#160: Strikes, rent up 30%, climate vote, Helmut Kohl
Plus bike lanes and digitalisation at the Finanzamt
Dear 20 Percent,
About five years ago I bumped into the mayor of Pankow, Sören Benn (Die Linke), at a discussion about creating eco- and human-friendly Barcelona-style superblocks in Berlin: micro-neighbourhoods with limited car traffic, micro-parks and leisure areas. Benn was pushing for them at the time. Fast forward to now: almost nothing has happened in a city that, for some reason, still prides itself on being green.
Benn said German laws and Berlin bureaucracy were largely responsible for the almost non-existent movement towards greener neighbourhoods. For example, he said, you can’t put bike lanes on a street where the speed limit is 30kph because under German law that’s all you need to create enough safety for cyclists. The result is that on many side streets, especially cobbled ones, people just ride their two-wheelers along the sidewalk, enraging and endangering pedestrians.
I thought of this conversation today because it just emerged that last year Berlin managed to spend only half its allocated budget for new bike lanes. Six million euros out of €15 million were unspent. Why? Various reasons including a staff shortage in the city administration, a shortage of street signs, a shortage of contractor firms, but mostly just overly complicated planning procedures.
I know it’s a recurring theme in this newsletter, but Berlin is so undeniably stuck in so many ways that’s it’s getting beyond ridiculous. Our probable next mayor Kai Wegner (CDU) says “administrative reform” is a number one priority. Unfortunately, having the money to do something and having the intention to do something just isn’t enough in this city.
No, he’s going to have whack pretty hard at some resilient, crusty old structures. Many, if not all, have failed before. I wish him luck.
More news below!
PS: Today’s cover photo - “Berlin’s Urban bio loop” - is a concept by students Aneliya Kavrakova, Mary Lee, Sue Yen Chong and Dienu Amriza Prihartadi at the University of Edinburgh. Winners of an urban planning competition for the soon-to-be-closed A104 autobahn in Steglitz, including bike lanes and indoor farming. Will this ever happen?
On Monday all 200 departures from BER airport were cancelled thanks to striking ground staff. Around 27,000 passengers were affected. Union Verdi says the strike was to put pressure on airports around Germany to increase pay for overtime and shifts on public holidays. Although the strike was announced at the end of last week, some passengers say their airlines hadn’t informed them and showed up at the airport clueless. Meanwhile, Verdi’s strikes at Berlin’s state-owned hospitals (Vivantes, Charité, the Jewish Hospital) continue today and tomorrow. These strikes are part of Germany-wide actions by public-sector employees gunning for a pay increase of 10.5% or at least €500 per month.
Climate referendum complications
On March 26, voters are being asked to vote “yes” or “no” on the “Berlin 2030 Climate Neutral referendum” (English info), which, with enough support, will require Berlin to strive for “climate neutrality” by 2030 instead of the current target of 2045. Campaigners have been urging people to request mail-in ballots via berlin.de. However, the site was down for several hours over the past few days for maintenance— prompting the campaign’s lawyer Peter Cremer to announce: “If the referendum fails to achieve a quorum, we will consider challenging the vote.” To pass, the referendum requires 25% of eligible voters (German citizens 18 or older) or 613,000 Berliners to vote “yes”.
Rent is going 📈
Real estate site Immowelt said a review of its listings shows the average rent in Berlin jumped 27% from November to March, making the Hauptstadt now the second most-expensive German city for renters behind Munich. Rent on an 80sqm, 3-room apartment on the second floor now costs €12.55 per square meter in Berlin, up from €9.86 in November. Why? They’re guessing the unstoppable immigration to Berlin coupled with Ukrainian refugees and knock-on effects from the failed rent cap legislation. Oh, and an inability to build new apartments at any reasonable pace.
All things are pointing to a new Berlin CDU-SPD government coalition with Kai Wegner (CDU) in the mayor’s seat. He would be the first conservative to run the city in two decades. A Wegner government would be a rare chance for conservatives to leave their cultural imprint on Berlin. Hence, it’s emerged from the negotiations with the SPD that the CDU wants to rename a square or street after former chancellor Helmut Kohl, the CDU leader best known as the driving force of German reunification 30 years ago as well as a party finance scandal. When the party suggested renaming the Grosse Stern traffic circle enveloping the Siegessäule “Helmut-Kohl-Platz” in 2018, everyone left-of-centre shook their heads in disdain. But maybe this time they’ll get their way.
Okay, not everything in Berlin’s administration is stuck in 1991. According to Tagesspiegel, 20-25% of income tax declarations submitted to Berlin tax offices are 100% processed by automation software. Oliver Thiess, spokesman for the Finanzamt workers union, said the high level of automation was necessary because Berlin tax offices have 600 unfilled positions.
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