Eric Thill: “Decentralisation is very important”

Eric Thill, the youngest mayor in Luxembourg, outside the town hall in Schieren Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Eric Thill, the youngest mayor in Luxembourg, outside the town hall in Schieren Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

The DP leader of Schieren council Eric Thill talks about the future of the Nordstad, the need for decentralisation and debunking the myth that the region has a reputation for being conservative.

Duncan Roberts: The Nordstad is a familiar term, but can you explain how this collaboration between the communes works in practical terms?

Eric Thill: The intercommunal syndicate consists of six communes Schieren, Ettelbruck, Diekirch, Erpeldange, Bettendorf and Colmar-Berg. We have been working together for decades to create and advance a third development area in the grand duchy, alongside the capital city and Belval.

This is being done through urban development, economic advancement, as well as developing leisure, culture and tourism in the region. For example, we have developed the Fridhaff industrial estate just outside Diekirch, we have the Nordstad bus.

And we also promote the area to the outside world, which includes the publication of Hex magazine [published for the Nordstad by Maison Moderne].

An important partner in all this is the ministry for spatial planning--we have a very good working relationship with Claude Turmes.

There are now plans for a more formal fusion…

Yes, in 2018 we decided the time might be ripe to make this cooperation more concrete, and we started thinking about the possibility of a fusion of the communes. Votes were held in all six local councils to decide whether to formally examine the idea further--not on an actual fusion--and, for whatever reason, Colmar-Berg decided it did not want to sit at the table for these discussions.

But the other five communes have, since the beginning of 2019, been exploring the idea of whether a formal fusion makes sense. We are looking at the financial aspect, what are the requirements, what sort of projects we imagine a new commune could undertake. The idea of a fusion would be, as it has been in other cases, to work more efficiently, to have more manpower, to better serve our citizens…

We can’t dictate from above, but we have to involve the people in the discussions and take into account their ideas, their suggestions.
Eric Thill

Eric ThillMayorSchieren

Personally, I must say, the idea of a fusion only makes sense if the Nordstad concept has the full support of the people. We can’t dictate from above, but we have to involve the people in the discussions and take into account their ideas, their suggestions.

Of course, during the covid-19 times it has not been easy, but we have managed to achieve what we set out to do. We had workshops, what we called citizen forums, in the five different communes. In addition, we created a citizens’ council, made up of representatives voted onto the council from all five communes, which has been working on the proposals made at the workshops.

The local council executives themselves have also been taking part in workshops so that they are kept up to date with progress.

But a referendum planned for 2022 to green-light the fusion looks like being delayed. Why?

The idea originally was to hold a referendum around one year before the next local elections, which are scheduled for June 2023. For me, that was a very sporty schedule, very ambitious planning. It involves five communes and at least 25,000 people…it’s very complex. And then we had covid, which meant the communes not only had other priorities but also had less manpower through remote working or sickness or special leave. So adhering to the planning schedule became even more difficult.

In addition, we sent a letter to the minister of the interior, Taina Bofferding, and other ministries to get a concrete answer regarding financial support and also plans for the CGDIS [emergency rescue service] centre in Fridhaff. Of course, because of the pandemic, the government also had its own crisis management and other financial priorities, and then the flooding also added to the problem.

But it is important that we get an answer in the next few weeks, and from what I could tell from discussions in parliament and from an answer to a question from [Ettelbruck mayor and CSV deputy] Jean-Paul Schaaf, the minister is in the process of working something out.

But even though Claude Turmes has said we will soon also get an answer regarding the CGDIS, it is looking less likely that we can meet the target of June 2022 for the referendum.

It is now almost 40 years since [Luxembourg economist] Adrien Ries coined the term “Nordstad”. Has the reputation of the north changed in those 40 years?

Adrien Ries’s idea was to create this northern “pole” and it is a vision that I, as mayor of Schieren, and my colleagues in the other communes continue to support. In fact, the idea of the Nordstad makes even more sense now, perhaps, than 40 years ago.

The north, like other areas of the country, has obviously developed significantly. We have met various challenges and now, together with the government, we have developed the Vision Nordstad 2035, which includes a mobility plan and what major investment decisions will be taken in the next few years.

The industrial zone is creating jobs. We have had the extension of the motorway that has improved quality of life in the region.

43% of Nordstad residents also work there. What are the economic strengths of the region?

I think that living and working here is great for quality of life. Our location has several advantages. We have plenty of nature, excellent connections to the capital city, whether that is by public transport or by car--you can be in Kirchberg in 20 minutes.

The Fridhaff activity zone is proving to be a big draw and we are working on plans to expand it as it has already reached capacity. The spaces were taken up so quickly that it shows that the Nordstad really is an attractive location for businesses, but also for residents.

