Red Tape and Its Effects on the Housing Process

transparency governance housing accountability
Wednesday, 16 February, 2011 - 10:50

The process of handing over houses to beneficiaries is taking longer than anticipated because of the red tape involved in the process of an Environmental Impact Assessment

The process of providing a house to a beneficiary to date remains entangled in bureaucratic systems that require various regulations and procedures to be observed, resulting in unnecessary red tape and time loss. To speed up the housing delivery process, strategic measures must be applied to cut down the red tape. According to Lance Del Monte who is a town planner, project coordinator of housing projects and director of an organisation called Metroplan, the passage of the entire housing process is marred by bureaucratic delays in the form of new legislation and laborious regulations, particularly the National Environmental Management Act, and authorisation has become a tedious process due to unnecessary duplication of policy processes. Accountability among officials in government offices both at local and provincial government is lacking, no urgency is exercised to fast track applications and targets are open-ended.

It is a fact that housing is not just providing a house as a building but it entails a process that can justifiably take about two years to get to handover stage. What utterly dismays is that this process now takes about six years. Under existing procedures in South Africa, two processes, namely Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Township Establishment, are critical to the implementation of any housing development. The duplication of effort and resources in subjecting projects to both planning and environmental assessment, when the two processes increasingly deal with identical issues, is wasteful.

Pre-construction processes

Housing does not only refer to a house as a physical structure, but encompasses different components that contribute to make up a habitable environment. A lot of time is consumed even before the project is implemented. The process starts off with the identification of land that is suitable for settlement. This process implies that the municipal town planner checks through land zoned for human settlement and advises where suitable land can be found in the city and produces a layout plan. Whatever land is available might not be necessarily suitable for human settlement and therefore feasibility studies need to be conducted to establish if the identified site is suitable. Feasibility studies are supposed to take about four months, but most of the work pertaining to feasibility studies is outsourced by most of the municipalities.

Technical feasibility studies need to be conducted. The technical study entails a geological analysis of the land, soil condition tests, ground water table analysis and slope analysis. Environmental feasibility studies are also conducted to ensure that the project does not have a negative impact to the vegetation and animals, like destroying endangered species. An EIA Certificate is issued by the Department of Environment as authorisation that confirms that the project is environmentally acceptable. It is illegal to implement the project without an EIA certificate. Therefore, it is an obligation for township establishment to wait until this process is done.

To ensure that the project will not pose health risks to the people, the presence of health hazard substances is checked and laboratory tests are conducted to verify if the land does not have harmful toxic substances dangerous to the settlement. Quite important as well are social feasibility studies conducted to ensure that all people affected by the project are consulted, including beneficiaries and various community-based stakeholders so that they give full support to the project. Then a business plan for the project is compiled and an expected budget drafted, so as to source and secure funds for the project. According to Ronald Eglin, a town planner working for Afesis Corplan, the process of feasibility studies is unpredictable and it is never clear whether it would be completed within planned time frameworks, because it consumes so much time and other resources therefore, in most cases supplementary funds to substantiate costs have to be sourced by municipalities.

The business plan is submitted to the Department of Human Settlements at the provincial housing offices. After considerations, they then approve funding for the project. The national Department of Human Settlements makes funding available for planning and land purchase within its housing subsidy programmes, but they would prefer it if other sources of funding are used first before consideration is given to using these funds.

The national Department of Human Settlements set up a national Housing Development Agency (HDA) to assist municipalities or to arrange for itself to purchase and access land for housing development. The agency looks at ways of reducing the red tape involved in the whole land development process. The HDA is expected to become an important ally for the landless and homeless sector. It is the responsibility of the municipality to set aside funds for planning new land development projects. The municipality should also set aside funds in its budget for the purchase of land for development, including residential purposes (Urban LandMark and Afesis Corplan, 2008: 29).

Construction process

After the pre-implementation process, the project gets implemented with all activities coordinated by the project coordinator, who ensures that the project is developed according to schedule, within budget and done properly. The implementation process involves the establishment of an urban settlement or township establishment.

The process encompasses the surveying of project site, pegging of sites and issuing of ERF numbers or site numbers, the demarcation of boundaries and the registration of a township. This process should ideally take about two months. Then the site is serviced, a process that ushers in the initial physical infrastructure, like roads, water systems and sewerage infrastructure. The site servicing process takes about eight to twelve months. Civil engineers ensure that designs are done and implemented to make sure that all road infrastructure, storm water drains, systems and sewerage systems are in place.

When all the groundwork has been completed it is at this stage that the construction of the housing structure begins. Foundations are dug, inspected and cast. Then the superstructures are erected to completion. This process is expected to take about one month. Thereafter processes of roofing, plastering, plumbing and electricity wiring and painting are done. Vital information from quantity surveyors is put into use, like how much material will be needed to install houses and services, and the costs involved, including labour costs. Architects also supply information on what the houses will look like, advice on what material to be used and cost estimations of the structures intended to be built.

In a project that is already running, it takes about fifteen days to build a 40sqm house superstructure. Effective time is spent in inspecting the house to ensure that it meets the required quality standards before it is handed over to respective beneficiaries. Beneficiary processes are done well before handover. Beneficiaries are recruited through processing of applications whereby the successful ones are put in a beneficiary database or beneficiary list by the municipality. The municipality does preliminary screening by checking if all required beneficiary documents are accurate and beneficiaries whose documents are insufficient are removed from the database.

