Zimbabwe: Housing Menace Should End Forthwith

16 November 2020

The land grabbing, illegal allocations and sale of stands by land barons, corrupt councillors and officials aiding the land barons, or acting on their own behalf all end up in a house in the wrong place on land belonging to someone else, or zoned for something else.

So when we talk about unplanned settlements, illegal sales of land, corrupt disregard of town planning rules and the like, and the need to demolish, we have a human element. But, increasingly, calling the people who pay land barons "victims" is becoming more inaccurate.

To an ever-growing degree these home seekers are accomplices, even more aware of the risks they run and generally hopeful that either the land baron will "fix" the problem or the Government will step in to rescue them. National Housing and Social Amenities Minister Daniel Garwe outlined last week one major problem.

As the illegal and unplanned settlements started sprouting on public land without roads, sewers or water connections, largely as a result of land barons taking over failed cooperatives or cooperative leaders deciding to enrich themselves, the Government was faced with two problems.

Yes, there was unacceptable development, but there was also people who had largely been acting in good faith when they started building, taking the word of the con artists who "sold" them the stand that "everything was fine".

So the initial reaction was to see if it was possible to regularise the settlements with minimum demolitions.

Unfortunately, as the Minister noted, this was just a licence for land barons to tell those they were conning that they should not worry as the Government would fix everything later.

And it is at this point that those being conned also started being accomplices: they now knew that at the very least they should be suspicious and make some checks and that they were taking a serious risk in continuing to build.

The regularisation policy was not designed as a permanent policy. It was designed to start sorting out some of the mess the present administration inherited, largely as a result of the growing corruption and the culture of corruption that had arisen.

In other words, the idea was to draw a line under what had happened, see what could be done, without any guarantees mind you, to minimise the damage and to stop the practice.

The law is very clear on urban settlement and development. All new settlements, suburbs and sections of suburbs must have an approved layout plan, and such a plan has to indicate not just where the stands go, but where the roads go and where the servitudes for the sewers, water pipes and electricity mains are.

In addition, land has to be set aside, and the percentages are fixed by law, for schools and recreation.

There are also environmental concerns concerning wetlands and the like, although even in the old days vleis were set aside since you could not build on them until they were drained or until the new technologies of the reinforced slab were developed.

But there is nothing wrong with developers assigning ecological sensitive areas as the recreation zones; this is why almost all golf courses have a stream or streams running through them and even why some school and sports club playing fields are on land unfit for cheap building.

Such layout plans are compulsory for both private and public developers. And where the development is large, then a new local area plan, that fits into the master plan, is also required.

Even when layouts are approved by town planning officials and councils, and so title deeds, those critical documents that give security, can be prepared, there are a new set of laws and regulations before you can build.

All building plans have to be approved by the local urban authority. If you use an architect or registered contractor this is almost automatic, as an expert is talking to an expert.

If you are building yourself it is still not very difficult, but you have to obey all the bits in the Model Building By-laws, most of which are common sense. In any case a modest new sector has arisen where draughts people who know the law sell quite cheaply previously approved plans that can just be submitted for a quick check and attached to a particular stand.

Anyone following these rules, however, they bought or were allocated a stand, will quickly find out that this stand neither physically exists in the records, or is on land that is zoned for other purposes.

Of course there are councillors and municipal officials who are corrupt, but even in these cases insisting on the title deed, or if you are buying on terms seeing the title deed, seems a sensible precaution. Legally you cannot sell land you do not own. So many of those being conned are also aware that corners are being cut.

Urban councils are partially to blame. Council officials in the course of their normal duties do see these new settlements, and they should be checking, especially if there are no obvious services like the roads and the trenches for sewers and pipes. This can get the problem solved before it is a problem.

Where the Government can help those who have bought into dubious schemes is to accelerate the criminal investigations into corrupt behaviour and ensure that civil orders are made by courts for the land barons to pay damages to those they conned.

Class actions by those who have been conned is another direct route that can be explored, and some of those groups of human rights lawyers might care to think about get at least a suitable precedent established so that subsequent suits can be swift and cheap.

Those thinking about "buying into" dubious schemes not only have to think about the risks. They also need to seriously consider if they want to live in a new "Epworth", an unplanned settlement that was allowed to continue and where regularisation is proving such a burden, even more than three decades after new settlement was stopped.

When you compare Epworth to planned suburbs, even where the first houses were core houses or even just a toilet as in Glen View, you can see the dramatic difference within a few years. Proper town planning, title deeds and approved building plans do matter a great deal. Anyone can see this for the price of a bus ticket.

There are plenty of ways groups of people can get together and work out new development legally, cutting out the developers' profits or profiteering. Housing associations, for example, are responsible for a significant block of British new housing.

Again a suitable NGO or a Government department could put together a model that takes into account the need to guard against corruption and the like.

And Government needs to accelerate the plans it is already drawing up to develop public lands properly and start cleaning up the waiting lists, with their unborn babies of corrupt officials and ghost applicants, and then enforce rigorously fair rules of allocation. None of this is innovative. It just needs active and honest officials.

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