“Africa’s time for urbanisation is now. Let us get it right”

The executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority on the urbanisation of Africa.

No country in the world has ever developed without urbanising. This has been the case in Europe and North America, and in recent decades, cities provided the foundation of the so-called “East Asian Miracle”.

This week, the 9th World Urban Forum, the biggest global conference on cities, will take place in Kuala Lumpur. I will be there discussing why now is the moment for African cities to seize the opportunity to get urbanisation right.

Urbanisation is a positive force for growth – having people and firms located close to each other connects producers to consumers as well as their markets. It also provides firms their labour and the ability to source for inputs. The resulting connectivity makes people and therefore firms more productive. This is why urbanisation can provide the backbone of growth for national economies.

Density in a city, however, also comes with its downsides. In Kampala, we feel the effects of this on a daily basis with congestion. There are estimates that approximately 24,000 hours of labour per day are lost just by people sitting in traffic jams.

Density, if it is unmanaged, can take its toll on liveability in the city as well. This is particularly evident in densely packed slums that sprawl through our city. To help manage these downsides, prioritising urbanisation on the national agenda in order to make investments in sound public policy and adequate infrastructure is key.


The major challenge in this respect are that cities, like Kampala, are urbanising quicker than necessary infrastructure investments can be made. With the urban population growth rate estimated to currently be about 5.2 per cent, Kampala is projected to become a ‘megacity’ of over 10m people by 2040.

Furthermore, unlike in Europe and North America, cities in sub-Saharan Africa are urbanising in low-resource environments, making financing the necessary large infrastructure challenging. This is exacerbated by the fact that some estimates predict that retrofitting infrastructure investments, after the city has already grown, can be up to three times more expensive than at the beginning of a city’s development. 

Despite all these challenges, we have made great strides in managing our city in the last six years. We have improved our own-source revenue collection by 186 per cent. Part of this revenue is reinvested in infrastructure; the rest goes towards providing social services including education, healthcare, sanitation, and workspaces for the growing Kampala population. Through a loan from the World Bank, we have managed to reconstruct over 200km of roads in the city. Furthermore, garbage collection has increased from 16,000 to 31,000 metric tonnes.

We are also improving liveability in our city through other ways. In particular, through improving and increasing the number of green spaces as well as undertaking a number of beautification efforts, communities will increasingly be able to enjoy public space in the cities.

All these efforts have reinstated confidence amongst a variety of stakeholders in the direction that Kampala is taking. Most importantly, it has restored hope and provided a sense of direction for residents in the city and firms looking to invest in Kampala.

As countries in sub-Saharan Africa strive to become middle-income, cities like Kampala still have a major opportunity to provide the backbone for economic growth. This is because we are still at the beginning of our urbanisation journey, with nearly two-thirds of our cities still to be built.

Now is the opportunity to get urbanisation right and make it a force for productivity and change. As our urbanisation paths are very different from those taken by other cities in the world, we also need to build up our own evidence base and learn from each other.

This is why, together with leaders from other African cities and distinguished academics on urbanisation Edward Glaeser at Harvard University and Sir Paul Collier and Tony Venables, both at Oxford University, I am spearheading a new initiative Cities that Work through the International Growth Centre.

With this initiative, we aim to provide the evidence-based support for urban policymaking in cities like Kampala. This policy support is, most importantly, based on our priorities. Given different policies are needed in varying contexts, the initiative also presents a menu of different policy options for people like myself who face tough decisions on a daily basis. We are growing our network of policymakers, practitioners, and academics because harnessing the opportunities of urbanisation requires the finest minds working together to provide innovative solutions to the challenges we face.

Uganda aims to become a middle-income country within the next decade. As history has shown us, this will not be possible without our cities. Now is the time to get urbanisation right.

Dr Jennifer Semakula Musisi is executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority, and a member of the “Cities that Work” council at the International Growth Centre. She is giving a keynote talk at this week’s UN’s World Urban Forum.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.