How to make planning law work for Africa

The following is an excerpt from a publication entitled How to make planning law work for Africa, authored by Stephen Berrisford of the African Centre for Cities and published by Africa Research Institute.

As competition for land intensifies in Africa's rapidly growing towns and cities, planning laws assume a fundamental importance. They determine how urban growth is managed and directed. In most countries outdated, inappropriate, and unintegrated laws are exacerbating urban dysfunction.

The reform of planning law is frequently advocated as a necessary step for better management of urbanisation in Africa. But reform initiatives consistently founder. This is inevitable, given the approaches adopted. The promotion of "one-size-fits-all" and "model" planning laws from outside the continent has not served Africa well. Invariably it has created further legal uncertainty and a series of unanticipated, often pernicious consequences.

This Counterpoint argues that more progressive, realistic urban planning in Africa will require a radically different approach to planning law reform. This is essential for sustainable and equitable urban development in Africa.

National and local laws, collectively referred to as planning law, play a central role in shaping the economic, social and political life of towns and cities. They regulate land use and land development, provide a sound basis for infrastructure planning, secure the rights of investors, protect environmental resources and mitigate environmental risks. Crucially, planning law determines which buildings are legal and which are not.

Planning law has a poor record in Africa. Legislation designed to protect the public from the negative aspects of urban land development has all too often been used by the state to enhance the value of land owned by the wealthy - and to penalise and intimidate the disadvantaged. Laws to protect public spaces and facilities that enhance civic life are seldom implemented as intended. In a context of insecure and unpredictable land rights, planning law is a major fault line running through society.

Planning law is meant to reflect and assert the public interest. This is not the reality in Africa. Land use is largely unregulated. Integrated infrastructure planning is rare. Private rights and interests are not mediated by a comprehensive legal framework. Instead, dire living conditions, diabolical traffic jams, neglected infrastructure and dangerous public spaces are the norm. Urban management is notoriously erratic and fragmented, and the overwhelming majority of buildings are constructed in contravention of planning laws. There are three principal indicators of failed planning law in urban centres:

  • The predominance of illegal structures. For the majority of Africa's urban dwellers the costs of complying with applicable planning, building and tenure laws are so out of kilter with their household incomes that legal compliance is unimaginable.
  • The use of planning and building laws against vulnerable groups. Sudden crackdowns resulting in demolitions or evictions are commonplace. One of the best-known examples is Operation Murambatsvina, or "Drive Out the Rubbish", carried out in Harare in 2005. The eviction of some 700,000 people in Zimbabwe's capital and demolition of their homes was justified on the basis of the 1976 Town and Country Planning Act.
  • Inviolate elites. Wealthy and powerful elites operate largely untroubled by planning laws. Any negative impacts on neighbours or the public interest are typically ignored. This culture of impunity has created the perception that there are two laws: one for the well-to-do and another for the rest.

Click here to read in full.

Africa Research Institute is a non-partisan think-tank based in London. Our primary objective is to influence policy through understanding and documenting best practice within government, the economy and society in sub-Saharan Africa. We seek to draw attention to ideas and initiatives that have worked and identify new ideas where needed.

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