Mayor Horta, can you describe the Municipality of Sintra in your own words for our readers?
The Municipality of Sintra is unique in our country, as it combines a very large area, around 318 square kilometres and a population of around 400,000 - it is the second most populous, just after the capital Lisbon.
Sintra is very sui generis, it is almost a region and a very diverse one, in other words, a portrait of our country. It has urban, rural and natural areas (such as Serra de Sintra) and, at the same time, it is a municipality that has been able to integrate the migrant population over the years.
Sintra has a very diversified economy, ranging from agriculture and industry to tourism. The business sector has the largest number of SMEs. Thanks to the above reasons we produce around 4% of the GDP in the municipality.
In addition, Sintra looks towards a promising future. It has the largest number of schools, the largest number of pupils and the largest population growth in absolute terms.
Because it is such a large municipality, it naturally needs to be cohesive and because it is so diverse, it wants to stay united.
It seems that this year has been one of ups and downs for Sintra. Let’s begin with the positives. Sintra is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage site. What has been the impact of this prestigious designation on your city?
This is indeed a great honour for us. More recently, Sintra was also distinguished by the United Nations as one of the Portuguese municipalities adopting innovative policies to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. In the specific case of Sintra, it was for the "postponement of rent payments", which I will develop next.
These are distinctions that, apart from making us happy, bring a huge responsibility to continue serving the people of Sintra. We are aware of the challenges, but above all, we know the potential of this municipality and its people.
The 1995 UNESCO distinction that classified Sintra as a World Heritage Site, under the category "Cultural Landscape", was only possible because of the respect and love that we have for culture and the importance that we believe it assumes for humanity and for the concept of liberty. I have said before that culture must be present where people live. It must move from the palaces and elites to the streets and schools. It has to be made for everyone.
This is the Sintra becomes eternal and where sculptors, philosophers, painters, poets and musicians have been inspired. Sintra is, because all of this, a special kind of place.
Cultura: Sintra comemora 25 anos como Património da UNESCO com mais de 200 eventos https://t.co/yxZ7SFzVLz
— Público (@Publico) January 17, 2020
Earlier this year, you went to Paris to receive an award which granted Sintra the status of an “A List City” in terms of environmental performance. What made this achievement possible?
As I mentioned at the beginning, Sintra is a municipality with a promising future and with a deep concern for future generations. We want every child, every young person to settle down and build a life in Sintra.
Our policies in the area of education and culture are already headed in this direction, but we also know that the environment and sustainability are matters that need an urgent response and, on that, we have learned a lot from the new generations. They are the ones who will live on this planet for the years to come and it is for them that we must act now.
The main goal of my administration has been to value local resources and natural systems and to respond to climate change efficiently and effectively. Thus, the municipality has implemented measures aimed at protecting biodiversity, remembering the importance of rivers, protecting the sea, mountains and forests, boosting green spaces, and calling for active citizenship and responsible consumption.
These concerns have been central to the Municipality's actions and this award gave us the confidence that we are on the right path.
Naturally, we cannot ignore the main theme of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic. How did it impact the seasonal activities, as well as the ongoing initiatives in your municipality?
The pandemic generated by Covid-19 had a very significant impact on Sintra. Right from the start, the municipality had a very high number of infected people, and the outbreak in a nursing home was of great concern. Of course, the effect was not only sanitary. From an economic and business point of view, the impact was also substantial. From the arts and culture to micro, small and medium enterprises, to the agricultural and industrial sectors - the response of the municipality had to be very robust from the first days.
The pandemic led to the closure of some SMEs in the municipality, and to some professional theatres and cultural studios being unable to pay salaries to their team members. These kinds of things necessitated a strong intervention from the Municipal Council.
Os Museus e as Bibliotecas Municipais de Sintra dispõem agora do selo Clean & Safe.
Saiba mais: https://t.co/d9vmAQW9W4#sintra #umlugarqueénosso #portugal #cleanandsafe #visitsintra #visitarsintra #visitsintra #sintraportugal #visitportugal #turismodeportugal pic.twitter.com/wIwZbLa16y
— Câmara Municipal de Sintra (@camaradesintra) July 16, 2020
Overall, Sintra went from a very low unemployment rate (4.5%) to around 11% unemployment. This was very significant and demonstrated the negative impact that the pandemic has had on the municipal economy.
What measures has your Municipal Government implemented to alleviate the effects of the crisis on the people and economy of Sintra?
Since the beginning, many measures and actions have been implemented by the municipality. Back in February, the Municipality created an interdisciplinary working group to closely monitor the first infections. The Municipal Emergency Council was also created to define the best strategy for population protection.
