This post is not related to shopping in Brussels, but to the power that the European institutions (identified in this continent as Brussels, as in the US federal issues are refered to as Washington) have to set rules related to everyday issues. If commerce became a federal issue in the US due to the distribution of products from the New York City meatpackers to neighboring states, in Europe since 2006 urban retail has regulations that must take into account the Directive 2006/123/EC (also known as Bolekestein, the name of the bill proponent), on services in the internal market.
Leaving aside all the ironic considerations that come from reading at the end of 2012 the grandiloquent statements in the first considerations paragraph, seeking to forge a more fluid internal market for the 27 states of the Union, the Directive addresses urban planning issues by establishing that:
- (article 9)access to a service activity shall not be subject to an authorization scheme, unless there are overriding reasons relating to the public interest. Initial paragraph 40 recognizes among these reasons environment and urban environment, including town and country planning.
- (article 14) access to a service activity shall not be restricted due to an economic test subject to the proof of an economic need or market demand, an assessment of the potential or concurrent economic effects of the activity.
- (article 15) access to a service activity shall not be restricted due to the population or to a minimal distance threshold between providers.
As often in this kind of complex texts resulting from negotiation between antagonic interests, the Directive establishes principles that must be subject to interpretation. The basic rules for urban retail, from Helsinki to Lisbon and from Athens to Dublin, are:
- Urban planning can define limitations to the location of retail activities when an overriding general interest justifies it. The idea of nuisance, classical in urban planning, is accepted, and it is so possible to define different requirements for different retail formats that have diverging impacts on the environment. Induced traffic, service to populations without car, or CO2 emissions can be valid reasons to limit or foster retail locations.
- It is impossible to forbid new retail activities due to the eventual effect on the current traditional retail structure.
- It is impossible to forbid new retail activities due to a perceived saturation of the location; so, from this viewpoint, it is up to concurrence between shops to decide which one will survive.
The Directive modifies substantially the tradition of the French law that limits the big box retail in peripheral locations; its translation to the legislative texts of the states of the Union has been followed in the Spanish case by the translation to regional laws, with diverse outcomes that reflect the ideological views of each government.
In planning terms, urban retail in its traditional form (mixed with housing, offices and a variety of other uses) is not just a “classical image”, it is usually a good way to create living centers in which life, although subject to the problems of a certain degree of crowding, is easier as most things can be found at walking distance. But this must be proved in each case, as plans must serve the citizens.