Buildings, Jobs and the Red-Tape Epidemic

(This Piece first appeared in The Herald on 10 February 2023)

I’ve been working for some hours at home today. I am not sick or being lazy or even seeking peace away from the city. Instead I am here because loadshedding happens at my home office at different times to my “city office”. So I plan my travel in to town to synchronize with when there will be power there. I am sure others have many of their own stories to tell of their strategies in coping with the almost impossible reality of running a small business at this time.

What I want to talk about today though has only partly to do with loadshedding. I want to discuss the growing realisation that we have a huge oversupply of unnecessary red tape in this country. There is a slowly emerging acknowledgement that red-tape has played and continues to play a significant role in perpetuating South Africa’s 15 year old electricity crisis. While the causes of the rolling blackouts we experience today in South Africa are numerous (and largely criminal), I am made to be slightly hopeful by the President’s recent acknowledgement of the role that excessive red tape has played in causing and exacerbating this crisis.

My knowledge of electricity generation, Eskom and state capture is very limited. What I do know quite a bit about though is land and buildings. It is in this part of the economy where you will find red-tape galore. Red-tape, though, has devastated the property development sector in a different way, perhaps in even a more vicious way, than it has devastated electricity generation. I say this exactly because the devastation in this sector is very difficult to measure and so therefor very difficultly for journalists to write about or for presidents to make speeches about. When excessive red-tape has caused load shedding, the physical evidence is there; plain and obvious. The lights go off! The Wi-Fi stops working. Farm animals die cruel deaths and fast food outlets stop serving meals.

But the devastation in the construction and property industry is invisible. We cannot see a block of flats that has not been built. We cannot visit a clinic that has not been opened. We cannot attend classes in a school building that has remained un-built because of departmental delays and inter-governmental haggling about budget cycles and whether or not the Auditor General may have this to say or that to say about the manoeuvres that were carried out to avoid the red tape in order to get things done!

No huge billboard goes up on a vacant site that says “There would have been a nice Hotel here right now if the Municipal Planners (or Provincial Heritage Authority or The Environmental Approval Process) had not dragged on for ten years causing the investor to loose heart and go somewhere else” No. There is nothing as dramatic as the lights going off, just the silent closure of long running construction companies; just the gaunt look on the faces of skilled artisans, now jobless at the side of the road.

But what of the red tape? Why is it there?  Who does it benefit? and … Is there anyone that is even vaguely interested in removing any of it?

Of course there must be some order and where there is order there must be a process. There must be some red tape. In the property sector we need to have enough order and enough process to be sure you know what land you own and what you don’t own. The basic rules though are not a problem. The problem that we have faced over the years since we have first started building cities and towns in this country, is that every time some rich connected aunty is un-happy with something in her street she makes it her life’s work to get legislation, or zoning, or by-laws in place that will make things more comfortable for her already privileged self. Eventually over the years no property can be developed without a huge amount of planning control governing how high, how wide, how long a building may be and what you may and may not do in the building (if it is ever built). Of course with every new rule, comes and new application process. Red tape builds up over the years. Every time a new rule is invented, a new application process is dreamed up and a new army of junior officials are employed to mindlessly “process” the applications with a glazed over “I’m just doing my job” look on their face.

Slowing the economy down like this is a rude irritation for those who live in first world cities and towns, but to the voiceless 42,8% of the Eastern Cape population that is  ravaged by unemployment, this state of affairs can only be understood as unforgivable, genocidal neglect.

But; it has taken a very long time to build up this complicated and unnecessary amount of property red tape. I am not saying it must be made to go away in a day. In fact, all I am calling for is that our city’s leadership, our Mayor, take the lead from our president and at least acknowledge that we have a red-tape epidemic in our own Metro. From this clear leadership, plans can begin to fall in place to remove all but the most essential limitations on those driven to create jobs and opportunities by building buildings with their own money on their own land.

Is this too much to ask?

Has the time come for us to start re-ruralising?

Nope, I don’t have any answers, but I do find it entertaining to talk about things that interest me.

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 16 June 2022)

It’s a grey and dreary winter’s day. My thoughts go to Youth Day as I drive down Buffelsfontein road toward my regular Walmer coffee spot. My mind dwells on the sad truth that the passenger seats in my car are all empty. My children have now grown and left this town for a brighter future. No youth in my car this youth day.

Buffelsfontein Road standpipes

My gloomy sadness is interrupted though, by an unfamiliar sight by the side of the road. A makeshift water station on the verge with a number of emergency taps on light blue plastic standpipes. Our answer to “Day Zero,” I am told, has been to drill boreholes in strategic spots and allow people to fill containers of water enough to drink and cook and clean with. Later, over coffee, I can’t help but think, that if ever there was a monument built to mark the failure of government in this town of ours, then these blue standpipes are it. No political argument, no beaming Politian’s picture in the press or free pop concert for the masses can argue away these pipes. They are there standing boldly as monumental evidence of our inability to manage the affairs of this city region. The unavoidable truth is that government is failing at the most basic and fundamental level. Running water and flushing toilets are not rocket science. Running water is the most fundamental and non-negotiable starting point of what we have come to expect from urban living.

