Carlos Moedas at the ICPT – Getting things done!

 In Events, In Focus, Municipal councils, News

Since Lisbon’s Mayor Carlos Moedas took office in September 2022 after winning an unlikely victory, he decided that he would serve the people, listening to their problems, and get things done. So far, he has put his money where his mouth is. Chris Graeme reports.

Lisbon’s Mayor Carlos Moedas is a man who likes to get things done. The former EU commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation says his greatest sense of satisfaction and happiness is to get home and be able to say that a problem in Europe’s trendiest city is resolved.

Although his political slogan is ‘Serve Lisbon’, his unofficial slogan is very much hear ‘hear about it, deal with it and sort it’ and he believes fervently in taking the bus (without city council officials and public relations in tow) to hear out the grumbles and suggestions of the ordinary ‘Zé’ in the street.

It was an opinion he was keen to get across to a more than 200-strong audience of business leaders and diplomats on January 24 at a luncheon organised by the International Club of Portugal (ICPT).

Speaking to ‘ordinary’ people

“Politicians have often become too far removed from the people and their ordinary problems. They just don’t know ho to speak to ordinary people who don’t want to hear political party propaganda and ideology, they want to hear solutions to the very real problems they are facing, and they want things to get done” says the mayor who has completed just over one year of his mandate at the helm of the city council.

Moedas thinks that both local and national politicians need to be reminded that high office means responsibilities and providing service goes with the job. In this he differs from some of Portugal’s politicians in the past who went into politics without a genuine career structure in the real world, or a track-record of being a self-made individual in either the public or private sector behind them.

His idea seems rather in line with the old traditional British way of ‘statesmanship’ — the notion that you make it on your own two feet and then, with wealth and experience behind you, you give back to society. You serve the public good.

Moedas also stresses the importance of the ‘Local Social State’ which in the practical terms of his mandate means offering free healthcare for the over 65s. “I am not interested in political ideology. If we can get people treated in the private sector quicker and more efficiently, let’s get it done. I want solutions”, he says.

Flood solutions

And for Moedas the solutions can be practical. They don’t have to be all singing, all dancing pharaonic projects that are visible for all to see. The trained engineer points to his team’s Bazalgette-scale project of a groundwater runoff drainage system — massive underground pipes that run from Campolide to Santa Apolónia that no one can see but residents and local traders will notice the difference when the next floods brought by torrential rains come around and their premises are not knee-deep in water.

Called the Lisbon Climate Adaptation Drainage System, the project which was approved in 2018 aims to upgrade the drainage network of the city, including tunnels and ancillary infrastructure to reduce the frequency and magnitude of the kind of floods experienced not once but twice in January 2022 in both Lisbon and further north in Porto.

Lisbon has been suffering from intense and more frequent flood events in recent years. These events not only negatively affect the tourism industry, but more importantly, cause long lasting detrimental effects to the city population, as well as to its property and heritage.

The project is intended to minimise the recurring and increasing problem of flooding while increasing infrastructure resilience in specific vulnerable areas of the City of Lisbon, including parts of the historical city centre. The project is part of the Lisbon’s Drainage Master Plan 2016-2030, which includes recommendations regarding a number of structural interventions in the city. It is also to be funded by around €65 million from the European Investment Bank but will cost a total of €134 million.

For Moedas this is about transforming the city, although he admits the idea is not his, but that of one of his predecessors, António Carmona Rodrigues.

Speeding up planning

Then there is the challenge of cutting red tape regarding the city council’s notoriously cumbersome and time consuming planning permission process, which for some years has not been fit for purpose and resembled an archaic Soviet planning model that did little to make the city a more attractive investment destination in terms of hotels, student digs and senior residences, hostels, and residential housing – both luxury and mainstream.

To offer just one glaring example, there was the planning nightmare for the Irish chain of hostels Clink Hostels, which acquired a building formerly occupied by the Portuguese CTT in 2018 for a hostel conversion that would create jobs in the city and bing in tourism revenues. It waited for one year for Lisbon City Council to approve the planning project. It was an investment worth several millions and was made exclusively through own capital requiring no subsidies or funding from the cit council.

