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José Benlloch Fernández: Vila-real is a city with the soul of a village - a dichotomy, which makes us unique

José Benlloch Fernández: Vila-real is a city with the soul of a village - a dichotomy, which makes us unique

An interview with the Mayor of Vila-real, in Spain

José Benlloch Fernández (Vila-real, 1974) graduated from University Jaume I with a degree in Law – a profession which he then practised for 12 years, specializing in Civil Liability and Criminal Law. His journey in local politics began in 2003 with an appointment as a spokesman for PSPV-PSOE political party and councillor at the Vila-real City Council.

In 2011, he was elected as mayor of that city, a feat which he repeated in the 2015 and 2019 elections. He is self-described as an admirer of science, sports and politics.

Mr. Mayor, how would you describe Vila-real in your own words?

Vila-real is a city with the soul of a village. A dichotomy, which makes us unique, because it allows us to move forward as a modern, inclusive, innovative and sustainable city, without losing sight of our roots. Here we all know each other in a certain way, and that gives us greater strength as a community to move forward together, face adversities such as covid-19 and not lose opportunities for the future.

What are the main economic sectors in your municipality and how have they been affected by the Covid crisis?

The ceramic industry is, without a doubt, the economic engine of Vila-real and our area of ​​influence. Here, we have the main international ceramic production groups, which generate employment and wealth. A sector in continuous transformation, innovative and cutting-edge, which has managed to alleviate the worst effects of the crisis, thanks to its export capacity.

But even so, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our economy, as it had in the entire world. We have 15.35% unemployment, three points more than before the outbreak of the pandemic, although we continue to remain the city in the Valencian Autonomous Region with the lowest unemployment.

For the services sector, commerce and especially catering, as it has happened throughout Spain, the effects of covid-19 have been devastating. For them, we have articulated direct aid and other pioneering municipal initiatives, such as the 95% IBI bonus for local businesses, with an investment of 3.6 million euros so far.

Investment that aims to be at least a small relief for our SMEs and freelancers. Precisely how the pandemic is affecting local structures is one of the questions that I have set for myself to answer as president of the Spanish delegation to the Council of Local and Regional Authorities at the Council of Europe.

What modernization projects have been or are being carried out in Vila-real?

Since 2011, we have been immersed in the modernization of the city's economic model, while continuing to do what we do best: ceramics and agriculture. We have been working, hand in hand with our companies, civic society and the University, on an innovative city model.

In 2011 we were awarded the ‘City of Science and Innovation’ brand, granted by the Government of Spain, and since 2017 we have presided over the Valencian network of innovative cities. This commitment to innovation also entails a very important effort to modernize the Administration, to try and be more agile in responding to the entrepreneurial potential of our people.

And also, of course, in areas such as digitization and innovation which are applied to improving the urban environment, with Smart city projects that make our city a living laboratory of urban solutions.

Does this also include the modernization of local agriculture?

Of course. Agriculture is our origin, our past, but it is also a key sector in our present and we want it to be even more so in our future. The powers that the local Administration has in the field of agriculture are very limited, almost non-existent.

But what is in our power is to accompany our agricultural sector on the way to modernize and improve its competitive standing. For example, with diversification or with the application of sustainable and innovative pest management methods.

With this objective, we are collaborating with the Cooperativa Católico-Agraria de Vila-real - a centennial entity with deep roots in the city, which includes small farmers - with an agreement of 20,000 euros to help them in the creation of an insectarium. We are also working on the development of an agri-food cluster that takes advantage of Vila-real's potential in the cultivation and commercialization of oranges and new crops, such as the pioneer mushroom plant Manantial Vilamico, from the Manantial Foundation, which is also a very interesting project of socio-labour insertion for people with mental illnesses.

Around this plant and other agricultural activities, we work to promote an agri-food industry cluster and we are also collaborating with the associations of irrigators and owners in the modernization of irrigation in the Pinella Phase II project, to walk together towards a model of ecological and more sustainable agriculture.

What is the essence of the Local Action Plan for Climate and Sustainable Energy?

At the moment, we are working on the drafting of the Local Action Plan for Climate and Sustainable Energy. More specifically, we are in the phase of public participation, with the organization of workshops. What it is about, fundamentally, is to have an instrument that allows us to know the situation from which we are starting at the local level and to set a roadmap to move towards a future of respect and balance with our environment.

Vila-real City Council has been part of the Covenant of Mayors since 2009 and we are also committed to the SDGs and the European Climate Agreement in other networks such as City Councils for Climate or A Tree for Europe. Climate change, energy sustainability and sustainable development are, without a doubt, the great challenges of the present and the future and Vila-real is fully committed to responding to these from the local stance to meet a global challenge that already needs concrete actions.

Finally, what vision do you have for the future of your municipality?

That of a city that takes care of its own and takes care of itself. That is, a city that generates opportunities, modern, innovative and advanced, but at the same time committed to the most vulnerable.

An inclusive and a dreamer city, because it is the dreamers - those who face a new challenge, and instead of wondering ‘why’ wonder ‘why not’ - that move the world. A resilient, sustainable, pro-European city aware of the key role that municipalism is going to play in Europe.

And all of this without ever forgetting our village soul. In Vila-real, we have gone from a farming city to an industrial one and now, to an industrial, farming and service city of the 21st century, inclusive, sustainable and innovative.

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