The Dangers of Strongmen Town Planners in Africa

Power corrupt, absolute power corrupt absolutely.” The proposition that town planners across have been pushing forth however, is that of establishing strongmen town planners.

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“Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.”[1]The remarks by then President of the United States, Barack Obama on Africa is one that resonated with many across the continent. The remarks are hard to dispute on a continent where poor leadership by strongmen politicians has crippled economies across the continent. President Obama’s remarks also resonated well with that of British politician John Dalberg-Acton, “Power corrupt, absolute power corrupt absolutely.” The proposition that town planners across have been pushing forth however, is that of establishing strongmen town planners. It is a proposition that has many dangers worthy exploring.

The Cursed Office

Across Africa, town planning offices are some of the most contentious offices. As town planners are responsible for allocating scarce resource, urban land, it comes with the job that political interference and corruption are rife. The role of cities as the epicentre of political contestation in Africa has further worsened the vulnerability of town planning offices to political interference. Town planners always get their hands twisted by the political elites to skew the planning approval process in their favour even when the proposed development is against regulations.  What makes town planners vulnerable to political manipulation and corruption is that town planning practice across Africa is discretionary.

African cities are guided by a traditional use-based zoning ordinance—the Euclidean zoning which  focuses on separating land use types from to residential to industrial. This zoning does not specify the physical characteristics of allowed development; it is the discretion of the town planners to determine the details in the application approval process. The good side of this system is that it is flexible. The bad part is that it is a very inefficient, bureaucratic process that can create room for bad development. [2]

Planning instruments and statutes are guiding frameworks laying out what can be developed and where. Town planners, as a result, have some discretion in the decision making process on what to be approved and what not to be approved. This has also been popular in the application of mixed-use development which is being done through application for special consent.

Alternative to the planning system that has high degree of planner’s discretion is the form-based code. Form-base code gives detailed requirements for each development focusing on the form of buildings and design. In its prescriptive nature developers are certain of that is required and can get their developments approved seamlessly by simply following the code. There is less discretion on the side of the planners in the approval process. The advantages of form-based code is that it is very efficient in facilitating development process yet it has disadvantage of being rigid.[3]

On a continent where form-based code is not in practice and the Euclidean/traditional zoning is primary, the planning system given town planners so much discretion. Town planners are more vulnerable to corruption and political manipulation because of the discretion they have in the approval process.

To address this problem, town planners are advocating having more powers, more discretion. By calling for more discretionary powers in the planning process, town planners are seeking to create strongmen town planners rather than strong institutions where legislation is explicit in the approval process. Town planners may not be aware of what they calling for. Having more powers as town planners does not help in fighting corruption or political manipulation, instead it even worsens them. It is rather curious why African town planners are advocating for such when their offices are choking with corruption and political manipulation.

Unethical Interests

Creating strongmen town planners through empowering town planners with more discretionary powers is not in the best interest of cities. Discretionary powers are different from strong legislation that is explicit about any develop where the town planners only administer the legislation/ code without much discretion. Taking a closer look at the interests behind more discretionary powers are hidden unethical interests. Giving more discretionary powers to town planners in the approval process assures town planning regulators of job security. As ‘forward planning’ has been stagnant across Africa, development control has become the cornerstone of the planning profession. The development approval process has become the primary source of job security for the profession. While it creates bureaucratic red tapes that slows the solving of major urban challenges across Africa such as housing, more discretionary powers seems good for a profession in stagnation.

The lack of clarity among developers regarding the specific planning requirements and the discretion given to town planning regulators has become a breeding ground for brown envelopes.  In cities where planning corruption is so rampant, developers are compelled to put weighty brown envelopes on top of their town planning applications unless they want their applications to be “blown away by the wind” and have to resubmit endlessly.