I am sorry to tell you though that I really don’t have any answer to the water problem. I’m simply using this very visible failure as an excuse to talk about a question that’s interesting to me right now:

Is it not time we begin to re-ruralise?

Is it not time that we accept that our current system, just does not have what it takes to effectively manage towns and cities? I mean, have you driven down the main road in Humansdorp lately? It’s one continuous pothole. Makhanda has had water problems for years. Mthata is chaos!!

Is it corruption? Is it white monopoly capital? Is it the construction mafia? Is it lazy officials who earn fat salaries but don’t deliver? I’m not interested in those questions right now. I am interested rather to zoom out a bit and consider the slightly larger question of why it is that we, as a civilisation, have decided to build cities and towns in the first place and whether the conditions that seemed to make cities and towns a good idea way back then, still prevail.

I can completely understand why the first towns and cities must have sprung up all those thousands of years ago in Iraq and elsewhere. Back then it was so much easier to get all the cool stuff you needed by living in a city like Eridu. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were all right there. By contrast, your rural cousin had to figure out how to make what ever cool stuff he wanted all by himself. Living in the countryside was a ball ache!

With time, through the growth of civilisation, the industrial revolution and right up to the 21st century, cities became increasingly sexy. The city meant, running water and electricity. It meant education for your kids. It meant music and entertainment. It meant fun church and religious activities. It meant access to more potential romantic partners. It meant access to better health care. City living though (for all but the very rich) came at a huge price. City dwellers contend with crime, bad food, air pollution, overcrowding and worst of all; jobs to pay for all these conveniences and cool stuff. But perhaps the biggest price we paid was the loss of our connection with the land, the fresh smell of rain on the soil and the feeling of being part of the glorious living organism that is our mysterious planet.

What I see lately though is a glimmer of an exciting shift brought about by rapidly advancing technology. A discernible adjustment in focus from urban to rural. Thanks to solar and battery technology, we no longer need to live in a city to run a fridge or computer. Thanks to cheap electric pumps and plastic piping, rural homes can have running water and flush toilets. Very soon, even remote rural areas will have super-fast satellite internet. This will give rural people access to the highest quality education through apps like Udemy, the highest quality preaching for the religious-mined though apps like YouTube. It will give access to a huge pool of potential romantic partners through Tinder and Instagram. Sure, living in the city will still give you somethings that you just don’t get in the country, but I am open to the idea that the scales will begin to tip. As city living becomes increasingly less bearable, as we are no longer able to shower or water our tomato plant and as rural living becomes slightly less tedious, we make be shocked to see a landslide of people beginning to Re-ruralise. Of course, this trend will begin with the rich, but as we have seen with all technological change, these trends spread very, very fast to the poor. (Remember how cell phones were first just for millionaires and rock stars?)

I am very excited to see all this unfold in the very near future. Are you excited too?

“Less is More”

(This Piece first appeared in The Herald in Nelson Mandela Bay on 3 November 2021)

It’s a blustery voting day in Nelson Mandela Bay as I sit to write this morning. I’ve not yet voted but did check out the length of the queue at the Walmer Town hall on my way back from gym. The crowd will probably die down a bit later and I’ll pop in then as a physical expression of gratitude that I live in a functioning (if imperfect) constitutional democracy. I must be completely honest though; it is not all easy for me to decide who to vote for. When I peer into the faces on the lamp pole posters of those that are asking us to make them mayor, I am not at all convinced that any one of them has even the foggiest idea of what needs to be done to address the physical and spatial challenges that stand in the way of Nelson Mandela Bay becoming a world beating city. (I am not judging them either. They have had to spend their entire careers doing the things people need to do to rise in political life. What time could they possible have had to ponder on the shape and form of the city?) But really, I am not at all convinced that any of the hopefuls even have a remote grasp of the mechanisms of local government that cause a city, (any city) to take on the shape and form that is does. The shape and form of Venice or Stone Town or Rio or Havana is not accidental. The shape and form of these beautiful cities are the result of layers upon layers of human decisions taken by leaders over decades and centuries. Where cities have become good places to work or visit or raise children, they have become so because of the decisions that successive leaders in these cities have made. While this statement of fact is entirely beyond dispute, we find that the political campaigning that has preceded the 1 November vote is almost completely devoid of any discussion around the physical shape and form that we would like our city to take. What is their vision for our spectacular beachfront? What is their vision for Njoli Square? What is their vision for Schauderville Korsten? Will they build the International Convention Centre that has been promised for so long? Well, its too late of course to ask these questions. By the time you read this, the election is all over and we are well on our way to the first meeting of the new council. So perhaps rather I should offer a few words of advice to the incoming mayor and the incoming council.