We are close to the Alzette and Sûre rivers, we have plenty of nice countryside walks and cycle paths. We have infrastructure--the hospital in Ettelbruck, high schools, shopping streets in Diekirch and Ettelbruck, culture venues like the CAPE, museums, sports facilities, cafés, restaurants. There is a lot we can offer in a relatively small and rural area.

Is the attraction of the north for people who still work in the capital city growing because of lower house prices and the increase in remote working?

I have to say, housing prices have increased here as well. As an example, when I started at the Schieren council at the end of 2017 the cost of one are [100 square metres] of building land was €52,000. Now it is €80,000 per are. Nevertheless, that’s still cheaper than around the capital and lots of people are thinking about moving to the north.

Our idea is still to have more people who both live and work here, so that they have more time for themselves, for their family and for hobbies and leisure time. In the sense that we don’t live to work, but we work to have a better life.

We want to attract not only businesses, but why not public administrations and even ministries?
Eric Thill

Eric ThillMayorSchieren

Xavier Bettel spoke about decentralisation in his state of the nation speech. What concrete actions would you like to see the national government take to make this happen?

Decentralisation is very important. We want to attract not only businesses, but why not public administrations and even ministries? In this respect, being the third development area is important as it gives us more political weight.

We already have some examples. The environment agency and the nature and forest agency are in Diekirch, the water management authority also has an annex here.

I mean, during the pandemic we discovered that remote working could work technically. That is all well and good, but we have to take into account the human aspect, having contact with your colleagues is very important. So, in the future, we have to find a healthy mix. We could also imagine, in the age of digitalisation with email and video conferences, businesses having satellite offices in the Nordstad where people could work maybe three times a week instead of having to travel to the capital.

That would also contribute to fewer cars on the road, would ease traffic jams and would also be good for the environment.

Decentralisation and the development of coworking spaces is something that can be done fairly quickly with the right investment. That would be driven by digitalisation, which is something that [minister delegate for digitalisation] Marc Hansen is working on and that we, as the Nordstad, welcome.

What is the housing situation in the Nordstad?

Several projects are being worked on, dependent on the general development plans that are currently being finalised. We need more housing, but that will also require individual communes to expand their development perimeters, that is obvious.

We need young people and women who can bring a different perspective to the problems we face, come up with new ideas.
Eric Thill

Eric ThillMayorSchieren

You are the youngest mayor in the grand duchy. Do you feel there are enough young people entering politics and if not, what can be done to encourage more active participation in the younger generation?

This is something I have been preoccupied with recently. I think over the past few years there has been an increase in the number of young people engaging with politics and in the local councils and executives. I think it’s important to have more diversity in local government, so that we don’t just have pensioners--with all respect for our pensioners--sitting on the councils. We need young people and women who can bring a different perspective to the problems we face, come up with new ideas. If we have that mix, they will represent the population.

Everywhere I go I encourage young people to enter politics, because it allows you to actually make change and not just complain all the time.

On the other hand, and this has to be said, it is not easy as a young mayor to balance your job, family and hobbies with managing a political mandate. We welcome the proposed reform to the commune law, because the sector has evolved significantly over the last 15 to 20 years. The diversity of the tasks required is making the job more and more complex. So we have to make the roles of mayor and councillors much more attractive.

There needs to be an increase in the number of hours of “political leave” that is granted, to allow people more time to calmly carry out the role. We need to change procedures so that technicians and secretaries can have more responsibility.

I get 16 hours of political leave a week. I have an executive council meeting twice a week, I have to prepare council sittings, sign building permits, conduct weddings and funerals, attend all sorts of other general meetings. I’m also the boss of a team of 23 people… that is just the daily business, the management aspect. But on top of that we have all the planning and strategy for the future. It just isn’t enough time.

You are also head of the DP’s north section. Ahead of the double election year in 2023, what challenges does the party face in the region, which is often said to lean conservative?

We have a young and dynamic team that is laying the groundwork for our election strategy. We are holding workshops to prepare concrete proposals for the challenges that are specific to the north. We have been visiting businesses to take the pulse and learn about the problems they face and what we can really change.

But I think this idea that the north is conservative and agricultural is something of a cliché. Of course, there is a lot of farming up here that is still important. But it is also slowly being reduced. A lot of people from the south and the centre have moved to the Nordstad, and that has brought about some change. New generations and new families have come to live in the north, and I welcome that.

And, of course, for the next local elections the law has changed allowing non-Luxembourgers who have not been here for more than five years to vote.

That is an important and interesting aspect that I clearly support. And we will have to make sure we listen to the needs of those people, which will make the 2023 local elections interesting. But it can only be good for democracy.