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Opinions of Thursday, 15 July 2010

Columnist: Addae-Bosompra, Ernest

An open letter to HE The Vice President of Ghana

AN OPEN LETTER TO HIS EXCELLENCY JOHN DRAMANI MAHAMA, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF GHANA

Dear Mr. Vice President,

For the first time in my adult life I attended an open political forum at the River of life Centre in South East London because I wanted to see you in person, listen to you, and make a judgment about the man who many claim is the next leader of our Country. They refer to your intelligence, your eloquence, your grace, and the dignity you display in public life. Mr. Vice President, it is believed that you underpin all that is good in the current administration because you understand the real issues before Ghana.

Many Ghanaians including myself thought the 2008 presidential election was as important as any in our history. The eight-years under Ex President John Kuffour brought many gains and exposed our country as a democratic force for good. The country had struck oil, the USA had just elected a black President, and your victory held the promise of a new beginning. Your campaign said you represented a new kind of politics.

I was one of a few to ask you a question and I am grateful to you for agreeing to answer my question. My question was influenced by the presentation given to us variously by the ministers for Energy, Agriculture, and Roads and Highway Minister, as well as by a Maritime Consultant and, of course, your own presentation. I will describe their presentation as a back slapping account of their sectors. Your presentation sought to justify the STX Korea deal on building 30,000 residential homes in Ghana. However, you failed to tell us about the role of the Town and Country Planning Department in developing such a scheme and what strategic objectives underpin the planning of our Towns and Cities. We did not have enough time at this stage and your answer was very brief.

So I will like to take this opportunity to ask, “what role is Town Planning playing in your administration, bearing in mind that such a role will impact on our Energy, Agriculture, Roads and Highway sectors including your pet subject – Housing”. Your assessment that mass housing must keep pace with population growth is one that is true. There is pressure on our existing stock of housing. Furthermore most of the residential dwellings currently being built are mainly by Ghanaians in the diaspora. There is a need therefore for mass public sector housing because of the deficit in housing supply. We are nearing crises point and we need to get a grip.

Two years into your government, my confidence has been challenged, and I wonder whether your government’s understanding of the Town Planning crises in our country is appreciated, because, although alarm bells are ringing loudly, nobody seems to be taking notice. As rational beings we know it is unfair to accuse you of the problems you inherited upon taking office - excessive traffic and bad roads in our towns and cities, homelessness, poverty, urban sprawl, lack of good drinking water in our homes, uncontrolled flooding in our cities, and rising unemployment. We know you walked into a daunting state of affairs. But our rationality is conflicted and our goodwill is strained, not by what happened before you and your government came to power, but by what has happened since. We cannot afford to travel on this precipitous road and neither can we accept the status quo. It will cost us dearly if we do not as a nation begin to tackle the root causes. . My personal experience of Ghana’s planning system is not as a practitioner but as a consumer. There is hopelessness and futility about the current system to which Ghanaians have no confidence and this cannot be simply attributed to the ‘human factor’. Residential dwellings are being changed to commercial uses such as shops and restaurants contributing to the excessive shortage of homes. There is no zoning of our cities and our residential areas are slowly being encroached by the commercial districts. There must be demarcations that delineate commercial use from residential uses. The spread of kiosks and structures intended for commercial (trading) purposes must be controlled more effectively. Without reforming our Town and Country Planning legislation any attempts to build more homes will mean more of the same. The commercial districts will take over and more dwellings will continue to change their use.

Another sore point is the multi purpose Accra Shopping Mall that is located in the wrong part of Town. This has exacerbated the traffic situation in the Spintex Road area and East Legon.This fact is irrefutable as those who use the roads daily acknowledge that a single trip to the city centre takes you a whole day. Most families and businesses that use these roads daily now have to wake up at 4am in order to get ready for work or school. The social and health implications is that our children are now having breakfast in their parent’s cars whilst being driven to school or not at all; this is to enable the driver or parents beat the traffic. This endangers the health of our children, is sad and unacceptable and must be arrested, using available corrective Town Planning measures.

Today the journey I make out of the city limits of Accra fills me with sadness. This sadness stems from the fact that, the countryside has now been replaced with a haphazard pattern of concrete buildings contributing to a landscape inhabited and scattered by a vicinage of urban growth and its deadly impact - inequality, over crowding, poverty, ill health, unemployment, unsanitary and inadequate living conditions. These areas show high levels of a people dispossessed. These areas are usually disinvested and poor. Ashiaman in the east, Budubram in the west and Ablekuma in the south, fall into this category. The overall picture is one of continuing disadvantage. The Affordable housing units in Borteyman and Kpone built to alleviate these hardships stand desolate and empty, a testament to the complete disregard for Town Planning.

