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Are metros reflecting the reality on the ground in their public documents?

Isandla Institute | 2023-10-12 | 708 views

The Planning for Informality web tool has recently been updated, drawing on a review of publicly available 2023/2024 municipal documentation for South Africa's eight metropolitan municipalities (metros). The tool, initiated in August 2017, serves to monitor the responses of South African metropolitan municipalities to informal settlements and backyard housing, based on reporting and policy commitments found in core annual municipal documents. A better understanding of informality in South African metros allows for better decision-making and analysis, and comprehensive informal upgrading strategies and plans are important elements in achieving upgrading targets. Furthermore, the tool also promotes transparency and accountability by opening up data regarding municipal upgrading plans and strategies to a wider audience.

Specifically, it indicates the commitments made by the eight largest South African cities in upgrading informal settlements and improving backyard dwelling conditions. Using core publicly available municipal documents, the tool assesses the policy commitments, programmes and projects of each city in line with guidelines for best practice, such as incremental and participatory upgrading. However, it is not a qualitative assessment of city strategies, with a scorecard system used instead to gauge commitments by metros towards informal settlement upgrading and backyard housing, including issues of land, organisational capacity, budgets, spatial targeting and programmatic approaches (e.g. assessment and categorisation of informal settlements).

The tool serves multiple purposes, including showcasing the level of commitment by metros to participatory informal settlement upgrading. It also catalyses evidence-based dialogues and actions involving municipal representatives and other stakeholders. Additionally, it brings attention to areas that require greater support, capacity building, resources, or a shift in perspective; as well as promoting accountability. Its primary intended audience includes civil society organisations and local communities looking to engage their cities in pursuing suitable and inclusive local initiatives. Additionally, residents can use the tool to approach municipalities with data that can be used to verify claims made about commitments to participatory incremental informal settlement upgrading.

Recent annual updates of the Planning for Informality tool suggest that upgrading targets within metros are set at relatively low levels. Previous reviews have also revealed a lack of emphasis on community engagement and the advancement of incremental upgrading through social compacts. In the examination of municipal documentation, it becomes evident that there is not only a scarcity of updated data on informal settlements and commitments to participatory incremental informal settlement upgrading, but also a lack of information on the nature and extent of backyard housing. Few metros have dedicated programmatic responses to enhance access to services, improve housing quality, and address other issues faced by backyard landlords and tenants.

Given the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing economic challenges, questions arise regarding whether metros accurately reflect the on-the-ground reality in their public documents. The public documents reviewed appear to neither present any changes to the status quo pre-Covid, nor acknowledge the impacts on tenure security that have resulted in the reduced ability of backyard tenants to afford rentals, and the concomitant growth of informal settlements and rise in land occupations and homelessness. Clearly for municipalities, strengthening the backyard housing sector should be preferable to dealing with these downstream consequences.

Despite its limitations, the Planning for Informality tool remains a valuable benchmark for assessing whether metros prioritise incremental neighbourhood development in existing informal settlements and provide support for the crucial backyard housing sector. Civic organisations and communities can use it as a tool for critical engagement with their metros, holding them accountable for their commitments and performance in these areas.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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