Land First: An Innovative Strategy to Accelerate Housing Delivery

Wednesday, 6 August, 2008 - 08:42

There is debate around the need for government to adopt a land-first approach  to increase the pace of housing delivery across the country.

An interesting debate over new approaches to housing delivery has been going on within civil society circles. Much of this seems to revolve around the need for government to adopt a land-first approach in order to increase the pace of housing delivery across the country.

The need for such a land-first approach is deemed more urgent now than ever before as landmark dates such as 2014, by which time government commits itself to “a nation free of slums”, approach.

We believe it is possible to exceed the set targets, but only if we embrace new strategies. The promotion of access to well-located, affordable and secure land for residential development is a catalytic-type intervention that will unlock a host of future development efforts. Once people have land, they have a place on which to live, and from which to access urban opportunities.

Existing procedures for land release and development are not adequate to deal with the demand for well-located and affordable land in the short term. The normal process of developing government-subsidised RDP houses generally takes a long time, often taking more than five years from the start of the planning process to completion.

Much needs to be done before someone can move into a house, including organising the community, identifying land, planning the services and houses, obtaining approvals and finance, supplying the services, building the house, and transferring ownership.

The process is also often delayed because of a lack of capacity within the housing sector to see the process through to its conclusion. While this process takes place, many people continue to live in informal conditions. Informal land occupation (or invasion), from the “homeless” person’s point of view, is a much quicker process to access land.

Usually no planning takes place – landless people simply move onto the land and start building shacks, leading to all sorts of challenges for land owners and authorities, who need to “sort out the mess” and formalise ownership and settlement once people are on the land.

Problems arise such as people settling in flood plains, or setting up shacks next to formal neighbourhoods whose homeowners turn to the courts for action. Often people occupy vacant land and need to be moved when the area is upgraded.

There is no middle path between RDP housing and land “invasion”. Innovative solutions need to be found and accommodated. People need to be allowed to move onto land before all the procedures making up a normal RDP-type settlement development process are complete. At the same time, however, systems need to be put in place to ensure that enough has been done to avoid undesirable situations that need to be sorted out later. A government-supported managed land settlement programme needs to be established to fill this middle path.

Such a programme would incorporate the following features

  • Superblock planning: Identify land prior to need and do the necessary studies on this land to determine its suitability.  Identify “no-go” areas (flood areas, school sites, and so on) for land development.  For the rest, mark out an outer boundary with different portions of land, or “superblocks”, and allocate these portions of land to different groups.
  • Community organisations: Organise the landless into groups that enter into land-access agreements with the municipality to occupy the identified land in an organised, well-managed manner. Provide capacity-building training for these community groups.
  • Community allocation within superblocks: Community “committees” determine how many households are allocated to the “superblock” and point out individual “plots”, staying away from identified internal access roads and spaces for public utilities.
  • Provide basic services/facilities: Construct communal standpipes and ablution facilities within each superblock. Also construct a community hall/facility within superblocks where people can meet.
  • Tenure security through “recognition of occupation”:  Provide members of groups with permission to occupy (PTO) certificates. Keep a database at the municipality of PTO certificates, and agree on methods for transferring PTOs. Households can transact in PTO certificates, as long as the municipalities’ records are updated.
  • Future incremental upgrade: When the time comes to upgrade the settlement (services, houses, tenure and facilities), only those households that were part of the managed land settlement programme are allowed to get further subsidies.

Government and communities would not be easily convinced of such a middle path – both these role-players have proven resistant to suggestions of a land-first approach in the past. From a government perspective, objections to a middle path include: “Government can’t allow uncontrolled occupation of land, as it will damage the environment, lead to health problems, and cause property values to fall in areas with uncontrolled land occupation.” Government also claims that they “have committed ourselves to eradicate shacks and slums so we can’t support a programme that encourages more shacks”. From a community perspective, community members make statements like: “Government promises us a house so it must give us a house,” or “The Constitution says everyone must get housing so we want a house”, or “We (communities) don’t want to move from one shack to another shack.”

A managed land settlement programme, as described above, is able to counter these types of complaints. Land identified for managed land settlement would be land identified through proper planning procedures, and people would be able to start investing in their houses prior to government housing subsidies being provided. People would feel a sense of security on the land they occupy; they would know they were on the list for future upgrading support.

There is an indication from elements within both government and communities that a managed land settlement programme-type approach may now be favourably received. Within government, there is recognition that innovative approaches need to be found if significant progress is to be made in housing the nation. Many people within communities are now also saying: “Just give us the land so we can at least have somewhere to stay.”

One of the main challenges in implementing such a managed land settlement programme is that there appears to be uncertainty as to who is ultimately responsible for supporting residential land development. Government appears to be in a “transitional” phase. In the past, urban residential land was dealt with by the Department of Housing, and rural agricultural land was dealt with by the Department of Land Affairs. In the future government foresees both agricultural and residential (and other) land being dealt with by the Department of Land Affairs. Neither of these departments is currently fully dealing with urban residential land.

The Department of Housing has recognised this problem and is promoting the proposed Housing Development Agency as the “saviour” that will solve all issues relating to residential land release, but it is unlikely that this agency would be up and running any time soon.

Even when it is operational, it is highly unlikely to be up to the challenge of addressing all residential land demands. The Department of Land Affairs should, as its name suggests, take full responsibility for dealing with all land issues, including residential land. It needs to urgently address this huge gap in policy relating to residential land.

Institutions like the proposed Housing Development Agency have a role to play – but should not be seen as the ultimate solution.

For more information go to This article was first published in the Local Government Transformer, Aug/Sept 2008”.

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