The lost metro?

2009-10-28 00:00

SINCE the announcement by the ­Municipal Demarcation Board that the Msunduzi Municipality would be reclassified as a metropolitan (category A) at the time of the municipal elections in 2011, the enthusiasm for what this would mean for the city has gained considerable momentum.

Whether this enthusiasm is fully justified in terms of the material advantages that might accrue to a category A, rather than a category B, municipality is not without doubt. Until the abolition of the levies payable to district municipalities, the benefit of which metropolitans also enjoyed, there was a kind of “bonus” income that could be, and was, used by the metros to augment the funds available for capital expenditure.

There is a contention that the metros still receive some, if not all, of this funding since the national fiscus compensates municipalities that lost income when the levies were scrapped. In addition, ­metros, exclusively, receive a percentage of the ­uel levy gathered from the sale of fuel in that municipality. This is not to be dismissed lightly as it will, if used appropriately, swell the resources available for the maintenance and extension of the road network. What would be unaffected in the case of an Msunduzi Metropolitan would be the extent of the rates base and the income from the municipal trading in services. Moreover, a metro confined to the Msunduzi boundaries would not enjoy the advantages of being able to engage in integrated regional planning because where this is cross-boundary it is subject to all sorts of inhibiting protocols and rules.

But city development cannot be divorced from community confidence and the psyche of the city at large. The imminence of metropolitan status has already inspired greater confidence in the future of the city and encouraged many stakeholders to think bigger and bolder in their approach to planning. Investors are also affected by this status issue and the ­consequences of the decision to put the matter in limbo again will relate to a deflation of the city’s hopes for its future and a possible preference for Mangaung and Buffalo City on the part of investors. (Neither of these cities’ metro status has been suspended.)

If, as has been rumoured, a revised ­municipal regimen is in the pipeline, the decision to review this city’s status may be acceptable. As has been demonstrated in several ways, municipal boundaries are difficult to change after they have been determined. Thus, if a newly defined metro including Msunduzi were to emanate from amendments to the whole ­municipal framework, it makes sense not to commit another error that might be difficult to correct. The Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB) supported the decision to retain the Msunduzi boundaries in the new metro only if there was a plan, which there was, to extend these boundaries in the future to include other areas that are de facto part of the greater Pietermaritzburg ­conurbation. It was the lesser of two evils: a limited area that could be expanded ­later as opposed to a wider area (the whole of the Umgungundlovu District), parts of which are not part of the conurbation by any stretch of the imagination. In reality, and in the view of the PCB, in its haste to address the long- standing aspiration of metro status and meet the Independent Electoral Commission’s deadline, the Metropolitan Demarcation Board (MDB) made a hasty decision without having done the necessary research into the issue. The resulting decision was out of alignment with the board’s own definition of what should constitute a metropolitan municipality.

However, the prevailing view is that the suspension has been occasioned by political considerations which may include personal ambitions and a tussle for pre- eminence on the part of the Msunduzi and uMgungundlovu municipalities, which have never found the common ground that economic and social development require. Since it is unreasonable to imagine that the most remote areas of the district municipality belong within the Pietermaritzburg conurbation, and it is ludicrous to consider that either of the municipalities could effectively plan for such a large area and manage its development properly, it seems clear that the intervention which has resulted in the suspension has little to do with economic and developmental matters, but has been motivated by political issues which, frankly, are not understood.

The chamber’s view is that the greater Pietermaritzburg area and the conurbation that it constitutes should be a metropolitan city and established as such without unnecessary delay. The parts of the district municipality that do not fall within this conurbation should be consolidated into other municipalities so that they become viable entities. For this to be successful, the two-tier model of municipalities should be abolished, the number of municipalities reduced and the viability of the new ones so established secured by a funding model which would remove their reliance on a weak rates base.

Since this cannot be accomplished by 2011, the chamber recognises that a delay is worthwhile if it results in a satisfactory outcome. The only acceptable measures of whether the outcome is satisfactory or not, are adherence to the definition of a metropolitan and the economic and social development of the entity so established. Whether this person or that person should be the mayor is absolutely immaterial; so, too, is any other political consideration.

• Andrew Layman is chairman of the PMB Chamber of Business.

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