SMEs are losing ground in Brussels

SMEs are losing ground in Brussels

VUB research uncovers problems in the construction sector

More than 90% of the Brussels construction sector consists small and medium-sized construction companies. VUB researchers Sarah De Boeck, Matthijs Degraeve, and Frederik Vandyck showed that spaces available to these SMEs are disappearing at a rapid rate in the Brussels region. However, the problem remained invisible until now, because production space with an area smaller than 1,000m² is not measured by the government. “It is important to address this problem,” says De Boeck of the VUB research group Cosmopolis, “because the region wants to focus on the circular economy, local Brussels workshops, and employment for low-skilled workers, especially in the construction sector.”  The results of their research were published in Brussels Studies.

Population growth in Brussels is causing an increase in renovation and construction sites. The growing demand for housing and the associated construction frenzy is having two major, contradictory consequences: on the one hand, the region is supporting the construction sector and, on the other, it is increasing the pressure to convert areas intended for productive activities such as construction into residential areas, for example. Between 2000 and 2018, 106 hectares of production space disappeared in Brussels.

Ninety-three per cent of the construction sector in Brussels consists of small and medium-sized construction companies – 70% have fewer than five employees – which are mainly active in the private rebuilding and renovation market. Most of these SMEs have a plot area of less than 1,000 m², which is the limit used to map the construction sector in the Brussels Region. This explains why the sector is slightly overlooked by the local authorities.

Less space for SMEs

Using figures and many testimonies, Sarah De Boeck (urban economic development), Matthijs Degraeve (economic history), and Frederik Vandyck (architecture) examined the spatial aspects of and developments in the SME construction sector since the 1960s. Their research shows a decrease in the number of construction enterprises, as well as a shift to the west of the spatial distribution of these enterprises. The former concentrations in Ixelles and Schaerbeek are declining, while new businesses are emerging in several districts of Anderlecht and on the border between Jette and Koekelberg. The companies in the central Vijfhoek area of Brussels have almost totally disappeared. “This is a pity, because the sector accounts for 4% of jobs in Brussels, especially for the low-skilled.” says De Boeck.

The data also show that the remaining SMEs in the construction sector remains strongly territorialised. Some of them are being transferred from generation to generation, as are their network of local building materials suppliers. The acquisition of these suppliers by large multinationals has a direct impact on the activities of construction companies in Brussels.

Reallocation of zones

The pressure on the production space is exerted in Brussels in various ways. In the case of SMEs in the construction sector, the redevelopment of industrial sites into mixed zones (in order to build housing) is proving detrimental.

As a result, construction suppliers no longer have enough space for their materials and move elsewhere. In the inner city, production areas are often converted into residential areas, such as lofts. As a result, SMEs themselves find fewer small plots of land that are suitable for their activities and that meet their needs in terms of storage, parking, workshop, and office space. “Most of the entrepreneurs we have met find it difficult to find available space. Even less at affordable prices, even on the outskirts of the city. And when they find a place near Brussels, they complain about traffic and parking problems. The construction industry is building itself out of the city, so to speak. If we want to retain the productive space in the city, we will have to intervene in the real estate dynamics,” says De Boeck.

The research was funded by the VUB Interdisciplinary Research Project “Building Brussels. Brussels’ city builders and the production of space, 1794-2015”, a collaboration of the departments of geography, architecture and history.


Sarah De Boeck

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