The beneficiary list is submitted to the provincial human settlements office, where screening is done to check if the beneficiaries have not benefited before from the government subsidy. Beneficiaries are also allocated sites and each name is allocated an ERF number. Again, some beneficiaries get disqualified. Conveyancing processes are done to register the landowners as legal tenants and the beneficiary database is submitted to the title deeds office in Cape Town which then issues title deeds to beneficiaries as proof of ownership. The title deeds office takes its own time to prepare title deeds. The time that is supposed to be taken is between 20 months to two years, taking into consideration inevitable factors.

Implications of unnecessary procedures and policies

Currently, some of the policies and processes related to housing development create unnecessary delays and bottlenecks, for example, lengthy EIAs and slow, complex land development processes (approval and subdivision). Apart from provincial and local government policies and processes, there are some policies and processes from institutions (such as the NHBRC) that also create delays (Human Settlements Reference Group, 2005:19).

With the red tape involved in the process of an EIA, most municipalities and developers find themselves spending a lot of money and time on this process, which results in undue delays in the development of houses. For instance, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality acknowledges that it previously fell short of its target due to delays in project approval, EIAs and performance challenges of contractors (

Concerted effort on the part of both the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) and the DLA is required to achieve rationalisation of the two processes, EIA and Township Establishment. Currently, DEAT is responsible for the EIA process, now regulated in terms of the National Environmental Management Act’s (NEMA) new EIA regulations. Planning authorisations for Township Establishment are currently issued in terms of either the provincial town planning laws, dating back to before 1994, or the 1995 Development Facilitation Act. The DFA was intended as an interim measure until a comprehensive overhaul was done of the entire legal framework governing land development and land use planning. So far this overhaul has not happened (Barrisford, Stephen et al, 2008: 35).

The process of finding land for housing projects is a huge challenge. Land for building houses is increasingly becoming scarce in most urban areas in South Africa. Current land policies also make it quite difficult to get land in urban areas. Municipalities do not have coherent strategies for acquiring land for housing, partially because they have been only responsible for housing land acquisition since 2000 and partially because of a disjuncture between spatial plans and housing strategies. Public land is partially hard to acquire (Human Settlements Reference Group, 2005:17).

The Department of Human Settlements must review and realign legislative, policy and institutional frameworks to fast-track availability and affordability of well and appropriately located land for sustainable human settlements. Furthermore, the department needs to conduct land audits of all parastatals and state-owned land in all provinces and categorise it by type, appropriateness for residential use and quality (serviced or not) and capture data on an effective and accessible Geographical Information System (GIS).

The quality of contractors employed in the housing projects is substandard. This contributes significantly to delays in the completion of projects on time. This applies to all contractors, like surveyors, engineers and bricklayers. Consequently, poor craftsmanship results in schedules running behind set targets or completed work having to be redone. According to the Sowetan newspaper, thousands of houses need to be demolished. This is startling information about the magnitude of the mess around housing delivery. The Department of Human Settlements has delivered more than 2.6 million subsidised houses since 1994.

But it is not clear how many of these will be demolished and rebuilt as part of the government’s rectification of the housing subsidy programme. Since 2006, Gauteng has identified 80 648 houses for demolition. Of these, 65 767 have already been rebuilt. The province has a budget of R147 million to complete the project. The Eastern Cape identified 20 000 subsidised houses that need to be fixed or rebuilt. At least 1 506 houses have been targeted in the first phase of the project, which has a budget of R100 million (Maphumulo Zinhle, Sowetan, 10/05/2009).


In conclusion, it is crucial to urgently review the time schedule planned for the pre-construction activities, like the feasibility studies. The entire process of feasibility study, environmental impact assessment studies and constructing a house should probably take four months, but currently it can take up about a year. The site servicing processes take far longer than expected. Beneficiary screening at the Eastern Cape provincial office at Bisho takes months, when it could take about one month. It is a common tendency for the provincial office responsible for beneficiary screening to leave their phones ringing endlessly unanswered. Communicating with the department is a nightmare. It is pitiful that some beneficiaries die, mainly due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, before houses are registered in their names; as a result, their families lose the house because they do not have any title deed that entitles them to the property.

- Thembi Mabhula is former project coordinator at Afesis-corplan. This article first appeared in the December/January 2011 of the Transformer. It is republished here with the permission of Afesis-corplan, a NGO that has contributed to community-driven development and good local governance in the Border-Kei (Amathole) region of the Eastern Cape since 1992.


1. Barrisford Stephen etcl. 2008. In Search Of Land and Housing In the New South Africa: The Case of Ethembalethu. Accessible online: Retrieved: 20/07/2008

2. Human Settlements Reference Group. 7/10/2005. Department of Local Government and Housing, Draft Discussion Document. Accessible online

3. Urban LandMark and Afesis Corplan. 2008. Urban Land Access, Manual B Urban Land Access: The Steps. Accessible online

4. Zinhle Mapumulo Sowetan. 10 July 2009 Thousands of homes razed. Accessible online: Retrieved: 20/07/2010.

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