Then, in early March, all the administration’s initiatives were suspended. In the second week of March, knowing that it was necessary to keep people away from places of confluence, the Municipality decided to close all municipal buildings for culture, sport and leisure, such as the cultural centre, swimming pools and museums
Sintra authorities focused on many areas, such as education, solidarity, security forces, health equipment, business and commerce, housing, public health, security, culture, sports, youth, and animal protection, among others. To give some concrete examples:
- Sintra approved the purchase of health equipment - to the value of 1.5 million euros - for the Amadora/Sintra Hospital in order to increase its response capacity in the fight against the pandemic. Among the purchased material was personal protection equipment, Covid-19 tests, intensive care ventilators, portable X-rays, defibrillators and portable ventilators;
- We suspended rent payments for all social housing and the youth rental program until 30 June, a measure that covered 1630 families;
- A Municipal Business Emergency Fund, with an initial allocation of 3 million euros, has been created for the preservation of jobs in the sectors of hospitality, retail and the provision of services. We did not stop any of the ongoing investments and continue to comply with all the contracts that had been signed;
- Sintra also created the Municipal Fund for Cultural Emergency, aimed at supporting cultural associations, to the value of 250 000 euros. Non-profit cultural associations working in the areas of dance, music or theatre may apply for this fund;
- On the return to schools, around 5000 protection kits were distributed to 11th and 12th- grade students, teachers and non-teaching staff. These kits include visors, masks, disinfectant gel and gloves;
- The Municipality has guaranteed more than 150 000 meals to children and their families. In addition to the daily support, during this period, around 175 000 meals were provided to 2500 families through the European Food Programme and the Municipal Food Centre
- We decided to increase the Social Emergency Fund by 1 million euros, for the payment of rents, medicine and health equipment. In addition, financial support of 1 million euros was approved for the Council's Private Social Solidarity Institutions (IPSS);
- Extraordinary support of 225 000 euros was also given to the local Voluntary Fire Brigade Humanitarian Associations. We also provided security forces and firefighters with about 2000 protective suits (including foot covers, FFp2 mask, goggles, cap, gloves and suit); more than 2500 protective gowns (including foot covers, surgical mask, gloves and gown) and more than 30 000 masks;
- Since March, the municipal services have been carrying out the disinfection and washing of public spaces;
- The Municipality signed a protocol for financial support of 105 000 euros to the Cooperativa de Táxis Linha de Sintra, with the aim of minimizing the impact of the economic difficulties experienced by taxi drivers due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The amount corresponds to six months of quotas for the 123 professionals in the municipality, with each driver receiving 850 euros. The amount allocated will also allow the continuation of taxi services as a public transport alternative, capable of meeting the needs of the population, particularly regarding the transport of people to hospitals, health centres and clinics.
Furthermore, more than 2 million of masks were ordered, and initially, hundreds of thousands had already been delivered to health professionals and to people who had had contact with infected people such as firefighters and IPSS's. From those 2 million, half will be given to residents (5 masks per family) and the rest will be distributed to professionals with a small part to be left in storage. The idea is to always have, at least 1 million masks in storage.
Since the beginning of the #COVID19 crisis, Sintra has implemented several solidarity measures in the area of education, commerce, housing and health.
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) June 23, 2020
Another important moment from earlier this year was your re-appointment for the new five-year term at the European Committee of Regions. What will be your priorities in this term?
Yes, indeed. It has been an honour to participate in the Committee of the Regions, which represents the best thing about politics – that is, bringing closer the European and the regional and local authorities, the latter being the power centres nearest to the population.
In this mandate, I believe that it will be essential to strengthen the autonomy of local government, for example by creating a European statute for locally-elected representatives so that they can work and ensure that cohesion remains the cornerstone of the European project, in the search for a fairer and more social Europe.
Moreover, it is necessary to bravely defend democracy, to protect the environment and to promote solidarity. Solidarity not only between us but also in the way we integrate those from outside. Sintra is the municipality with the largest number of migrants in Portugal (40 thousand).
In addition to all of this, combating the Covid-19 pandemic and the recovery of the European and national economies have become top priorities.
"We believe that the future of Europe needs more democracy and solidarity in the decision making process.
It also needs greater decentralization and regionalization.
Democracy without solidarity is just an empty word."
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) February 12, 2020
Could you share any advice or good practices with your fellow mayors in the European Union, especially those who are at the head of tourism-reliant municipalities?
My advice would be to focus as much as possible on two central questions: fighting the pandemic and simultaneously prepare to combat the economic and social crises that will lay ahead. People must trust in the political institutions to successfully overcome the hardships.
For Sintra, tourism represents one of the main sectors of our economy. Therefore, I would advise investing in programs and key messages that attract tourists, emphasizing that travelling domestically is not only less expensive given the current circumstances, but above all, that it is safe. It is this message of safety that we have also been trying to convey to the 5 million tourists we welcome every year.
In addition, knowing that travel options are limited, marketing campaigns which are more targeted to the domestic populations can be a good advantage.
Basílio Horta is the mayor of Sintra since 2013 and a member of the PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions since 2014. He was the President of the Lisbon metropolitan area (Metropolitan Council) between 2015-2017. He belongs to the Portuguese Socialist Party.