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National housing projects bedevilled by graft, politics and poor planning

Opinion & Analysis
A ghost town or two are also testimony of shortcomings of centralised investment driven economic growth strategy. The result has been heavily indebted local governments, which may yet cripple the Chinese economy going forward.

On April 11, 1941, 75 years ago, The Rhodesian Herald quoted the then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) Internal Affairs minister, one T Beadle, as saying: “It is definitely part of government policy that we do not want to concentrate the population of Southern Rhodesia into a couple of large towns”. Opening a conference on local government management he went on to add: “It would be part of the scheme to be laid before the conference to control the optimum size of Salisbury (now Harare) and Bulawayo by the creation of urban district councils which could decide on the optimum size for a town, and could follow that up with legislation prohibiting late further sub-division of agricultural land outside that area”.

Tapiwa Nyandoro

File Pic
File Pic

Somewhere in the archives of the Ministry of Local Government, or Town House, may be the reasons for limiting the size of towns and the criteria for determining an “optimum” town size. The documents may need dusting up, perusal and updating to contemporary values, thinking and reality. Such vital criteria could have been aimed at upholding a high quality of life in urban areas through ensuring descent jobs for all eligible residents, minimal air, water and noise pollution, absence of traffic congestion, adequate and affordable social services, including housing and water supplies besides sustainable town budgets amongst other things.

Is such rigorous forward planning still part of the expected consideration in Zimbabwe today, as it is in China? The Asian giant has mastered the art of profitable mass urbanisation on a planned basis. Lessons, however, can still be drawn from the Chinese experience. Fingers have been burnt as in some cases excess capacity was built sending returns in housing stock plummeting. A ghost town or two are also testimony of shortcomings of centralised investment driven economic growth strategy. The result has been heavily indebted local governments, which may yet cripple the Chinese economy going forward.

The issue of unsustainable foreign debt should be a moot point in Zimbabwe. The denomination of that debt is critical. Borrowing off shore and in hard currency for housing and infrastructure is putting a noose on the economy of future generations. And it is not clear in Zimbabwe whether adequate consultations are held between the political leadership and urban planners, as city officials, before housing projects are commissioned.

Given the current economic environment it is unlikely the construction of the mooted 320 000 housing units government is borrowing offshore to build is bankable. Rogue land barons and corruption have previously decided the fate of towns and cities with disastrous results. Urban unemployment and poverty have reached record highs. As a result, town and city revenues are heading south as residents fail to service their obligations to their local authorities. The result is budgets per capita are shrinking to unsustainable, if not dangerous levels. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid are cases in point.

Clinics and schools are swamped. Sewage works and garbage collection are overwhelmed. Job creation is nowhere in sight. Prostitution and other social ills have reached record highs. Water shortages have lasted for decades. Household are in debt, as are the towns and cities themselves. Roads are pot holed and the list of short-comings goes on as it appears town planners and town planning has no role or solutions.

Paradoxically the urban population has risen significantly. Under the circumstances, the logical strategies for government’s economic planners are twofold: investment to create jobs and urban decongestion. With luck Rio-Zim’s exciting Joint-Venture projects in Sengwe, where a coal mine may be opened to produce around three million tonnes of coal per year, creating some 500 jobs, and a 700MW power station built for around half a billion dollars to be fired by the Sengwe coal, creating a thousand more jobs, may have caught the Local Government, Public Works and National Housing ministry’s attention.

The 1 500 mining and thermal power generating jobs created are likely to generate a further downstream 1 000 formal jobs in the civil service, a local authority, police, shops, clinics, schools, some service industries and the like. An additional 500 jobs in the informal sector, the oldest profession included, may not be an unreasonable estimate. This kind of investment may call for a new town of some 3 000 quality housing units and a total population of some 10 000 residents. Apart from the houses, and servicing (sewage works, water systems, roads and an electrical grid), schools, shopping malls, clinics, and other communal facilities have to be provided as well.

The Ministry of National Housing should be regarding this project as its highest priority, and not Harare and Bulawayo housing projects even though they may have been mentioned in the ZimAsset document. Some $150 million dollars should provisionally be set aside for a modern small town and its suburbia. The same would apply to extending Norton in the event that the Russian investment of up to $4bn in platinum mining and refining progresses to fruition on schedule.

These and other similar projects deserve support from the Ministry of National Housing if feasible. They create new tax bases, employment, exports and import substitution. They earn their keep. Residents should be able to afford their own housing and pay rates to their local authority in exchange for quality well-funded service delivery.

Lastly, but by no means least, increasing and upgrading degraded and inadequate urban infrastructure in existing towns should take precedence over adding more suburbs. Urban repairs and renewals, including the revamping of toxic transport systems, are in urgent need of the parent Ministry’s attention and funding.

●Tapiwa Nyandoro can be contacted on [email protected] or [email protected]