Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Urban regeneration in Colombo

There have been a number of articles on the urban redevelopment that is taking place at break-neck speed in Colombo. Many of these have focused on the human aspects: the plight of evicted residents, the loss of a certain way of life or the change in the character of the city.

There are many positive things that can come from urban renewal, depending on what drives the programme. The earliest ones were apparently carried out in Victorian London to provide social housing to the poor, replacing the terrible slums that they lived in. A similar justification is being used in the case of some of Colombo's new projects but one must note two critical points: the terrible conditions in London at the time, and the underlying purpose of the exercise : to improve the lives of the poor by providing cheap housing for the poor.

Here the impetus seems to be more modern, one of stimulating economic growth through urban regeneration. This is something that has also worked (with varying degrees of success) in many different places. This can certainly work, but only with the right policy and governance framework.

In the case of our fair city I fear it may be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

If the economy booms, consistently over a few years people will have money to spend and there will be demand for land: for shops, for business premises, for entertainment.

When the demand materialises it makes sense to redevelop older or decaying parts of the city, to improve land usage or relieve congestion. If the economy were booming then the Town and Urban Councils would be flush with cash (from trade based taxes) and there would be less need to borrow money to redevelop. It would also be possible to get the private sector involved in the redevelopment process, minimising the need for debt funding.

Urban regeneration needs to go hand in hand with the right policy and good governance because this is what really drives growth. Ideally these should precede the regeneration effort and will help overall growth and the building of confidence. Getting this right policy costs little money but requires enlightened leadership. Once in place, growth will take place overall and attention may be turned towards the more neglected or  decaying parts of the city.

Unfortunately what appears to be happening is debt funded beautification for which there is scant demand and is likely to remain underutilised - because the fundamental drivers are not in place.

What is this business of governance? What does it take to create an economic boom? Restore the rule of law, simplify regulation, minimise the need for permits and licenses (eliminate altogether where possible, simplify where essential) have clear transparent rules that people can simply read and follow. A simple, consistent tax code, simple exchange control regulations and so forth.

What I see now is a maze of ever more complex regulations that appear to keep getting added to at an alarming rate and in a thoroughly haphazard manner. Worse, there are so many ambiguities that no one is sure what they mean so one must go from one public official to another seeking clarifications and approvals.

Bottom line: if this is to work, cut the red tape that is strangling the economy.


sbarrkum said...

Floating Market Pettah: This area has plenty of traffic. Its affordable and the heart of where the majority of the population go to get buses to near and distant villages.

For me, who travels by bus, this is a fantastic place. The cynic in me wonders whether the glitter will wear off and the place becomes dirty because of the high traffic.


Jack Point said...

That is good to hear, Sbarrkum. Thanks for teh link, will check it out some time.