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Caroline Taquin: We have made every effort to move forward with our projects, despite the pandemic

Caroline Taquin: We have made every effort to move forward with our projects, despite the pandemic

Interview with the Mayor of Courcelles, Belgium

Caroline Taquin was a municipal councillor of MR (Reformist Movement) between 2006 and 2012, when she was elected Mayor of Courcelles. Re-elected in 2018, she also become a Federal Member of Parliament in 2019. Before getting involved full time in politics, she wоrked as a primary school teacher.

The original answers were provided in French. The English version is edited for clarity.

Madame Taquin, could you briefly introduce the Municipality of Courcelles?

Courcelles is one of the most populated Walloon municipalities, it is a centre in its own right with its 31,309 inhabitants. It is made up of 4 villages: Courcelles, Gouy-lez-Piéton, Souvret and Trazegnies. The population density is over 700 inhabitants / km².

It is a fairly significant commercial centre compared to towns of similar size.

What are the main projects or initiatives that you are most proud of since the beginning of your term?

[They are listed below]:

  • Revitalization of the centre of Courcelles: Place du Trieu is one of the largest in Wallonia, with a surface area of ​​1 hectare. We are working on the development of an ambitious and large-scale project for the centre of our Municipality.
  • Daily support for citizens such as the creation of a housing assistance unit bringing together all the local actors competent in the matter.
  • Preservation of slag heaps: the municipality recently acquired two in order to preserve biodiversity in the area and develop leisure activities.
  • Commerce: implementation of the municipal commercial development plan.
  • Health network: In the context of the health crisis, the establishment of a solid network between the Municipality and the health providers working on the Courcelles territory.
  • As a Federal Member of Parliament, I was able to relay concerns to the competent Ministers. I followed the decisions taken in the context of the management of the health crisis on a daily basis - specifically for independent nurses, I submitted a motion for a resolution calling on the Government to improve their working conditions.
  • Interdisciplinary work: Transversal work between the "municipal college" and the many local institutions. We are now working together in the areas of associations, culture, sports, housing, environment.
  • Public works: At the start of the term of office, we had to restore a number of abandoned roads, set up a pothole operation, bring many municipal and school buildings back in shape.
  • Prevention - safety: Drafting of a police order to ban the consumption and sale of nitrous oxide to minors, also known as laughing gas, commonly used in cooking. I was also able to relay this issue to the federal level where a bill was recently adopted.

Has the pandemic forced you to cancel or postpone any important projects?

Not really. Even if our very lively municipality was deprived of its many events due to the sanitary restrictions in force, we have still carried on intensely with the management of the pandemic as a priority and have employed all means to equip, support and inform our citizens, healthcare personnel, schools and economic actors. We have, therefore, made every effort to move forward on our projects! We can say that 2020 was very busy.

During the crisis, your municipality developed a social service called “Courcelles écoute” (Courcelles is listening). Could you tell us more about it?

It is a crisis line set up by the PCS and managed by the coordinator of the town house who is also a psychologist.

The aim of this call centre is to help people suffering psychologically from the health crisis whether it is because of stress, isolation, exhaustion or even mourning. The village houses being closed during lockdown and activities offered to citizens cancelled, the PCS service has reconverted itself in this period of health crisis, in its social role by helping the most vulnerable people.

For the past two weeks, the service has also offered solidarity, reception, listening and referral services to people who need it. The coordinator receives people by appointment for an individual interview.

What mechanisms have been put in place to support the local economy?

Here are the main actions we have taken:

The town has put in place an economic recovery plan to provide financial assistance to all sectors impacted by the containment measures:

  • Bonuses have been granted to the various economic sectors (horeca industry, retailers, street vendors, fairgrounds, taxi companies, sports clubs and folkloric societies) affected by the crisis, ranging from € 300 to € 600 depending on the phase at which their activities were able to resume.
  • Vouchers of €10 for adults and €2x20 for children (under 18) were distributed to citizens to spend in local businesses.
  • The objective of this project was the economic revival of our businesses. The amount allocated to this project was €700,000 
  • Taxes have been frozen or cancelled (such as for terraces, signs, shops, etc.). This normally represents an income of +/- €50,000 per year.
  • Establishment of a pharma premium for people over 65: upon presentation of a sales receipt, they are granted a premium of € 10.
  • Launch of a project allowing the embellishment of store windows, free of charge.
  • Distribution of protective equipment to local traders when they reopen, to market gardeners, healthcare providers, etc.
  • Advertising the various shops that allow online/telephone orders and take-aways on our Courcelles shops page.
  • Establishment of an aid unit for merchants: all were contacted individually to help them in their efforts to obtain the aid granted in the context of the crisis.

The mayors were and still are on the front line in the fight against the pandemic. How do you manage to maintain contact with your fellow citizens, convince them to respect measures that are sometimes unpopular, such as, for example, wearing a mask at school?

A coronavirus line has been set up as well as an email address for citizens (coronavirus@courcelles.be) to which I respond personally.

I also stay in touch with citizens via SMS, video, limited appointments, (depending on the urgency of the needs), but also via social networks. I miss physical contact very much.

To make citizens aware of the need to comply with the measures, we communicate regularly through our social networks, we placed posters in strategic places reminding them of the social distancing to be observed, we repeatedly distributed masks to front-line nursing staff, merchants and market sellers.

We communicate very regularly in the local newspapers; specific letters are sent to target audiences when the protocols are modified (for example: sports, beauty salons, horeca, shops, etc.). Letters were also sent to 5,623 citizens over 65 in which they received free masks.

Regarding the wearing of masks at school, we were the first municipality to impose it on children over the age of 6 in schools after the All Saints holiday. We had decided to close the schools a week before the holidays, but the virus was still present and on the rise. All measures were explained to parents via letters.

It was not an easy decision to make, but it was necessary to protect children and teachers in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Even if this decision was not unanimous at the start, it still convinced more than 80% of parents. We did well, because we received many messages of encouragement from health practitioners who welcomed this initiative, which also aimed to alleviate their arduous daily work and protect people of all ages.

Even if expert opinions diverge, there is no longer any evidence that the transmission of Covid is much greater in children even if they do not necessarily contract a serious form.

Since the beginning of the month [of February], we have also decided to equip teachers and children's sectors (nurseries, childcare centers, etc.) with FFP2 masks, because of the new virus variants and in order to take all the necessary precautions to protect the young ones.

For 2021, the City Council has focused on education, through sustainable renovation projects and construction. Could you tell us a little more about this priority and the others implemented for the current year?

For the year 2021, priority will still be placed on the continuity of the renovation of municipal schools and the start of the construction of two schools in the coming years for an amount of € 9,072,000 (without the subsidies).

Each year, work has been undertaken in school buildings such as the renovation of roofs, the placement of new frames, boilers, fences, courtyards, fire escapes, the replacement of sanitary blocks, the construction of modular pavilions and the renovation of buildings and playgrounds. This work will continue in the years to come for the well-being of all our schoolchildren! …

Finally, would you like to share a project, a local initiative or a successful experience of your municipality with other European mayors?

The housing assistance unit bringing together all local actors with expertise in the field. This allows citizens to have all the stakeholders around the table and to obtain all the information and the procedures to be carried out in a single meeting.

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