Driving growth

2011-02-17 00:00

“THERE is a deep need for a 25-year vision for our city and the district as a whole,” said Pietermaritzburg Mayor Mike Tarr when welcoming delegates to a seminar titled The N3 and Regional Economic Development, which was held at the Seth Mokitini Methodist Seminary in Golf Road last week.

“We really need that vision,” he said. “At the moment, everything is happening on an ad hoc basis.”

The seminar, held under the auspices of the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi), was chaired by the guru of the planning world, Jeff McCarthy, a senior research consultant from the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

The stated purpose of the seminar was to stimulate debate about the sustainable economic potential of the N3 and its surrounds; “to secure the involvement of knowledgeable and highly-placed individuals within the public and private sectors; and to identify members of a task team to consolidate outcomes of discussions into a strategic economic development outlook for the region astride the N3.”

At the outset, McCarthy laid out his expectations and objectives for the day. He expected buy-in to the need to create employment and assumed all present shared a common interest in suitable and sustainable development. He wanted the seminar to produce an inclusive vision of development along the N3 corridor, a vision drawing on collective wisdom, “a collective vision to guide action and implementation. We have got to get going.”

The N3 corridor runs from Nottingham Road down to the biggest port in Africa, Durban, through four municipalities — uMngeni, Msunduzi, Mkambathini and eThekwini. Worldwide, such transport corridors are the drivers of economic growth. In South Africa, the N3 corridor has been identified as being having the most economic potential after that of Midrand, an infamous planning nightmare. “We can plan this corridor better,” said McCarthy.

A context for development along the N3 corridor was provided by Alka Ramnath, a planner with Umgeni Water, who detailed the current condition of infrastructure and other basics, such as available water and the number of unresolved land claims in the area.

“The N3 has reached its capacity,” said Ramnath.

Anyone driving it on a regular basis knows you risk death either by truck or deteriorating road surface, the stretch between Pietermaritzburg and the Mariannhill Toll Plaza being the worst. The dreadful condition it has been allowed to get into can mean only one thing — it’s going to take a new toll gate to pay for the upgrade.

Ramnath didn’t mention tolls but she indicated that the Department of Transport is actively investigating alternative routes to relieve the pressure. These could include a separate route for freight, a high-speed rail connection from Gauteng to Durban, and, say other sources, that old chestnut, the Pietermaritzburg by-pass, is being taken out of mothballs and dusted off.

Ramnath also pointed out other elements of basic infrastructure that have reached capacity, such as the Darvill Wastewater Works. This means that there is no waste-water infrastructure left in the Msunduzi Municipality. Shouldn’t that put a cap on development until it is sorted out?

As one speaker said: “You can’t expect private developers to build sewage works.”

The reality check provided by Ramnath was something the seminar never really engaged with, the impression being given that the devil was in the details and they could be sorted out later.

In some instances they already are. For example, many of the development applications in the Ashburton area are in conflict with the existing Spatial Development Framework (SDF) and this is currently being reviewed, according to David Gengan, the manager of economic development at the Msunduzi Municipality. In addition, he said, the Town Planning Scheme is not in agreement with the SDF and that also needs to be corrected. “We have been lagging behind developmentally,” he said, noting that while the N3 is a major selling point for the city, it has not been exploited by the municipality.

Gengan said the municipality is about to promote vacant properties along the N3, such as the derelict caravan park, as prime sites for developments similar to those that have taken place at the old polocrosse fields and the bird sanctuary.

“The private sector has been buying properties in the Ashburton area in anticipation of development,” he said. The proposed developments for the area — ranging from light industrial to residential, business parks, lifestyle centres, hotels and a shopping mall — are at different stages in the adjudication processes.

Gengan acknowledged that there has been no forward planning and said a lack of consultation with the community has also been a failing of the municipality. “We haven’t engaged with the community,” he said

While people can engage, for example via the public-participation processes included in environmental impact assessments or at Development Facilitation Act tribunal hearings, as one speaker pointed out these processes have “become institutionalised, they don’t deliver what they promise”. Boxes to be ticked along the way, all too often they are fake consultative procedures weighted on the side of the developer.

There were presentations from representatives of the other municipalities along the N3, as well as developmental perspectives from a variety of experts on agriculture, transport, economics and urban design. But the pivotal presentation of the day was probably given by Barbara Mommen, chief operating officer of The Maputo Corridor Logistics Initiative. Mommen is someone who has walked the talk. The Maputo corridor crosses provincial borders and a national one and she fielded a success story that could well provide the model for the N3 corridor. A key driver for success was what Mommen called “champions” — in the case of the Maputo corridor, it was two high-profile individuals who were fully behind the project and brought others on board.

Finding such “champions” for the N3 corridor is what McCarthy identified as the key objective in the seminar’s final session. McCarthy wanted positive thinking, he wasn’t after negatives. “The nettle has to be grasped,” he said. This, in a session labelled “Open discussion and conclusion”. In a day where time pressures had seen delegates shorten presentations, and some not present at all, this meant the session was nearly all “conclusion”. To be fair, blank cards were handed out to all present for people to write down points of concern they felt need to be incorporated in the move forward. They could be handed in at the door on leaving. But it wasn’t enough.

Despite assurances from McCarthy that the seminar forms part of an ongoing process and that discussions on specifics would inform the debate going forward, too much had been left unsaid. There was a feeling that a hyperactive genie had been briefly let out of his lamp only to be crammed back in too soon. Something was missing.

Morag Peden, a lecturer in the education department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and an Ashburton resident, perhaps pinpointed it when she said that she found all the talk of “a vision of ‘we’, and what ‘we’ envision, a little disconcerting” and posed the question: “Who is ‘we’ exactly?”

Pandora Long of the Preservation of the Mkhondeni Mpushini Biodiversity Trust made an emotional speech that, although out of kilter with the gung-ho, somewhat testosterone-driven spirit of the day, nevertheless did serve to give voice to the sheer woundedness of those caught on the sharp end of development and who feel they are not being heard.

Yes, everyone agrees that the economy needs to grow and we need to create employment but it’s not enough to chant the mantra of “sustainable development” because, as all the ad hoc development and lack of advance planning demonstrates, it’s not happening. And seminars like this are no guarantee that it will somehow magically fall from the sky.

Such a conclusion might appear contrary to the spirit of a day that seemed to leave most on a high. But there is another voice that needs to be heard and if not at civil society conferences like this, where? If there is to be a collective vision, if Midi is to move this debate forward, it needs to accommodate that voice. Who is “we” exactly?

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