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Monday Mar 31, 2014

New head wants to overhaul Durban planning process

One of the most maligned departments in the eThekwini Municipality, and one of the most important for the city's development, has appointed a new head.

City Watch has great hopes that Musa Mbhele, former acting head and now head of the Development, Planning Environment & Management Unit, will turn around a growing culture of lawlessness in the building sector.

With the spectre of the Tongaat Mall deaths still fresh in readers' minds, and a pile of building-related complaints to City Watch that grows daily, it is high time for a new order.

Mbhele spoke to us of the challenges he faces, and his master plan for the unit, in a frank interview on Friday.

It would be difficult to find a man better qualified for this demanding position than Mbhele, but he will undoubtedly come under fire from many, as did his predecessor, Soobs Moonsammy, as he works to change outdated legislation and introduce a new culture of accountability.

Mbhele identified the following challenges:

1 The biggest slice of the budget goes to historically advantaged suburbs, where ratepayers are more aware of rules and their rights.

2 Many township residents don't care about the law, feel it doesn't benefit their aims or are ignorant of its implications.

3 Pressure from developers driven by a quest for profit which can override environmental and logistical concerns.

4 Inflexible, outdated legislation not allowing for adoption of best practice models.

5 Submission of plans for approval is costly and cumbersome.

6 Paltry fines and developers who routinely ignore them in favour of profits.

'The best suburbs aren't defined any longer by the race of their occupants, but homeowners now, as before, are well aware of legislation and will complain vociferously when things aren't done right, so it's small wonder a large chunk of my department's available resources is expended in these areas,' said Mbhele.

'In townships, former 'dormitory' units that were only meant to accommodate migrant workers now have to house large families, so they are added on to and fail to meet any of the building criteria.

'Plans are never submitted and it is virtually impossible to ensure compliance. Residents in townships are also habituated to infringements of municipal by-laws, so they tend not to complain. This is a significant challenge for law enforcement. In addition, because it is so hard to regulate development, a huge chunk of potential rates is lost. In 2010 it was estimated that the country was losing R30 billion in rates. We definitely account for a sizeable portion of that.'

It was becoming more difficult to argue against massive developments that promise jobs and economic benefits.

'If a developer says he is going to invest R1.8 billion, then the environmentalists who argue there is a rare species of endemic butterfly breeding where they want to build the development, will struggle to make their voices heard.'

Mbhele said the media was right to criticise the proliferation of illegal buildings in Durban, but readers needed to understand their constraints.

'No matter how many resources we deploy, there is a growing tendency towards lawlessness. The escalation in this decline of moral and civic values is seen everywhere. Economic pressure might play a part in non-compliance, especially when it comes to people operating illegal businesses in residential areas, but it's certainly not the only factor.'

Officials study best practice models and want to incorporate them - including lessons learnt from how Brazil handles slums - but archaic laws need to be changed to empower officials to impose heftier fines and clamp down more effectively on lawbreakers.

'National Town Planning Ordinance dates to 1949, and amendments made in 1979 are outdated. It doesn't help to do proper enforcement when a developer will laugh and pay the R100-a-day fine for noncompliance, because he can earn millions by going ahead.

'The province does not have an enforcement mandate and we can't come up with legislation to override national legislation. Fortunately, though, as a metro we are liaising with other metros so that we can make strong representation to government to lift restrictions and allow us to become more effective in enforcing building and planning laws.'

He freely admitted that public perception of his department was less than rosy. 'It is a mammoth task we face but I am proud to head a team that is fully aware of its public service mandate and is working to make meaningful change.'

  • Let's be better neighbours

    Mbhele told City Watch he was in the process of forming a new division within his unit to handle particularly stubborn problems, and liaise directly with City Watch and other watchdogs.

    'It will be a dedicated line of communication to the public, headed by a dynamic individual with excellent communications skills. The project has the full backing of the city manager and I am drawing up a job description, after which we will start screening potential candidates.'

    Other plans being set in motion include all-inclusive planning sessions between service departments, with a master plan that has the support of all city departments. 'It will direct where we are going in terms of development, and provide clear guidance on what can and can't be done. We will engage actively in dialogue (about) the co-ordinated development of our city.'

    Significantly, Mbhele's department will be lobbying for amendments to national building legislation, and ways of making it cheaper and simpler to get plans approved.

    He will also be adopting a proactive stance towards increasing media visibility and partnerships, and engaging with civic bodies such as the Phoenix Residents Association and Save Our Berea, he said.

    'While we don't want to duplicate municipal structures or the efforts of ward councillors, we will be available for public engagement aimed at getting to grips with what people want to see changing for the better in their neighbourhoods.'

    City Watch
    Sunday Tribune

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