And if one year sounds lengthy, some projects because of their complexity or sensitivity can take two years or more if Portugal’s Association of Real Estate Developers and Investors (APPII) is to be believed, and whose members lobbied effectively to support Moedas’ bid for the city hall elections in 2021.

It has to be said, however, that despite only just having discovered digitalisation in its planning processes (an admission by the council executive in charge of planning, Joana Almeida at a recent event to highlight the council’s involvement at the Cannes property fair MIPIM), the system has been much improved and streamlined.

“Results are bearing fruit” the mayor said, adding that they had been working with developers in order to help them get their paperwork in the correct order from the start (often it is they who don’t provide the correct paperwork in the right order and at the right time).

A unicorn factory

One way an improved service is being achieved is through city council’s LX Urban Planning Academy (Academia de Urbanismo Lx), a platform that is aimed at those working in the council’s planning department and fosters learning and skills development on normative procedures so that staff can improve the services that they provide.

No longer, says the mayor, do all projects, both big and small, get lumped in together in the queue, the old Soviet-style vertical hierarchical decision-making process has been simplified, allowing city hall mandarins further down the power chain to take decisions, leaving senior executives with their hands free to deal with multi-million-euro projects like the Unicorn Factory which already has 33 candidates — both national and International – willing to invest and grow in the city. The project is close to the mayor’s heart and he managed to get it up and running in 12 months.

Very much his pet project for the first mandate – Moedas has actually done more in his short tenure it seems than the Prime Minster who seems to have decided to rest on the laurels of last year’s January landslide victory and parliamentary majority while getting bogged down in fighting metaphorical fires from a series of scandals which have dragged his administration into the mud.

Envisioned by the mayor and Lisbon City Council, the project aims to expand Lisbon’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, from startups to scale-ups, and eventually unicorns, in what the mayor hopes will be a driver for the city’s economic growth and a dynamic force for innovation, attracting talent, new projects and investment.

Unicorn Factory Lisboa covers four main areas: ‘early stage incubation for startups, ‘growth stage’ programs for scaleups, “soft landing” support for both international startups and scaleups planning to expand through Lisbon, and “innovation hubs” such as Hub Criativo do Beato.

“I took a huge risk when I decided to advance with the project. Things had come to a standstill at Beato Startup Incubator” — an innovation centre for creative and technological companies that emerged from a complex of old factories on Lisbon’s eastern riverfront area — says Moedas who emphasise that Lisbon now has 11 unicorns operating in the city.

In terms of startups, Portugal is 13% above the European average and investment in these companies, many of which have a presence in the capital, has grown more than 100%, exceeding €1Bn in 2021, while seven Portuguese unicorns already generate an equivalent value of one-third of Portugal’s GDP according to Lider Magazine.

Carlos Moedas points to the latest unicorn to join the city’s stable, the Danish Fintech Pleo which has entered the Portuguese market setting up its second largest office outside Denmark in Lisbon.

There are already 70 people working at the company which has introduced technology to make it easier for SMEs and micro-enterprises to record expenses.

Renovating housing stock

However, one of the main challenges of the mayor’s first mandate will continue to be housing, relieving the lack of affordable housing within the city and creating more social housing projects for low-income families and the municipal and local police.

To this end Carlos Moedas has earmarked over €40 million from the Recovery and Resilience Plan for refurbishing and renovating existing housing stock which had lots of houses that were dilapidated or even empty. For example, from January 23, 116 homes were made available through the council’s Affordable Rents Programme of which 52 are council houses.

The mayor has said he will freeze municipal housing rents in 2023 as a way of helping up to 21,000 families deal with the rising cost of living.

Lisbon City Council is actually the largest single landlord in Portugal and Carlos Moedas has pledged to pay one-third of the rents of 1,000 of the most needy families. Candidates for this help have until February 15 to apply.