t know about it,” she says.

Student en Stad also says the council should be more proactive in helping students find jobs in the city after graduation. Currently, only 40% stay in the three northern provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe, says Bosch.

“We realize it can’t be 100%, but 60% leave because there isn’t enough work for them. We need to create more space for businesses and there needs to be a strong lobby for big business to open offices here.

The housing shortage is not limited to students: first-time buyers, social housing tenants and the elderly are struggling to find affordable housing. CDA wants the council to guarantee student debt for people who take out mortgages and offer interest-free loans to those buying their first home.

“We think it would be good to have buildings for older people who still live in family homes but want to be in a common space where they are less alone and can be cared for more effectively,” says Armut.

Fight against poverty

Tackling poverty has been a priority for the centre-left coalition, which has introduced a “gradual debt” plan to help people cope with the cost and bureaucracy of managing debt. People in financial difficulty will also be able to request an exemption from municipal taxes earlier.

Wijnja says the coronavirus crisis has exposed a group of vulnerable people who were previously off the council’s radar.

“We know the people on welfare, we send them letters and emails, but the working poor or the elderly living on very low pensions often don’t know what their rights are,” she says. . “So we’ve invested heavily in making sure we reach out to these people before they get into deeper issues.”

Key information

Current Board Executive: GroenLinks, PvdA, D66, ChristenUnie

Current composition of the board: GroenLinks (11), PvdA (6), D66 (5), SP (5), VVD (4), ChristenUnie (3), PvdD (3), CDA (2), 100% Groningen (2), Stadspartij (2 ), Student and City (1), PVV (1)

New Participating Parties: Stadspartij 100% voor Groningen (merger), Partij van de Zuinigheid, Partij voor het Noorden, FvD, Belang van Nederland, Blancolijst (T. Dokter)

Total number of voters: 194,000

Number of international voters: 15,000 (7.8%)

Information on local elections in English

Municipality website

Stemwijzer in English

GreenLinks

D66

PvdD (national site)

student in town

Blancolijst (T. Dokter)

Upcoming events for internationals

Monday 28 February: 8.00 p.m. – 9.30 p.m. Groningen Vote! Debate for Internationals

Additional reporting by Jan Douwe Krist.
This article was made possible through a donation from Stichting Democracy & Media.

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