Harare City Council was skating on very thin ice when it reallocated open public space, being used mistakenly or informally as roads, to housing stands in Glen Norah, just as it did when it tried to convert the greenways of Mabelreign to housing since the surrounding community has a moral right, and frequently a legal right, to be consulted.
Over the past couple of decades we have seen the council and among its planning officials to convert just about any open piece of land to residential, commercial or industrial stands regardless of what the original layouts set forth and regardless of what the land is actually zoned for. The original plans for Glen Norah set aside land for a variety of functions. The new stands are thus on land allocated for something else and have been made housing stands without any community input.
The general tendency of the council in recent years has seen our future parks and recreational facilities eliminated, wet lands damaged or destroyed and some very dubious land deals that certainly raise questions, and with the arrogance of totally ignoring the community, even to the extent of not bothering to tell them anything, the questions become ever more derogatory.
Town planning legislation is fairly strict, and one major strand in the whole process is the involvement of communities affected by each plan and change in plan to have their say, culminating in the legal requirement that changes in land use have to be advertised for objections with the immediate neighbours getting a formal letter and not just having to catch the advertisement in a newspaper circulating in their area.
Ignoring these requirements on the grounds that circumstances have changed, as has been argued in public by former and present councillors up to the level of mayor is fine, but then that requires a new local plan with input from those affected. Even modest changes need to follow a process that does involve neighbours having the right to object, even if objections can be overriden.
There are many examples where such changes have been fought because people heard about them in time. Ballantyne Park was slated for development, until the community managed to derail this. There is a long-standing legal dispute involving Borrowdale West. Greendale saw attempts to sell off parts of a wetland thwarted at least for the time being although developers have been nibbling at the edges for that wetland for some time.
We all remember the days when the full legal and moral changes in planning were actually done. The major development in Westgate, for example, initiated by Old Mutual was done properly. Old Mutual hired a professional planner to redraw the local plan for the northwest suburbs, submitted it and held discussions with council planners to make sure that nothing was missed.
The final draft was then opened for public discussion, particularly with the residents of the surrounding suburbs, and after their input the final version was promulgated. Most people around the area like the idea of major new amenity and the planners had done the necessary work on realigning roads and putting in traffic controls, including a large and expensive roundabout that the developer was expected to pay for. So when the builders moved in everything was agreed and there have been no insoluble problems.
The late Mr Sam Levy had more problems. He started with the top northwest corner of the old Highlands planning area, which did have commercial rights, but advanced into the Borrowdale planning area, without getting rezoning, and then put in an office park. He also neglected new roadworks and the extension of the main sewer line that would have been required had he submitted his proposals properly in advance.
But in the end little damage was done. Mr Levy, under threat of bulldozers, agreed to submit. He went through the necessary procedures of redrawing and seeking public approval for the local plan for south Borrowdale suburb, he conformed to city council requirements, he added the extra parking, he obtained the necessary rezoning of a lot of his land and he was able to legalise his new complex, a major commercial development that most in the area desired and others did not object to, so long as it was done properly.
Doing the procedures after the fact meant costs were higher, and there were problems of empty office blocks for several months losing him income, but the council in those days was prepared to both consider major developments but at the same time demanded that the planning rules and procedures were followed, or else the bulldozer engines would be started. But the point was that all the major development, new private suburbs, new industrial areas and the like were done properly, and old local plans were scrapped and replaced with new plans that allowed these major developments and ensured that the result did meet legal and practical considerations.
More recent councils, coming into office this century with a wave of MDC support, were far slacker and appear to have had many councillors prepared to bend at the very least the spirit of the planning process, and sometimes it is alleged the actual law. In any case a lot of the decisions are made without any attempt to seek public approval for zoning and other changes.
Town plans are not etched in eternal stone. Times change and whole new circumstances arise. The law recognises this, but lays down the procedures that allow these changes, procedures that ensure that communities are consulted and that professionals in planning, transport, construction and other fields are able to ensure that the new plans are workable and add value to the city, not create disaster.
What is happening now is different. Someone just draws lines on a map, hammers in some pegs and overrides any potential objection. The arrogance is appalling, sometimes illegal, and is smashing amenities that future generations will need as suburbs are upgraded.
Central Government has been forced to step into many areas that are granted to municipal authorities, grants that were made because in theory local government can micro-manage many planning issues properly and a major town or city will have professionals on the payroll. But when the local government does its job so badly, and exults in its arrogance, then the time has come for changes that at least allow auditing of changes, and probably an extra level of approval.
Converting public space and parks into stands, and seeing wetlands as development areas means that someone has to intervene and stop what is happening. Even the residents of the affected areas are calling for central Government intervention, despite the way most voted in the last few elections.
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