Planning must be reformed in order that it is fit for purpose. The market operating alone does not provide the most appropriate location for what is generally described as the non-profit-making use of land, such as transport infrastructure, gasworks, roads and sewerage plants. Nevertheless, the correct citing of these non-profit making uses of land can render the profit-making uses of land more profitable. Proximity and accessibility to these various services and activities are often essential to commercial viability. Town planning assists the market in becoming more efficient. To this end we must redesign our planning system to marry these two factors of the market and Town Planning and help bring back confidence.

Urban growth if unplanned and left to its own devices spells doom for our cities. The evidence is there for all to see. Accra has rapidly urbanised and it is projected that this urbanisation will increase further. Accra Metropolitan Area (AMA) alone according to the 2000 census represents 25% of all urban dwellers in Ghana. There is a need to plan for urban growth and the smart management of our existing urban centers, because failure to do so, will threaten our very existence. Now is the time to develop new and progressive urban policies and avoid slums and ghettoes. The masterplanning of Tripoli-Libya, Abuja-Nigeria and Luanda-Angola are examples from our own African continent of regeneration and land use planning. There are several other examples across the world to emulate and tailor to our particular purposes.

Mr. Vice President, when you announced the STX Korea deal, I thought it was premature and I continue to think so after listening to you at the open forum in South London. Listening to your attempt to justify the scheme on the basis that they offer a favorable repayment plan and is value for money is unacceptable and I am convinced way off the mark. It appears you have been ill-advised. A Chartered Town Planner in the UK is governed by the Code of conduct of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). A Chartered Town Planner in the UK offers pre-application advice for new developments, and can be made to pay costs to clients if the advice given is inconsistent with planning principles. My professional and yet humble advice to you is, to suspend all unilateral negotiations and agreements with the Koreans for now. Let the nation know that it has been placed in abeyance. Let us fix the problem of getting our planning system in shape. Value for money is not the basis for deciding the suitability of major housing schemes, I can assure you that if that were the case, Town Planners will be out of work in the United Kingdom and economists and bankers will decide such schemes. Prudence alone cannot determine the suitability of a scheme.

The very need for Town Planning is to act in the interest of communities against inequality, deprivation and squalor caused by the interplay of free market forces and their total lack of social concern. You must give more power to the communities you serve. I earnestly urge you to take Ghana into a new direction through the establishment of a Town Planning system that guarantees freedom, fairness, and responsibility. This can be achieved by the Government committing itself to a high level of quality in the housing sector, and raising the profile of the Planning Department.

Sir, let me draw your attention to the late Ken Saro Wiwa – an environmental journalist who was brutally executed by General Sani Abacha because he was courageous enough to stand up to both the Federal Government of Nigeria and Shell (the petrol giants) in demanding compensations and reparations for the Ogoni people of Eastern Nigeria. The rich Niger River delta region was economically destroyed by the natural gas flares and oil spills from oil exploration off the coast. You need an effective Town Planning department to prevent such environmental and social cost. Ghana is now an oil producing nation, and soon to be, exporting nation. We need to learn the bitter lessons from elsewhere like Nigeria, and avoid a repeat of same in our country. Giving Town Planners their rightful recognition and role in this, is a necessary starting point.

In deciding whether the STX Korea scheme is acceptable for Ghanaians, there are other planning considerations that matter, but which a financial cost consideration alone cannot achieve. Thus, as in this case, a financial appraisal alone, plus a unilateral agreement such as it is, is risky and ultimately irresponsible. A decision to build 30,000 houses should take a holistic view and must include implementation strategies such as such as protecting and enhancing the environment, maintaining employment opportunities, developing in sustainable locations, promoting leisure, recreation and sport, reducing travel need, protecting open space and habitat, enabling regeneration, securing adequate community facilities, meeting affordable housing needs and supporting local employment initiatives. Their robustness and successful implementation is achieved through the effectiveness of our Planning process.

When a majority of your fellow citizens elected you and the NDC Government into office in 2008, they did so with certain hopes and expectations. Not least among those expectations was a belief your administration would initiate a major effort to restore economic fairness and close the income disparity between Ghanaians and restore our faith in our institutions. The Town and Country Planning Department is one such institution that needs an image upgrade to lead the way in meeting the real challenges of our time.

Our people are confused, fearful and angry, because nobody listens and act on their concerns. Governments come with their own agenda and what turns out to be half baked proposals, uncompleted initiatives, and reinforced partisanship. We love you, Mr. Vice President. We care about you and your administration. We pray for you. We want desperately for you to succeed. Not for the sake of your presidency but for the sake of the Ghana we love. We know you can't do this alone, but we need you to keep the promise inherent in your candidacy. You have the wherewithal, and through heeding wise and cross checked counsel, you can really make a difference in the lives of the Ghanaian citizenry.

With the greatest respect and highest regard, I remain your humble servant,

Ernest Addae-Bosompra is a Town Planner in the UK: addaeB@hotmail.com