Take a mental cruise across Belgium’s modest territory; go for a quick imaginary spin along its motorways, through the bigger cities and down the country lanes. Notice any recurring features? While ‘medieval wonders’, ‘peaceful country- side’ and ‘millions of road signs’ are all valid answers, you couldn’t have possibly missed the ubiquitous construction sites, ongoing renovations and perpetual road works.
Photography Jochem Thyssen and Vincent Duraud
In fact, thanks to a certain journalist by the name of Jean Claude Defossé, Belgium has become pretty well known for them. He launched a TV-show in 1986 called “Les Grands Travaux Inutiles”(GTIs), where he would track down and inform the population of new examples of defective, unfinished or pointless public works around the country that were sucking up ridiculous amounts of their tax money. Exhibits aplenty. There’s a solitary railway bridge in the midst of a field in Varsenare, which was built especially for the never-constructed motorway Calais-Zeebruges. Price tag: 2.62 million Euro. Charleroi’s metro network is another good one: out of the eight lines planned, only three have been built so far, with only one and a half actually in use – pretty remarkable considering its construction started back in the 70’s.
Before the third state reform in 1988, when the regions became responsible for their own budget, many of these GTIs were a consequence of Belgium’s “waffle iron” politic, meaning that when Flanders was granted subsidies for a certain project, Wallonia would receive an equal sum for a similar project and vice versa. Whether or not such a project was deemed a necessity remained irrelevant. “Giving the regions financial authority luckily did lead to a certain decrease in GTIs,” Defossé explains. “But we can’t only blame them on budget division. A lot also comes down to megalomaniac engineers and politicians.” Besides enjoying the prestige that comes with developing big projects, engineers receive bonuses in parallel with the amount of cement used and will justify the need for these works. Sometimes it just comes down to bad planning, like the bridge near Ypres that simply ends mid air, as the government later decided not to extend that part of the A19 highway after all. “I’m all for public works,” Defossé stresses, “but they need to be useful.”
It’s true that these projects cost an arm and a leg. Yet often, even ministers don’t know what they’re signing up for. All it takes is a Machiavellian or incompetent engineer, who, when presenting a project, doesn’t quite get the budget right. “Take the Strépy-Thieu boat lift,” Defossé reminds us. “It was supposed to cost 5.5 billion BEF. Fast-forward 20 years and they’d – surprise, surprise – gone a little over budget. Though official numbers spoke of 24 billion BEF, a professor at the university of Mons had calculated 114 billion BEF would be a more accurate sum. There are less GTIs nowadays, as we’ve become more responsible,” he concludes, “The next step is to be able to hold people accountable for them.”