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A service for agriculture industry professionals · Wednesday, February 8, 2023 · 615,763,392 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

Raf Verbeke:”The sale of 450 hectares of land by the city of Ghent was in violation of European competition legislation"

Raf Verbeke explains in public meetings exactly how public land was put into the possession of a company behind port boss Fernand Huts. Before the Ghent Court of Appeals, a large crowd of sympathizers came to show support for the cause. (Photo Raf Verbeke)

Raf Verbeke explains in public meetings exactly how public land was put into the possession of a company behind port boss Fernand Huts. Before the Ghent Court of Appeals, a large crowd of sympathizers came to show support for the cause.(Photo Raf Verbeke)

The court of appeal in Ghent has ruled that the sale of 450 hectares of cropland by the social services of the Belgian city of Ghent (OCMW) was unlawful.

Since 800 years ago, the city of Ghent has owned its public property, especially the 450 hectares in the province of Zeeland. Fernand Huts didn't buy this piece of public land for farming.”
— Raf Verbeke, fundamental rights advocate

GHENT, BELGIUM, November 30, 2022 / -- Under the initiative and support of Ghent native Raf Verbeke, history has been written in the Belgian city of Ghent. All of this is a result of the tenacious vigilance of Ghent's citizens, who took legal action in the name of the city, and of a few small organic farmers, who went to court in their own right, in opposition to the sale of 450ha of land to industrialist Fernand Huts by the city council of Ghent, and specifically the social house (OCMW) of Ghent. Thus, in Belgium, a piece of legal history has been written. The Court of Appeal of Ghent promptly gave a highly significant ruling in the cases with role number 18/157/A and 2019/AR/548 overturning the 26 December 2006 sale of this property.

It is very rare for a deal that has passed the notary to be reversed. There are no similar examples in the Netherlands or Belgium's history. 79 parcels of cropland sold by the Belgian city of Ghent Social Service (OCMW ) to Fernand Huts have been declared invalid by the Ghent Court of Appeal. Land in Zeeuws Vlaanderen (the Netherlands) was purchased from the Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent in 2016 by the CEO of Katoen Natie for 17.5 million euros. It has since been determined by the Court of Appeal, however, that the land was sold for less than it was worth.

European Competition Legislation
Fundamental rights activist Raf Verbeke tells the story in all its richness:’The lesson for all governments in Belgium and Europe is clear: in the future, they should be careful of selling off public real estate on a cents-per-dollar basis as part of the privatization push that an increasing number of countries are pursuing. As a cure, a crucial piece of European law has been used, notably the operative portion of the European state assistance statute. In this instance, the judges of the 5th Chamber of the Ghent Court of Appeal were humble enough to admit that they lacked expertise with state assistance matters.” Raf Verbeke, the impetus for this exceptional case, collaborated with lawyer Nic Reynaert, who co-wrote a book with his patron Denis on state help in public property auctions. Raf Verbeke continues passionately:”The selling of this public property was in violation of European competition legislation.”

Sold for 39000 euros per hectare
Raf Verbeke continues, as he cuddles his daughter's baby like a true grandfather. Not only women can multitask. Raf Verbeke is the great example of that. Raf Verbeke:”In this instance, the inhabitants of the city of Ghent also took sides and acted on behalf of the city of Ghent. There was also a small organic farmer searching for space to expand his farm. This little organic farmer was unable to purchase a plot of land 12 kilometers from his home in 2016. The second party, the city of Ghent, is the only one condemned since they are the land sellers who sold the property at a highly favorable price to a corporation, an investment firm headed by port magnate Fernand Huts. Although Fernand Huts was not convicted, he no longer owns the property as of November 8. The financial settlement involving this matter has not yet been administered equitably, exactly because state assistance regulations have not been adhered to. The public patrimony of the city of Ghent, in particular the 450 hectares in the province of Zeeland, has been held by the city for 800 years. Fernand Huts purchased this piece of public property not for agricultural reasons, but rather for business reasons related to the growth of the port. Considering that every port in the globe is developing, Fernand Huts also want this land. If cities do not follow the necessary legal procedure surrounding public sale, they, as owners, create legal doubt. Such lawsuits may be taken before a civil court for up to ten years. Additionally, the inhabitants of Ghent opposed the illegal selling of public space. It turned into a lengthy court struggle that lasted six years. In comparison to the usual pricing in this region of Zeeland (Province in The Netherlands), the land was sold for €39,000 per hectare at the time. Obviously, the most significant fact was that 79 lots in the block were sold, and the little investor seeking a return was not given a chance. Who has available 17.5 million euros to purchase a 450-acre plot of land? The manner in which these public properties were alienated also aroused concerns among the judges of the 5th Chamber of the Court of Appeal in Ghent. Thankfully, there is now a democratic control that should cause public administrations to reconsider alienating public lands.In the end, this is a public process in which market forces did not function properly.”

