The demolition of a new housing estate in Melfort, few kilometres east of the flourishing new town of Ruwa, highlights so many of the problems of unplanned urban development and the desperate need to take action and for those who buy in to think a lot more seriously before they hand over their money.
Praying that someone will step in to “regularise” an illegal settlement is a far-fetched option when we are sinking our life savings into building a home, so buyers have to beware as well as the authorities taking action. The facts are there, confirmed in a court case. The new estate was set up by a private developer in 2018, but without all the permits and permissions required by law and the relevant local authority, the Goromonzi Rural District Council.
Even more devastating is the fact that the developer never put in basic services, such as water supply, sewers, which are needed for small plots, and a proper road network. And even then, the development would need connections to a mains water supply, a sewage treatment works and space left for future schools and other amenities.
Extending an older town is hard enough, but building a new town requires a lot of detailed planning and infrastructure and Melfort was little more than a railway siding, post office and a few stores when development started, so we were looking at starting basically from scratch. So any developer would have a lot of homework to do before the rural district council could start the process of permitting urban development for a new town. There is nothing wrong about private developers establishing new suburbs or new towns. Outside an inner ring of housing most of the middle-density and low density suburbs of Harare, for example, were developed by private landowners, and Ruwa is almost entirely a collection of private developments, growing dramatically from a small centre on the railway to a new major town.
But after the near disaster of Avondale in the early years of last century, when the farm owner just started cutting up the land, appropriate laws were put in place to ensure all future private urban development was done properly. This requires a lot of boxes to be ticked. The land has to be rezoned for urban development. Town planners have to be involved, and the basic local authority level infrastructure of bulk water supplies, sewage treatment and solid waste disposal has to be either available or ready to be put in place, with the financing arranged.
The developer then has to get an approved town plan, with wetlands reserved, the required slices of land set aside for education, health and recreation. And then money, serious money, has to be spent before the stands can be developed. Legally, all the required development approved by the planners and vetted by the local authority’s engineers has to be in place before anyone buys bricks and cement and has their housing plans approved.
Zesa has to be involved to have its network ready, with it clearly spelt out whether the developer or the future stand owners pay the connection costs.
Farm land, even if privately owned, is cheap and the land value of a small plot is minute. What converts a cheap cow pasture to pricey building stands is precisely the cost of all that infrastructure and the servicing. Private developers put on a mark-up, while councils and other public developers look at just cost recovery, but tend to make their serious profit, unless they can charge a huge land premium for location like a Borrowdale developer, from establishing a proper commercial zone in their approved plans.
Just drawing boxes on a map, hammering in pegs and declaring these are building stands and then selling them as such without that initial servicing and making sure the local council can connect the services to the bulk infrastructure, is not only wrong, but cheating the people who move in later.
The mess of the later years of the First Republic and its tolerance of land barons created a culture whereby the barons, inadequate developers and, regrettably, those who paid for stands reckoned that everything could be “regularised” later as someone knew important politicians in central Government or the local council.
In some cases this is just possible. There is a swathe of failed co-operatives, for example, that did have proper plans and development permits. The development and servicing was often not done, but so long as the stand owners are prepared to pay for the required servicing, the new suburbs can be brought into line since the approved planning and bulk infrastructure exists, even if that infrastructure still needs to be connected to the stands. But in many cases this is not possible. And Goromonzi Rural District Council has made that clear from the beginning.
The council even brought in the Ministry of National Housing and Social Amenities and the ministry quickly found that none of the legal boxes were ticked and the settlement could not be regularised. The developer was told to stop. That was ignored. The council was involved in a court action and six months ago this finally reached the top of the list and the courts found that the whole development was illegal and improper. And there is no way that the Government is going to defy a court order or be a party to that defiance.
Goromonzi Rural District Council, controlling the eastern boundary of Harare Metropolitan, is desperate not to have to cope with a ring of urban slums, especially, as the case of Ruwa shows, it is quite happy to see proper and planned development and then chop the new towns from its jurisdiction. The Melfort plot owners can be helped, but only to minimise their losses. They need to sue their developer to get their money back, and anything else they spent as a result of promises that turned out to be false. They will lose some money, for taking a chance, but the developer needs to take the biggest knock. He made the profit, now he must bear the losses.
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