Several major roads and residential areas in Harare have been disfigured in recent years by a spate of second-hand car dealers just using open land for sales points after putting up fences and small sales offices.
Many who live in the affected areas have been complaining loudly and volubly. Those who know anything about town planning procedures are aware that before land use is changed there have to be public advertisements and the near neighbours of the affected area or stand have to be specifically asked if they object.
In any case changing the land use of public open space in a residential area, or adjoining a residential area, needs a far more thorough process since it is a far greater change than, for example, allowing an accountant to change a house into an office, which does not really affect the neighbours. And when that change involves something as disfiguring and invasive as a second-hand car dealer the standards are even higher.
We thus cannot see how dozens of car sales could be allowed along a main road running through a residential area without major changes to the local plan for that area, a process that is expensive and time-consuming simply because the effects are so large.
This does not mean that there are no suitable areas for second-hand car dealers. The wasteland to the east of the Central Business District could well be deemed, after proper planning procedures were followed, as suitable for the temporary use, perhaps on one year leases, for car dealers.
When it was required for something better or more permanent the leases would be allowed to expire. There are other areas adjoining industrial sites where similar temporary planning changes would be acceptable, such as the northern edge of Coventry Road.
All this explains why, out of 200 dealers, only one was the result of a proper planning process. Many of the others have pieces of Harare City Council paper, it is said, but if so these "permits" were issued without the necessary planning procedures, laid down in an Act of Parliament, being followed and are therefore invalid. The council's own procedures require that these planning changes and rent of municipal land, have to go through the appropriate committee and the intention to rent council land has to be publicly advertised. This was not done, again invalidating any "permit".
So the city council is more than justified in launching a thorough investigation into the whole mess. To aid that investigation it has been wholesale in suspensions, sending 27 staff -- not 45 as previously reported -- in the city and estate management department home for 30 days.
The Zimbabwe Urban Councils Workers Union is horrified at this mass suspension, pointing out, correctly, that formal charges on the basis of some initial evidence of wrongdoing by a specified person have yet to be made. The innocent and the potentially guilty are being treated alike.
But the council appears to have taken that into account. All 27 have been suspended with full pay and benefits, so the innocent do not suffer in any way. The council knows that it is highly likely that some staff in that department are guilty of anything from negligence, in not informing their superior what was happening, up to serious corruption.
The council just does not know who and wants to find out; in these cases a quick way is to send everyone home and then go through the records left behind and start questioning everyone. At the end of the 30 days suspension the investigators, if competent, should have a good idea of who is innocent, who could be guilty and if so guilty of what. At that stage formal clearances or formal disciplinary charges must be laid and if necessary the police given any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. It is a valid way of investigating.
If the 27 had been suspended without pay it would have breached natural justice. The union cannot complain at this stage. So the council is now doing its job with this burst of activity, closing down and demolishing car sales that have not been properly approved under the law and going through a spectacular investigation into why almost 200 businesses were established on council land without such legal processes.
But that does not exonerate the council for its total lack of activity while all these car sales were being established over the last three years. If the council had clamped down on the first few the whole mess would never have arisen.
It took Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo to initiate the frenzy of activity that is now consuming the council. While he was justified in taking action, to order the council to do its job, we cannot understand why the council itself did nothing for so long. Perhaps the council would care to widen its investigation to get the answer to that question as well.
And as planning staff are cleared the council should put them to work looking for suitable areas that could be leased by car dealers. They obviously fill a demand that the dealers on private land in proper commercial areas cannot cope with, but the required land does not have to degrade the life of neighbours.
Cars are not bought on impulse, so there is no need to line major roads with such businesses. If there is an area of future industrial land available, then that might be suitable for a collection of such dealers until the economy improves and the land is required for factories and the like.