Aftermath of the financial crisis
Raf Verbeke emphasizes:”The Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent attempted to sell these 450 acres to the renters in 2012, but the tenants could not reach an agreement. In 2014, another effort was made to sell the 79 plots of land, however it was determined that the Stein family capital company's bid of 17 million euros was insufficient. The Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent subsequently opted to cancel the transaction. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, land values also increased in value. It is also the time of the talks surrounding the merger of the ports of Ghent-Terneuzen and Vlissingen, which led to the establishment of the North Sea Port. The North Sea Port comprises the ports of Ghent, Terneuzen, and Vlissingen. On January 1, 2018, the merger agreement between these ports was ultimately signed, and all shareholders accepted the merger. In Flanders, they include the city of Ghent, the province of East Flanders, and the towns of Evergem and Zelzate. On the Dutch side lie the municipalities of Borsele, Terneuzen, and Vlissingen, as well as the province of Zeeland. The former Dutch corporation was known as Zeeland Seaports. With 13.49 billion euros, North Sea Port is the third-largest port in Europe. The port is responsible for 98,372 employment (43,941 directly and 54,431 indirectly), which are distributed across around 525 businesses. In terms of cargo volume, North Sea Port is the tenth-largest port in Europe. 70,3 million tons of cargo transported by sea through 9,371 boats. 40,000 inland boats transported 58 million tons of merchandise. This 60-kilometer-long port region stretches from Vlissingen, the Netherlands, to Ghent, Belgium, through Terneuzen. The port area spans around 9,100 hectares. In the North Sea Port port region, there are now 33 docks and ports. There are also around 56 kilometers of quay walls, 134 kilometers of roadways, and 361 kilometers of railroads. In various regions, the amount of precipitation fluctuates. At Vlissingen, the draft is 17 meters, whereas at Terneuzen and Ghent it is 12.5 meters,” explains Raf Verbeke. The purchase of Fernand Huts should also be viewed in this context, as the purchaser of the 450 hectares of land in Zeeland is one of the most important port patrons from Antwerp and undoubtedly played a role, which should not be underestimated, in the merger between the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge, which was publicly finalized this year after years of negotiations. The Port of Antwerp-Bruges, meaning Port of Antwerp-Bruges, is the name of the public management organization that took over the administration of the ports of Antwerp and Brugge-Zeebrugge following the merger. The merger was announced on Feb. 12, 2021, in the Antwerp Port House. On April 22, 2022, the agreement was signed and Port of Antwerp-Bruges became an actual and legal reality. The Port of Antwerp-Bruges is the biggest export port in Europe and the major cruise ship port in the Benelux. It is also the biggest port for car transshipment and the tenth largest container port in the world (in TEUs). All of these factors also come into play at that time, since these 450 hectares are located in the port's growth region, adjacent to the Ghent-Terneuzen canal, where the sea lock opens to a draft of 17 meters, and they are obviously relevant to the merging of the ports of Ghent, Terneuzen, and Vlissingen. This is just 0.5 meters shorter than the Western Scheldt, through which the biggest cargo ships may pass. Between now and ten years from now, they also want to do this in the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. These are forthcoming major improvements that can only be realized if sufficient land is available, and they can be realized far more easily if the property is owned and not expropriated. You may also give some expropriated farmers other agricultural land in return. This is why Fernand Huts is purchasing acreage everywhere; he can also exert his will more effectively this way,” says Raf Verbeke.

