This socialist paradise

Want to visit a socialist paradise, where the needs of local citizens are put before capital? Where locally owned businesses rather than multinational chains dominate the streets? Where public transport is not only publicly owned, but free? And where the sense of community is so strong that crime is virtually unheard of?

The surprising news is that this leftist Shangri-La is only three and a half hours away from London by train. Hasselt is the capital of Limburg, a Flemish province of Belgium. It is only 250 miles away from London as the crow flies, but light years away from the British capital when it comes to notions of how to run a modern city.

The man who has transformed Hasselt into the kind of city that progressives the world over dream of is the charismatic Flemish Socialist Party politician – and local bar owner – Steve Stevaert. Stevaert, an unashamed populist who says he bases his policies on “the wisdom of the people”, became mayor of Hasselt in 1995. He remained in office for ten years, then became the first ever Socialist governor of Limburg province, a post from which, after four years, he has recently resigned. As mayor, he made all public transport in the city free and greatly increased the number of bus routes. Regional buses that service Hasselt also became free to residents. Then a comprehensive system of cycle paths was introduced, which now runs through the whole of Limburg. In his mission to reshape Hasselt as a socialist haven, Stevaert has also restricted out-of-town development, providing protection for local businesses.

At first the mayor had his detractors. He was nicknamed “Steve Stunt” when his free bus scheme first went into operation. But the results of his policies speak for themselves: by 2006, use of public transport in Hasselt had increased thirteenfold. The ease of getting around is an enormous boost for business – and because most of these businesses are locally owned, the money stays in the community.

Increasing social interaction is also among Stevaert’s policy concerns. Because Hasselt operates on a principle of providing “the right of mobility for everyone”, getting out and socialising is easy, even for those whose health or finances might prove restrictive elsewhere. In Hasselt, nobody need be stuck at home feeling lonely and isolated. No wonder it feels like such a happy place. The positive effect of these policies is apparent to anyone who spends time in the city. In 2004, Hasselt received the title “most sociable city in Flanders”. In my view, you would have to go a long way to find a more sociable city anywhere in the world.

There are aesthetic benefits, too. While many British towns have been turned into drab clones by the effects of market forces, Hasselt retains a refreshing individuality. For the British visitor, used to seeing a Starbucks, Pizza Hut or McDonald’s on every corner, the number of individually owned shops, cafes and bars on Hasselt’s streets is a particular delight.

The mayor’s brand of organic, localised socialism has proved hugely popular with the city’s inhabitants. In fact, I have failed to find anyone in Hasselt with a bad word to say about the mayor. Could the Hasselt model be applied here in the UK? We could certainly learn from its example when it comes to transport. Ken Livingstone’s attempt to reduce London public transport fares in the early 1980s was struck down by reactionary judges. If towns and cities in Britain are to introduce cost-effective, zero-fare public transport, bus travel must become publicly owned again, as it is in Belgium. Otherwise, it will only mean that more taxpayers’ money goes to profiteering private bus companies, which received £2.5bn from the public purse last year.

As to helping local businesses stand up to the threat posed by global chains, there is another European example to which the British left could look. In 2007, Lyne Cohen-Solal, the Socialist deputy mayor of Paris, launched a £21m plan to save the Left Bank’s independent booksellers, galleries and writers’ cafes, by buying up properties and thereby stopping speculators from converting them into yet more bland chain stores.

Hasselt is proof that increased mobility, greater high street diversity and putting people before profits are interconnected. For too long in Britain, corporate profits have determined how our cities look and how we get around in them. The most sociable city in Flanders is proof that there is another way.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!