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Home » October 2011

Looking at governance of urban land markets in Zimbabwe

The context of urban land markets in Zimbabwe

Since the colonial period and into the post-independence period, transactions in land and other forms of property in Zimbabwe's urban areas were generally undertaken through formal land markets. Regulated by the powerful Regional Town and Country Planning Act and the Urban Councils Act, the development of Zimbabwe's urban areas was guided by formal town planning, surveying and land registration processes.

Guided by the same town planning and development standards, the post-independence government did not permit the development of slums or unauthorised/informal settlements in towns and cities, with squatter settlements generally destroyed wherever they appeared.

However, the system for establishing and governing Zimbabwe's urban areas has been fraught with bottlenecks, as it was originally initiated to meet the needs of a small population. With independence and the growing permanency of urban settlement amongst indigenous Zimbabweans, the restrictive system faced more demand than it could cope with. The adherence to high planning standards and formality created land supply bottlenecks and came at a cost, as both government and the private sector failed to meet, in particular, the housing needs and space requirements for undertaking economic activities in a rapidly expanding population and informal sector.

Evidence of such failure was seen in a growing informal sector and the development of illegal extensions in the country's low-income residential areas as the demand for housing units, particularly for low-income groups, mounted. With limited funding available, the government increasingly provided for fewer housing units for the poor. Low-income groups responded to the shortage of housing and their inability to construct informal housing in two major ways. First, they took advantage of the 1980s' homeownership schemes to extend their properties to accommodate more people as rent-paying lodgers. This however, required planning permission from the local authority. Secondly, and related to the above difficulties associated with getting planning permission, homeowners started to build illegal structures that were then rented out to lodgers. This became the main cause of severe overcrowding in the high-density areas, a situation that the central government seemed to condone until 2005 when overnight, it launched the Cleanup Campaign, or Operation Murambatsvina.

In response to the changing political climate and the new development dictates which saw the emergence of a strong opposition political party, the post-2000 period saw government seemingly promoting the development of informal settlements. However, with the centre of power still located in ZANU P.F. and its allied structures, even the newly created Government of National Unity still increasingly moved to formalise activities in such informal settlements. Whilst such an approach can be viewed as progressive and within the realm of creating inclusive cities, the thinking and political imperatives motivating such action were not examined in this study. However, what is evident is that the ingredients of informality have increasingly penetrated the operation of formal urban land markets. But notably, and unlike the experience of East and West Africa, the State and its regulatory framework have remained both present and visible in Zimbabwe's informal settlements.

As has been the case with all other sectors of the economy, the functioning of Zimbabwe's urban land markets was affected by the economic decline that started from the late 1990s and intensified in the post-2000 period. Following the adoption of the Fast Track Land Reform process, questions were raised in Zimbabwe and abroad over the country's commitment to the 'rule of law'. Compounded by economic decline, arrears with international financial institutions and often violent land reforms, the loss of rule of law led to Zimbabwe's regional and international isolation. Consequently, the country became isolated from mainly the western countries and their allied institutions, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This created funding bottlenecks, which in turn affected the performance of urban land markets. As the economic meltdown continued, the multiple pressures associated with this ultimately affected the functioning of urban land markets. With the weakening of institutions, less emphasis was placed on adherence to policy and legislative prescriptions. In response to the world-record hyper-inflation levels, new forms of business transactions have emerged, as well as new forms of interaction between formal and informal land markets in urban areas.

Main challenges to the effective governance of urban land markets in Zimbabwe

The scoping study identified six main challenges to the effective governance of land markets in Zimbabwe's urban areas.

First, government's performance in land administration is constrained by lack of adequate human, technical and financial resources. Thus, key government departments like the Deeds Registry office remain centralised and underfunded. State actors are also suffering from the loss of institutional memory emanating from, inter alia, collapsing records and documentation infrastructure. Previous attempts at computerising the Deeds Registry Office were not implemented to completion.

Secondly, partnerships between local actors like cooperatives on the one hand and actors in the private sector and mainstream civil society organisations on the other face significant operational challenges. Apart from resource constraints, these partnerships have been stressed by a loss of trust and the politicisation of land issues in the country. Some local or community-based actors, in particular cooperatives, which in essence represent the poor, suffer from a broader governance crisis characterised by weak institutional mechanisms that are incapable of promoting transparency and accountability. However, there are some critical institutional spaces where debate to enhance policy consistency and institutional coordination, with a focus on housing delivery, has occurred.

Thirdly, despite certain adjustments made to the planning framework over time, such changes remain insufficient and more needs to be done to facilitate the release of affordable land for housing and economic development by the poor. Policy directives have not been supported by appropriate reviews of legislation, leaving their application to the discretion of individual local authorities. At the same time, the interpretation of relevant policy guidelines has been positive in some local authorities while rigid in others, resulting in policy inconsistencies.

Fourthly, while government has made significant attempts to upgrade informal settlements, urgent work is still required in the upgrading of tenure rights and the servicing of settlements. The practical management of informal and quasi-formal settlements like Epworth, Hopley and Hatcliffe in Harare presents challenges as far as service provision, tenure security and access to land are concerned. This situation is also found in other post-2000 peri-urban areas and in overcrowded old neighbourhoods in the city and elsewhere. Tenure insecurity in these areas affects residential, commercial and service-industrial land. The complex insecurities further affect livelihoods, complicating socio-economic development and by extension limiting prospects for improving urban land market functionality. Addressing the complex tenure insecurity situations will leverage livelihoods, spur urban market functionality and guarantee human security and development.

In the fifth place, the performance of urban land markets is hindered by the absence of public information on property transactions. Information on land delivery remains scattered and the picture on land supply is unclear. A combination of human and technical capacity limitations and the tendency to move towards informality, particularly in the post-2000 period, has eroded the capacities of state and non-state actors to continually update the information required for the smooth functioning of urban land markets in Zimbabwe.

Finally, research on urban land markets is sorely lacking. This limits the level of understanding of the performance of urban land markets. As such, there is a dearth of policy-relevant evidence to guide improvements to urban land market functionality.

This study recommends a number of broad areas for further research and investigation, including an in-depth policy and legislative review, further work on tenure upgrading and servicing of informal settlements, a programme to assist the strengthening of local authorities and local actors in urban land markets in relation to workable housing approaches for the poor, and increased availability of public information and dialogue on the functioning of urban land markets.