The Power of Obscurity

Across Africa, most cities are grappling with outdated planning legislation, a well acknowledged situation.[4] Legislations as old as 1910 enacted during the colonial era still dominate the town planning profession. Lack of political will and financial incapacity are the two factors that are accused of causing the outdatedness. The outdatedness of legislations is regarded to work in the best interest of political elites as it protects the status quo—their interests. The high cost of conducting planning law reforms is regarded a hindrance to the updating of planning legislation. To stop with these two factors is to risk creating a two-legged chair, however.

Town planning has matured as a profession across the continent. Now, town planners exist who occupy positions powerful enough to influence political elites towards planning law reforms. In some countries, several town planners are actually political elites. Several policy windows opened over the decades that are in favour of planning legislation updating; cholera outbreaks, slum demolitions, the Covid-19 pandemic. Town planners (including those in positions of political influence) have not made the concerted efforts towards legislation reforms.  It is rather curious.

Outdated town planning legislation, as bad as they are, they are appealing to some town planners. They bring with them a great depth of obscurity. Town planners who work in the approval of development applications have become so accustomed to the old legislation. They know their way around the legislation like no other. Such status quo enables them to play a double role that of a regulator and a consultant. As unethical as it is for a town planning regulator to do a consultancy work he then approves, it is the order of the day in most cities across Africa. “We are the ones who approve the plans, so it is better if you do it with us.” This is the common marketing phrase used by town planners in regulatory positions to attract clients for consultancy. In countries with effective town planning professional bodies, such unethical practice is uncommon. They are the countries that have also progressed significantly in bringing their legislations up to date.

Moving Ahead

The town planning profession has been complaining in that it is sidelined in the built environment, it is treated as an underdog. Policymakers are not valuing town planners enough even as human settlements prove to be in desperate need of town planners. The dissonance is bewildering to some planners. Some of the reasons town planning profession has been losing value across Africa is out of self-sabotage as a profession. Beyond the blame game that planners prefer to do, they are also responsible for their decline. The efforts to create strongmen town planners through calling for more discretionary powers and keeping planning legislations outdated creates an impression of town planners as gatekeepers against development. It seems planners have lost their facilitatory role in the way.

There are opportunities to reform for town planners however, a reform that leads to efficient planning of anchored on strong institutions and ethical practices. For the discretionary system to be successful at delivering sustainable, prosperous and equitable cities, town planners need to abide by very strong ethical and professional standards that can only administered by very effective professional bodies of accreditation. Such bodies have not been effective across the continent and in most countries such professional bodies do not exist. It calls for town planners to strengthen the value they provide to the society to assert their value.

Cities across Africa are beginning to make reforms towards efficiency nonetheless. In 2018, the City of Johannesburg proposed adopting the form-based code to town planning. While the adoption is still a pilot that is yet to be assessed for possible scaling, it is a positive direction which assures of certainty and efficiency in the development process. Cities have also been  making reforms under the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business as they seek to improve an enabling environment for development. This reform is improving efficiency in the planning approval process streamlining planning with development prospects. Reforms towards adoption of form-based code may face resistance nevertheless. Interestingly, large cities in South Africa are the ones whose planning frameworks are stronger than the town planners. Cities with the weakest frameworks are the once at the forefront of advocating for strongmen town planners. Form-based code harms the interest of town planners who have been benefiting from the old legislation system. It makes some town planners in the planning approval process redundant (even through it opens more personnel for planners to focus on ‘forward planning’). The room for brown envelopes also shrinks, because once developers meet the requirements that the form-based code spell out with certainty, planning regulators have little discretion to abuse for their own ends. Form-based code is a better approach to improving ethical standards in the town planning profession.

[1] Address to the Ghanaian Parliament by then the President of United States Barack Obama at the International Conference Center in Accra, Ghana on 11 July 2009.

[2] It is worthy to note, the reason discretionary system was and is successful in England is because town planning is practiced by professionals of high moral regard. Their conduct is regulated by a professional body, The Royal Town Planning Institute which used to be also an accrediting body in former British colonies across Africa until the early years of postcolonial era.

[3] To learn more about form-based code zoning see Parolek et al, 2008 and Talen, 2013.

[4] See Berrisford and McAuslan, 2017; p. 9.

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