Single investor
Raf Verbeke:“The decision to sell 450 hectares of farmland to Fernand Huts has also resulted in significant political conflicts within the administration, since the Ghent city council has indirectly contributed to the expansion of the largest private player. When people learn that this is being done in the name of an OCMW (the City’s Social Services - Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent) that is intended to aid the poor, it is not working well. It is unfair for the government to sell property for a pittance to a single investor who has a significant economic advantage. Furthermore, the government should provide equal opportunities to everybody who wants a piece of land. It is unfortunate that this occurred. The same scenario may have been applicable to the selling of land in Wulpen/Koksijde. In 2015, the Social Service of the city of Ghent (OCMW -Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent) sold almost the whole West Flanders hamlet of Wulpen for 6.7 million euros. "In this municipality of Koksijde, we stumbled across 338 soccer fields of agricultural land unnoticed. In an article by Erik De Troyer and Gudrun Steen dated January 14, 2015, former OCMW (Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent) president Rudy Coddens referred to a Napoleonic relic. In addition to retirement houses, service flats, and rental housing, Ghent's OCMW also controls a substantial quantity of land. Just outside the Dutch border, OCMW (Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent) president Rudy Coddens launched the real estate sales process. Since the (Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Koksijde) OCMW's are essentially the heirs to the previous houses of worship, we also acquired a huge number of plots of land. We were aware that we had land in Koksijde, but its scale had eluded us. For long years, three local farmers rented these plots. Unexpectedly, a huge food firm came us with an offer of 6,7 million euros for our home. Until then, the extent of our property was unclear: 169 acres, or 338 soccer fields. I then phoned the mayor of Koksijde, who almost lost his seat as well." The mayor, Open VLD candidate (Belgian Liberal Party) Marc Vanden Bussche, refused to comment on the sale. "It is under the jurisdiction of the OCMW in Ghent. The municipality has never shown any interest in purchasing the property. The vast majority of land is located within the Wulpense municipality of Koksijde. There are around sixty residences and a few isolated farms. The literal core of the settlement consists of three streets. The OCMW of Ghent seems to possess a substantial portion of the surrounding area. These plots are leased by three farmers. A farmer has indicated interest in terminating the lease. The remaining two have since retired. Thus, it seems there are few remaining impediments to the deal.40.000 euro per hectare. "We earned an award of 40,000 euros per acre. We initiated a campaign to discover other candidates.

Regardless, this pricing is appropriate, as Coddens stated. "With the millions gained from this transaction, we will invest in aged care building projects in Ghent. It is a good thing that patrimony monies cannot be used to pay benefits. Instead of retaining property in West Flanders, it would be more prudent for Ghent inhabitants to spend that money in the construction of new senior homes and service units."

800 years of public policy continuity
Raf Verbeke states: "That property in the Belgian city of Wulpen, Koksijde belonged to the Grand Seminary of Bruges and was acquired by the OCMW (Public Center for Social Welfare of the City of Ghent) in 1968. Historically, the land's earnings was utilized by religious institutions to care for the needy; this practice is literally tied to the constitutionally protected basic social rights. In truth, the identical method might have been followed since Michael Bauwens' argument on the commons was raging throughout the globe at the time. When you think about it, a line has been drawn across 800 years of public policy continuity towards the disadvantaged in society. For 800 years, the City of Ghent has fought to maintain these territories, and even after Belgium's independence, there have been endless arguments over them. The Dutch Rijkswaterstaat consistently attempted to acquire these areas. Even after the French Revolution, the City of Ghent prevailed in a judicial dispute against the wrongful seizure of land. These lands belonged to the Ghent hospital in 1400 and were responsible for meeting the needs of the poor, thus we argue for historical continuity. You must also consider this in perspective. After Paris and Rome, Ghent was the third biggest city in Europe at the time. Ghent, with a population of 30000, was a big, modern, and prosperous city at the time, and as part of the development of urban democracy, the city invested in land specifically to cater for the food requirements of the city's poor and to battle hunger. This land has been a component of our administration and democracy for 800 years, but following the financial crisis and the fiscal compact policy and his privatisation driven austerity, also for the local authorities, it is determined to sell it, or sell it off, for one cent," concludes Raf Verbeke.

Andy Vermaut
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