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Editorial Comment: Use devolution funds to fix suburban waste

The Members of Parliament from both sides of the House of Assembly who initiated debate this week on how to fund renovation and upgrading of old suburbs were tackling what is becoming an ever more serious problem, as growing population densities and declining maintenance take their tolls.

And while Dzivarasekwa MP Edwin Mushoriwa stressed the need to fix up the oldest of the high-density suburbs, the “native locations” of the colonial era, and he is correct that these probably need to be on the top of the list, they are not alone.

At the other end of the scale you can drive into old Highlands, possibly the poshest of the suburbs opened up by the Second World War, and on many roads you will want caterpillar tracks fitted to your Benz, and even in this area infrastructure like sewers need to be extended as high-end cluster housing pushes up densities.

Even our city centres show signs of decay in places, and you get areas like the Avenues where the outstanding tree-planting efforts of the first few years of the last century are now reaching their sell-by date and really need to be supported by a replacement programme.

In all cases, both the basic infrastructure and the aesthetics, we need to start thinking what our towns and cities are going to look like as we approach 2030 with a solid decade of economic growth behind us. What is there right now is not really what anyone would expect in a middle-income country.

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Mr Mushoriwa was moving a motion to have this sort of work included in the national budget. Well, to a large degree it is. 

The devolution fund is supposed to help urban authorities do precisely what Mr Mushoriwa wants done, using central Government funds to pad out what the city councils, municipalities and town boards raise themselves from residents, especially for capital works and for renovation of capital works, like infrastructure.

That said, constituency MPs applying arguments and pressures to build up those devolution funds is not a bad idea. One problem, of course, is the shocking state of most urban authorities, especially those running the older urban areas. 

They are more likely to spend their devolution funds on things that do not really help vast swathes of the majority.

We have seen this with the roads, where the Government has had to use its state of disaster powers to override local control, or to be precise lack of local control, to ensure that the funds allocated to roads are used on roads rather than on salaries for suspended top officials or other requirements a council might feel is more urgent.

The spending of devolution funds is a local issue. 

The central Government started the programme, and under the Second Republic started funding it properly, so that local communities would choose what they wanted to spend the money on. Big Brother was not going to dictate and decide what people needed or what they wanted.

Government’s role is basically just ensuring the money is spent on building or rebuilding something, rather than being squandered on recurrent expenditure, and that the normal tender processes are followed properly. 

A lot of rural district councils have been using their devolution funds to build clinics, and that also means putting in water supplies for the clinics and housing for the nurses, since while there was a basic network far too many people had to figure out how to get medical attention when they were not feeling well. 

This is starting from the bottom up.

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Urban councils could do the same. It might well take a decade to do what the MPs would like to see happen, but they can start tomorrow. 

A decent plan can be drawn up fairly quickly to get the roads, sewers, water supplies, major markets and bus terminuses to fit into Vision 2030, and then as the cash flows in from Zinara for the roads, from central Government for useful projects under devolution and from the capital component of ratepayer funds each month, and each year, something more is done.

We still have 90 months to 2030.

At the same time homeowners and property owners can be encouraged to do their bit. 

Many house-proud people have already extended their homes and as time goes on some might even rebuild. 

Dzivarasekwa is not a bad example; it was set up to move domestic workers out of Mabelreign in the colonial days, yet there are swathes of far better quality housing in parts of that suburb now. 

What is lacking is, as the MP noted, the same upgrade in infrastructure. 

In fact in the older part of the suburb basically nothing has been done in that line since it was built, and further improvements by homeowners are neither possible, nor necessarily a good investment, until the infrastructure is renovated and then developed.

A Parliamentary debate on all of this is a good idea. 

Already we see MPs talking about fixing problems rather than scoring points, so some constructive ideas can emerge in a growing consensus. 

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Obviously most will back the Government plans to push up budgets steadily for devolution spending. 

They might also want to see how councils are spending that money, and spending their Zinara money. The growth of the portfolio committee system gives them a window to check, since the committees are allowed to stick their noses into almost anything.

HERALD