‘Poor urban planning costly for businesses’

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Bereng Mpaki

THE Maseru City Council (MCC) says it is engaged in several initiatives to rectify planning deficiencies which have been identified by the World Bank as major obstacles in most African cities to the ease of doing business.

With fragmented buildings erected all over the place and residential houses found right in the middle of commercial areas, Maseru has the hallmarks of unplanned or poorly-planned urban settlement as outlined by the World Bank report titled Africa’s Cities Opening Doors to the World.

Established as a local authority in 1989 under the Urban Act of 1983, the MCC was meant to be a testing ground for urbanisation and municipal management in Lesotho.

From 1999 until 2005, the MCC operated without a council of elected leaders and this greatly undermined its effectiveness in service delivery. This week, MCC spokesperson Lintle Bless conceded that there challenges confronting the MCC in an interview with Lesotho Times.

“We have many unplanned settlements with the jurisdiction of MCC and we believe this is due to the land tenure system which apparently did not prioritise the importance of town planning,” Ms Bless said.

“We have a special program (Maseru Upgrading Programme) which is aimed at addressing the problem of illegal settlers where we are working to move them back to within their original demarcated sites.

“This is important for purposes of infrastructure development” she said noting however that the process was a lengthy one as it involved going through processes in the courts of law.

She said the problem of illegal settlements was compounded by the slow issuance of construction permit, which used to take so long that people would forego it and just erect structures that were not approved by the MCC.

“We are now reforming the process of obtaining a construction permit as we noted it used to take too long to be issued. This was because we had to ensure that the application meet all the requirements before passed it on to Lesotho Electricity Company and Water and Sewerage Company for further approval.

“This process used to be done manually but now it is being digitised in order to shorten it with the financial assistance of the World Bank. The online system will reduce that time from about a year to within a month,” Ms Bless said.

Although it is yet to be launched officially, the new system is supported under the second Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project, is said to be already functional.

According to the World Bank study released last week, African cities including Maseru are the most expensive in the world due to lack of proper planning, a development which made it difficult to conduct business.

“African cities are 29 percent more expensive than cities in countries at similar income levels and African households face higher costs relative to their per capita GDP than do households in other regions – much of it accounted for by housing, which costs them a full 55 percent more than in other regions,” part of the report states.

“In Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), for example, 28 percent of residents live at least three to a room; in Abidjan (Ivory Coast), 50 percent. And in Lagos, Nigeria, two out of three people live in slums.

“The immediate reason is that the urbanisation of people is not accompanied by an urbanisation of capital. Housing, infrastructures, and other capital investments are lacking. Across the region, housing investment lags urbanisation by nine years.

“An underlying cause of this crowding is that African cities are not economically dense or efficient enough to promote scale economies and attract capital investment.”

The study further revealed that many African cities were sparsely arranged and that their fragmentation increased infrastructure costs, while also increasing travel times among homes, job sites and businesses.

“African cities also are disconnected in that they are spatially dispersed. Structures are scattered in small neighborhoods. Without adequate roads or transport systems, commuting is slow and costly, denying workers access to jobs throughout the larger urban area. People and firms are separated from each other and from economic opportunity.”

The World Bank therefore recommended urban planning as the panacea to address the identified concerns, adding it was up to local and national authorities to undertake the institutional reforms needed for effective planning and coordination to increase urban economic density and productivity and spur Africa’s belated structural transformation.

“Institutional structures must lead, not lag, urban infrastructure. If they do, the region’s cities will become not only better connected and more efficient but also kinder to their inhabitants, whose skills will be critical to economic growth and development. Only when this happens will the doors of African cities stand open to the world.”

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