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Government should focus on providing decent, affordable housing, says Lawanson

By Chinedum Uwaegbulam
12 September 2022   |   3:59 am
Taibat Lawanson is a professor of urban management and governance, as well as Co-Director, Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development at the University of Lagos.

Lawanson

Taibat Lawanson is a professor of urban management and governance, as well as Co-Director, Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development at the University of Lagos.

She spoke to CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on how to ensure reforms, improve urban living and curb rural-urban migration. She also sought a review of the Land Use Act and proffered solutions to homeownership challenges

Environmental disasters, dwindling resources, population growth and protracted conflicts are threatening many cities. What type of interventions or reforms can address these and improve urban livability?
Essentially, many of these challenges are due to three main reasons.

One is climate change, which is a global challenge we’re all facing. Secondly, is the failure of urban planning and thirdly, lack of integration of spatial considerations into economic policies. We find that economic decisions often do not take into consideration the spatial dimension of those policies that would cascade into environmental consequences.

Those are the challenges we have in the development of cities and human settlements in Nigeria.

The first way of addressing these is to recognise that we have a problem and look to addressing these overarching challenges in each city or human settlement in the light of limited costs for development.

We have to start looking for solutions that have multiple benefits and lean on approaches that leverage the things we already have, such as our indigenous knowledge systems, as simple solutions like behavioural changes. We have to take advantage of these short-term solutions before we start to look at larger, more expensive structural interventions or medium and longer-term dimensions.

In major cities, a lot of Nigerians are moving to the hinterland or outskirts to become homeowners. What factors contribute to the mobility of would-be homeowners. What can government do to encourage homeownership?
The context of homeownership is cultural, the average Nigerian, especially the male population sees the ownership of land and houses as a rite of passage into adulthood or a gateway into some select societies or councils of elders in the communities. Therefore, people will continue to aspire to homeownership.

What government needs to do is undertake an ideological shift from this quest for homeownership to focus really on providing adequate housing, in terms of dwelling and environment.

Currently, we don’t know the national housing stock; there are varying numbers in terms of the housing units we have. What we do know is that we have a serious housing problem, especially in cities. We have a surplus in the high-income category and a shortage at the lower rungs of the ladder and affordable housing bracket.

What we also don’t have is the absolute housing stock, like how many housing units are in the high-income housing and low-income housing? Where do we need new builds and where should they be provided? I understand that the next census is going to include a housing census. That’s commendable so that we can have a good understanding of what the problem is, and how to adequately address it.

That being said, it is also important we shift focus from pursuing only homeownership. The focus should be on providing decent affordable housing – including rental housing for residents, particularly, those who live in cities and towns. We also need to understand that providing decent housing is not only limited to the new stock or building new units. A lot of our communities, particularly in the urban areas, have houses that have good structures, but because they’re in informal areas where people don’t have access to land rights or adequate infrastructure or social amenities, they are not considered to be good housing or part of the housing stock.

One way of increasing the stock of affordable and decent housing for people is to invest in urban renewal and regeneration so that the communities will have adequate access to basic services and people will be encouraged to upgrade the condition of individuals’ housing units. Automatically, this increases housing stock.

The other thing is for government to start thinking more and more about issues around rent-to-own and also providing rental housing, as well as ensuring investment in research required for us to have locally made or sourced building materials. Currently, construction materials imported are really costly; they raise the cost of housing.
Another is access to land; the land question is the evil canopy covering the entire housing market in Nigeria.

Until our land reforms are done in the context of inclusion and equity, that guarantees every Nigerian the right to adequate housing, as enshrined in our constitution, right to development as enshrined in the United Nations charter for which our country is a signatory, we are just joking. There is a need for us to revisit the Land Use Act (LUA), remove the constitutional bottlenecks and review the act from a people-centred viewpoint.

Also, there is a need for us to address the issue of urban regeneration, it is not a local government matter or state government affair alone, the Federal Government needs to start looking at housing also through the lens of urban regeneration.

What should planners and government do to accommodate informed rural-urban migrants?
The informal sector is not only for rural migrants. The informal sector cuts across our cities as a stop-gap measure that essentially responds to gaps in public provisioning. So, people rely on informal means, whether due to inefficiency or insufficiency of what ought to be provided by the government. Informal settlements are means of accessing housing, while the informal economic sector supports sustainable livelihoods, as well as access to goods and services, in the absence of or sufficiency of public service delivery.

The first thing we should understand as planners, urban policymakers and people in urban governance and politics is that the informal sector is an extension of the urban system. As planners, we should be thinking of the formal-informal continuum.

How do we integrate this interdependent system, and ensure the system is sustainable environmentally, economically and socially? How do we recognise that everybody has a right to a city and people are able to grow, and access opportunities at the scale they can afford or operate in?
It is the responsibility of the planning system, as well as the government to ensure that there is an enabling environment for various skillset to thrive in the urban systems. It is only then; that we can say we have a resilient city, where everybody irrespective of his or her level of education, social economic status has an opportunity to live and prosper the city.

The implementation of the Nigerian urban and regional planning law of 2004 and its domestication in states have been very slow. Why are states reluctant to adopt this law and its likely effects on town planning?
The implication of the slow implementation of the Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning law of 2004 is seen everywhere, once you step out of your house. The law provides guidance on how our cities should be managed, a National Urban and Regional Planning Commission at the federal level, planning districts at the state and local planning authorities at the local government level. What we have in many of our states, the district level is quite represented and the gap we have is at the national level, as well as at the local planning authority scale. That’s why the state governments are overburdened with the responsibility of planning.

