The move by the Ministry of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing to investigate illegal and wrong allocation of land in all towns and cities is not, as some fear, a mass destruction of all unplanned housing but rather an effort to find out what went wrong, what can be condoned with proper planning, and who, if destruction is needed, is eligible for compensation and who pays that compensation.
The worst area of such wrong allocation is in Chitungwiza and Seke communal lands just over the border from the town. So the investigation starts there.
Illegal settlements have been created, houses are being built on undeveloped land, meaning that there are no water and sewer connections, and houses are being built on land that must be used for other purposes or which is totally unsuitable for building.
Minister Chombo was clear last week in what was going to be done. His deputy, Cde Joel Biggie Matiza, heads the team, to ensure it has a high profile and gets things done, but the team comprises experts in the required fields, to ensure that a professional assessment of the problems and options is made.
The Minister was also clear that construction work on dodgy stands stops now.
Should innocent victims of incompetent or greedy officials gain compensation, and this is probably a legal requirement, then it will only be for work done up to Thursday last week. Anything done afterwards will not only be uncompensated, but we hope that those who ignore this instruction also lose compensation for work done earlier.
Urban development, especially our modern high-density development in big cities, requires good planning to avoid health risks, ensure new slums are not created, ensure necessary services can be placed in the area, and to ensure that housing will be safe.
These are not onerous or arbitrary demands. They are simply the minimum to create cities that are building homes not problems.
Planners have a lot to think through. Land has to be set aside in every residential area for houses, schools, roads, services, parks and recreation, commercial centres and service industries.
Even if the school is only to be built in three years time when most people have moved in, or parks might not be developed for a decade until money is available, the land must be there. People just cannot build where they want.
There are some features that are not as important as others. For example, in the last year or two the word “wetland” has been bandied around a lot; these used to be called swamps and vleis and most in and around our towns and cities have long been drained for health and other reasons.
With the way drainage is dramatically altered when buildings are built and roads laid, a swamp in the middle of a city is never going to be anything else but a danger.
The environmental impact of a city is huge, and we suspect that trying to retain wetlands inside city limits will cause more environmental damage than having a tighter city without them. But planning experts do use drained wetlands for open spaces; most of our parks, playing fields and golf courses are on them.
But these are questions that the expert team has to consider.
We assume that the team will not just be allocating blame and responsibility, and even recommending criminal and civil action where necessary, but will also be trying to figure out how to clean up the resulting mess and how to help those who have been duped.
But it must be done. We have a horrible example of what happens when something is left too long.
We do not need, and certainly do not want, another Epworth. That is why Minister Chombo’s swift action is so necessary.