Future directions in urban policy

Future directions in urban policy

In the first ten years of democracy, urban policy in South Africa has been driven by national government in an attempt, inter alia, to accelerate the mass delivery of basic services at a local level. But, over the past five years the increasingly robust role and influence of cities in setting the urban agenda is, in effect, leading urban policy. 
 Dr Udesh Pillay
The development of most urban areas is influenced, to some degree, by the processes of urban policy and urban planning. Urban policy and planning are generally concerned with the management of urban areas. They are state activities that seek to influence the distribution and operation of investment and consumption processes in cities for the ‘common good'. 

The first ten years of democracy in South Africa has seen the creation of democratic, integrated and developmental local government; mass delivery of housing and services; a finely crafted array of capital and operating subsidies for delivery to low-income households; and a number of programmes intended to enhance the capacity of local government to undertake delivery. These have all been driven by a national perspective.

Government's urban policies 

A more recent agenda repeats the emphasis on delivery, with four potentially significant ‘urban policies' being promoted by the national government. These are the Presidency's 2003 National Spatial Development Perspective (NSDP), the Department of Housing's 2004 Breaking New Ground document, the Department of Provincial and Local Government's Local Economic Development Framework, and the pending, rewritten Urban Development Framework, whose location within the Presidency, the Department of Provincial and Local Government or elsewhere had, at the time of writing, still to be determined. Each of these policies is briefly described below. 

The NSDP provides an indicative guideline that will encourage creative interaction and co-ordination between departments and spheres of government about the nation's spatial priorities. Its main argument is that areas with ‘potential' or comparative advantage should be pinpointed, and thereafter receive priority in the allocation of resources. 

Breaking New Ground outlines a plan for the development of sustainable and integrated human settlements over the next five years. Embracing a people's contract, the delivery of housing is seen as a key strategy for poverty alleviation and job creation, creating assets, promoting social cohesion, and improving the quality of life for the poor. 

The Local Economic Development Framework attempts to develop and support robust and inclusive municipal economies through the active and dynamic alignment of the NSDP, Provincial Growth and Development Strategies (PGDs), and District/Metro Integrated Development Plans (IDPs). This recognises the desire for horizontal co-ordination among national government departments, as well as vertical co-ordination within the three spheres of government. 

The 2005 draft Urban Development Framework appears to be an attempt to propose and promote, through a deeper understanding of the policy issues at hand, a set of practical urban interventions, like the accelerated delivery of services, through a more co-ordinated approach. 

Agenda of the cities 

The counterpoint to the national perspective and frameworks is the agenda of the cities, especially those comprising the South Africa Cities Network (SACN). The SACN and its members (Buffalo City, Cape Town, Ekhuruleni, eThekwini, Johannesburg, Mangaung, Msunduzi, Nelson Mandela Metropole and Tshwane) have been playing an increasingly robust role in setting the urban agenda and, in effect, leading urban policy. Many points contribute to this view. 

First, the context for urban policy reflects a level of ambivalence within government regarding the preparation of new urban policies. Reportedly, it was following debate within Cabinet that the NSDP was termed a perspective and not a policy. Breaking New Ground is presented as an ‘amendment' or ‘enhancement' to existing policy. The LED policy was downgraded to a framework. The Urban Development Framework is, of course, a framework. This national policy-shy approach to urban policy is in part a reaction to past accusations of government policy favouring urban areas. 

In contrast, in its 2006 State of the Cities Report, the SACN, ‘through description and analysis of trends...hopes to set up a strategic agenda for further research, planning and action...' In addition, the SACN unabashedly specifies that ‘a national urban renewal policy framework must be developed as part of a broader South African urban policy framework'. And, in the absence of a national policy framework, the document also indicates areas where cities can themselves take aspects of the policy agenda forward. 

It is further indicated that this should take the form of City Development Strategies (CDSs). Such strategies are seen as actionplans for equitable growth in cities and their surrounding regions, developed and sustained through participation, to improve the quality of life for all citizens. The output of a city development strategy includes a collective city vision and a strategic action plan aimed at policy and institutional reforms, increased economic growth and employment, and implementation and accountability mechanisms to ensure systematic and sustained reductions in urban poverty. 

As prescribed in CDSs, South African cities are taking their development forward in partnership with the private sector. The significance of the relationship with the private sector is that it further emphasises the independence of the cities from alignment with the national policy direction. 

Focus on housing and poverty 

The presumptions and prerogatives of the SACN cities are further contributed to by the ‘normalisation' of the urban agenda, with the legislative and institutional prerequisites for dealing with the aftermath of urban apartheid having been put in place. For example, the SACN is now turning its attention to developing instruments of urban governance such as an effective regulatory system for land use planning that addresses the realities of informal settlements. 

To this should be added the role of municipalities in the delivery of housing and services. The Constitution requires that municipalities invest in services infrastructure for delivery to lowincome households. This requirement is abetted by the Municipal Infrastructure Grant, which came into effect in 2004/05, and accords municipalities increasing independence in the allocation of resources for investment in services infrastructure. The same can be said for the Department of Housing's intention to accredit cities to deliver houses. 

Then, to add to the urban voice, there is increasing recognition of the fact that poverty is not solely a rural issue and there is an equivalent, if not greater, prevalence of poverty in urban areas. Well-run cities are a precondition to drive both competitiveness in the global economy and alleviate poverty in both urban and rural (owing to remittances and migration) areas. 

Cities Network sets the pace 

The point is that in a context of ambivalence at the national level in relation to urban policy, the cities comprising the SACN are proceeding with an urban agenda that, to a significant degree, is self-defined, enabled by national housing and services policies and subsidy frameworks, and embodied in their commitment to city development strategies. 

The point is also that the SACN agenda influences that of non-member secondary cities. A useful window through which to examine this development is in the planning and preparation ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. While a national planning blueprint exists (derived from the 2004 Bid blueprint), and a number of national government departments have assumed responsibility for driving facets of the planning, it is really the nine host cities themselves, liaising closely with the Local Organising Committee and FIFA, that are driving this process. 

Given strict timeframes and an unforgiving set of obligations and specifications from FIFA, it seems prudent that the host cities are advancing the planning process in earnest. In doing so, they seem to be further consolidating a trend where cities themselves have become the lead agents in most facets of urban development, regeneration and renewal. 

Dr Udesh Pillay is the executive director of the Centre for Service Delivery