About 20 or so states have domesticated that law and in domesticating the law, it still has not cascaded to the setting up of local planning authorities. That is where the challenge is because the local planning authorities are responsible for developing lower-level plans that capture the real development trajectories of communities and neighbourhoods and provide opportunities for them to evolve in an organised and coherent manner.

If those planning structures are not there, we will continue to have the chaos that characterises many Nigerian cities. The gap at the federal level and the failure of the Federal Government to set up an urban and regional planning commission to provide overarching guidance for physical planning and by extension urban development has created an anomaly in a system of urban governance and the spatial development of our cities.

The special development agencies should have been domiciled at the National Urban and Regional Commission, beyond responding to emerging challenges and social injustices that may have necessitated the development of those agencies.

If we’re going to look at it from a holistic national view, then we should have got this urban and regional planning commission, that essentially identifies the comparative advantage of various places in our country, and work towards providing the development guidance that would allow us to have sustainable development across the country.

Are you satisfied with the existing relationship between academics and professional planners? What are the gains of collaboration?
That’s a subjective question because what we find as academics in town planning is that there are varying levels of engagement depending on location. So, while in Lagos State, we have a good working relationship with the government. For instance, at the University of Lagos Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development, the Commissioner of Physical Planning and Urban Development is on our advisory board. We have a good working relationship with a number of government agencies such as the Urban Renewal Agency and the Resilience Office.

In other states, that is not the case. States that do not collaborate with academia lose an opportunity for policy to be guided by evidence, to work with academics, students and researchers in generating knowledge and co-creating the cities that we want.

It is important that researchers work with policymakers and policymakers work with civil society groups and knowledge institutions because the city belongs to all of us. We all have different strengths and experiences and all aspire to a functional, efficient and inclusive society.

The Land Use Act created an issue in land governance in most cities, as the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities are affected by major projects. What are the challenges facing these communities? What should be the best practice in such developments?
The thing is that the LUA gave a lot of powers to the governor and he gives out land based on overriding public interest. It also gives the governor the discretion to determine what overriding public interest is, and what that tells us is that if the governor considers replacing a community with a nightclub, for instance, is in the overriding public interest, then he can do it. That is problematic.

What we think needs to be done is that the LUA should be reformed so that it is more equitable and those who can take decisions regarding land ownership, land allocation and land administration are accountable to the people through a variety of means that ensure local communities and custodians are carried along; and also ensures that the environmental and social consequences of land developments are taken into consideration and effectively mitigated.

We find it in places like the Lekki Free Trade Zone, where communities were displaced by the development of the area and not adequately compensated.

Primarily, this is because the provisions of the LUA enable such injustice. A situation where compensation is granted on the crops on land as against the real value of the land does the people who are being displaced a lot of disservices. The thing is that democracy is meant to be a system where the needs and priorities of the people should be topmost on the agenda.

The Act needs to be reviewed so that the people can have access to land and also access their constitutionally guaranteed property rights as citizens. We are hoping that the next government and National Assembly will be public-spirited enough to revisit the law and do what is required.

Following insecurity in the country, some Nigerians have migrated to city centres, leading to urban conflict and population explosion in places such as Abuja and Lagos. What is the likely effect of such a trend on cities and strategies to curb rural-urban migration?

We’re in an urban age globally; people go to cities in search of the urban advantage and benefits derivable from being urban citizens. In the context of Nigeria, it is also a rite of passage, as the average able-bodied young person on completing secondary education, sees his or her future in the city and makes plans to move to the closest city with an ultimate aim to arrive either in Abuja or Lagos, because of the economic opportunities the cities offer.

By enhancing the quality of human settlements whether rural or urban, perhaps the rate of rural-urban migration may be reduced. The second thing is that people are moving for a variety of reasons outside of economic issues. We find a lot of forced migration occurring in the last 10 years, particularly from the North due to insecurity.

People migrating from these rural agrarian areas are moving with skills that may not be compatible with life in urban areas. That automatically increases the challenges of urban areas, such as increased cases of homelessness; increased demand for housing and jobs, and schools for children.

Many of the Okada riders from the north are farmers and have agricultural skills that cannot be effectively deployed in the city. We need to expand the economic base in the southern parts of the country to absorb people with agrarian skills and leverage the emerging skillset for economic prosperity.

We also need to have a good approach to addressing the insecurity problem in the country, so that people, who may not want to move, do not need to move. A direct consequence of forced migration is the increase in informal peri-urban communities. People are moving to the margins of our city spaces and creating shanties and temporary settlements that ultimately evolve into slums.

We need to understand that planning is for both the rich and the poor. After all, the SDGs commit to creating cities that are safe, resilient and sustainable. Holistic planning can only be done when we understand the demographic profile of the places we are planning for. The demographic profile of a city or country tells us the number of school-age children, people with disabilities, and men and women.

This disaggregation should determine the priorities of national development, economic planning, the skills that will be required for jobs now and in the future, types of schools and curricula to be taught, types of infrastructure and where and how they should be provided. We’re not doing a lot of that. That shows the work of planning is intrinsically intertwined with every aspect of society.