(This Column first appeared in The Herald on 7 June 2013)
|Article in the Herald – 4 June 2013
For a Saturday morning, things were going pretty much as they usually do. My daughter’s under 10 hockey match at 8:30, a quick croissant and coffee in Parliament Street, then dashing through to Charlo or Lorraine or Summerstrand or wherever ever the birthday party/play date/guitar lessons were on that particular day. To be honest I can’t remember where I was on my way to, but I do remember a mild throbbing in my head recalling a particularly tasty Friday evening Merlot and I do remember that I drove past the site that Continental Tyres has been trying to rezone for the last two years. The land lies there, fallow, windswept and bare, offering no benefit, no opportunity and no hope. That’s probably why I hardly noticed it and why I certainly did not think of it at all again until I read Mandla Madwara speaking about it in the Herald this week.
Mandla was eloquently complaining that we can’t afford a city where, routine procedures like rezoning get caught up in red tape for such a long time that even the biggest and most well-resourced corporations become exhausted and frustrated to the point of moving their money elsewhere. My concern about this issue though is not so much about the “how” of the rezoning process, but about the “why”. I mean, why are we as a city bothering with ”zoning” at all? Don’t get me wrong. I am all for legislated building regulations that protect us from fires, shoddy construction and stairs that are too steep. I am all for environmental legislation that stops us from building flats over the swamp where the rare three toed frog lives. I am all for Heritage legislation, that stops us knocking down a quaint settler cottage to build a Seven Eleven. What I specifically question in this discussion is the reason for the existence of municipal town planning controls.
But what are town planning controls? Quite simply, they are a set of “rules” that the city makes up to tell you what they think you can and cannot do on the land that you bought and paid for. They are rules that tell you that the municipality would prefer, for example, that you pray there, but don’t sleep there, or that ten families may live there, but not eleven. They are rules that tell the shop owner that they are to provide 6 parking bays for their customers when he knows his business customers only need four. Other rules say that you may build two storeys, but not three, or ten meters from your boundary, but not nine. When your idea for what you want to build on your property is different to what the Town Planning controls permit, you have to prepare what is commonly called a “re-zoning” application. It is this application that Continental Tyres has still not got approval for after two years of waiting.
What I am asking myself is: “What would our world look like without Town Planning controls?” Would the resulting city be so intolerable that it would have less economic development? Would such a city create less jobs than the zoned city? Would a city without town planning controls be uglier?
There is of course no way of knowing for sure, but we can get clues from those parts of towns and cities around the world that were built before our contemporary obsession with town planning controls. I have made it a point to visit these places. I find them exciting, vibrant and viable. The best parts of Amsterdam, Mombasa, London, Shanghai, Antananarivo, Buenos-Aires and Stone Town, were all built in an era before anybody dreamed up the idea of “zoning”, “coverage” or “building lines”. In spite of the traffic jams and other minor inconveniences, these are some of the best places in the world to be. If we have developed our municipal town planning controls to prevent our cities becoming like those places, then I think our energy has been grossly misplaced.
It is actually surprisingly hard to find, in any of the Municipality’s documents any meaningful explanation as to why we need town planning controls at all. Heritage legislation explains that its reason for existence is to protect old stuff. Environment legislation explains that it exists to promote biodiversity and other such good things. The National Building Regulations explain that they are there to ensure safe and healthy buildings. But, the closest I can get to a justification for town planning controls is that they promote “order”.
“Order” seems to me to be the opposite of “freedom”. PW Botha used the word “order” a lot to justify his actions in the eighties. I remember the old UPE using the word “order” to justify why its student dress code required men to where pale safari suites with the socks rolled down at the knee. “Order” to me speaks about entrenching the status quo. “Order” speaks to me about making it difficult for a new entrant to the property market to use their property in such a way as to allow them to compete with the old guard.
So, I say to the city fathers: Stop meddling with our freedoms! Trust us. Trust the economy to create the balance. Trust the legislation to guarantee the non-negotiables. Release the landowners of this city to boost the economy, create jobs and stimulate a vibrant and integrated urban experience.
There is no reason to fear!