So then, here is my simple advice: “Less is more”. Yes, that’s right. “Less” is what you should be aiming for, not “More”. It was the famous German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that first popularized this slogan among designers around the world in the 1950’s. But the truth is that the wisdom of this aphorism goes way, way back. Even in the time of the great Lao Tzu, the concept of Wu Wei became mainstream in China, where great leaders came to see the power of “non-doing”. Today we see this thinking spread on Instagram and Netflix by the followers of Marie Kondo, that encourage homemakers to discard everything from their living spaces that does not “spark joy”. But what can this great and ancient wisdom of “Less is More” mean to you as a new installed mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay? Well, it could mean many things, but I would urge you to see it simply as “Less Projects” and “Less Rules” is “More Progress” and “More Prosperity”.

Let me talk first about “Less Projects”. In my time in business in this town since the early 1990’s, I have seen Metro mayors try and fail to get a number of grand projects off the ground. I can mention Bayworld, The Statue of Freedom, The International Convention Centre, The Schauderville Korsten Urban Renewal and the Njoli Square Development. My advice…. Pick one!! Yes of course don’t forget about the routine stuff like fixing potholes and keeping the taps working, but when it comes to novel, game changing projects that will take our city region to the next level, pick one and run with it! When you are done, pick another one. Drive the project at the highest level. Yes, you are Mayor drive it yourself! Don’t think that paradigm changing projects can be delegated down into the deep ranks of the various departmental silos. We have tried this. It does not work.

Secondly, please. Commit yourself to “less rules”. Our metro and others around the country are struggling to administer the various applications that are made to Council to be given permission to vary from one or other rule that impacts on what private property owners may do with their money on land that they own. My advice is that you get rid of all but the most essential rules. (and you will find that there are very few that are essential). You will be surprised to see how quickly the private sector responds and what construction boom will follow along with the thousands of jobs the government can simply not be expected to create.

That’s it. Follow this advice. Give it a try. Its free and it’s easy to do. Trust me; you will thank me when you are re-elected in four years’ time!

Please Subscribe to my regularlish email newsletter by clicking here.

Urban Agriculture Now!!

All over the world Urban Agriculture Projects, big and small, provide a critical lifeline, offering food security and small-scale business opportunities to those that may otherwise have become the burden of the tax payer.

May be an image of outdoors and text that says "AgriculituralAllmets Agricultural Allotments Industrial Developments AHIE Integration with potential industrial SMME development Durtan Road"

The Korsten Schauderville Urban Design Masterplan identified and measured the feasibility of a strategically located Urban Agriculture Project to the South of the N2 at the northern extreme of Durban Road. The local authority has the land. The funding required is minimal. Local local authority employs highly skilled (and highly paid) officials who have the capacity to deliver these (relatively simple projects) It’s is therefore curios and confusing to see that no progress at all has been made toward implementation. No apology offered….Nothing

Schauderville Korsten Urban Design Masterplan

When I first came to work on the Schauderville Korsten Urban Design Masterplan (for the MBDA) , I suppose I thought of it as a “local” or “neighborhood” intervention, but by the time we were done I came to understand that this crucial node has a substantial and significant commercial and civic role to play in the bright future of our city region.

No photo description available.

What interests me, is that while this consultative Urban Design process was carried out in 2015 already, it is still continually referred to in community discussions that focus on these issues. To be honest though, I am two minds about processes like these. On the one hand I can see how it is important that a community comes together and develops consensus about a picture of what they see for their urban future. On the other hand, I see how frustrating it is for people living in very difficult conditions to wait and wait and wait for any implementation to happen. So what do we do?

As an Architect and an Urban Designer, I am paid to do this work, but the community representatives who volunteer many hours and long nights (and their reputation in the community) are very often left asking “was it really worth it?” . They don’t see the projects being implemented. All they see are the disappointed faces of their neighbors as the pass them on the same derelict and dismal streets that were there before Tim and his team came to town.

I think though, if I was president of the world and could choose only one building to implement out of large collection of great projects that make up the Schauderville Korsten Urban Design Masterplan, then it would be the proposed Korsten Transport Mall (on Durban road, next to Mercantile Hospital) – Korsten is a key “intermodal zone” in the city region, but has almost no public capital infrastructure to support this essential function. Durban Road is almost always in a state of unmitigated chaos as a result of this failure to invest.

No photo description available.

So lets see! Maybe we are all just being impatient. These things perhaps just need a little more time.