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New expectations, with Neil Fraser
10 November 2008

In light of the changes promised by Barack Obama to the way the US governs its cities, what can our cities expect from a new government?

Neil FraserI WAS interested to read, a couple of weeks back, well before the US elections, an analysis of what cities in the US could reasonably expect under each candidate for the presidency.

The John McCain approach can now be ignored as irrelevant but the commentator suggested that under Barack Obama there will, in all likelihood, be "an activist federal government in areas from transit and infrastructure to housing. But this won't be the historic Democrat centre-city urban policy but rather shifting and co-ordinating federal programmes to help boost the fortunes of entire metropolitan regions."

In addition, Obama made a pre-election pledge "to create the first ever White House Office on Urban Policy. With a director reporting to the president, its role would be to get the federal government's historically ‘siloed' cabinet departments and agencies to work collaboratively with cities and metro regions." He endorsed a new national infrastructure bank, "seeded with $60-billion (about R612-billion) in Federal funds over 10 years, to move road rail, bridge, airport and other metro area projects forward". He was also calling for "$200-million in annual grants to spark ‘regional clusters' in advance sciences or cutting edge technologies".

At the US Conference of Mayors in June, he is reported to have said, "Yes we need to fight poverty ... fight crime ... but we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions and strong regions are essential for a strong America."

Amen, Mr President-elect!

Skilled administrators
So where would moneys come from in the current economic climate? The commentator suggested that funds could well become available by dropping America's arming "of their aggressive foreign policy" but, whatever the constraints, Obama's presidency would at least aspire "to deliver 21st century intellectual power, strong personal commitment to our cities and regions and intent to appoint the most skilled administrators the country has to offer. That alone would clean away the detritus of the last years - with a youthful administration, and a Congress and president of the same party, metropolitan America's chances would surely be brighter."

To deliver 21st century intellectual power, strong personal commitment to our cities and regions and intent to appoint the most skilled administrators the country has to offer - wow, what an inspiring commitment!

What has this to do with us?

Firstly, I don't think that I've heard anything from the "new regime" in relationship to urban, or for that matter, rural issues. Secondly, how refreshing it would be to hear from presidential candidates or, in our case I guess from political parties, what their approach to such issues would be - after all their approaches will affect the lives of every person in this country, not just the over 50 percent who live in our urban areas.

Thirdly, I don't think that the current national government has exactly covered itself in glory in regard to our towns and our cities. Urban policy is generally not debated publicly and is usually handed down from on high. Apartheid planning is still alive and well, with many municipalities clearly ignoring the imperative of integration within town and city centres as they let greedy developers establish projects that dis-integrate their urban centres.

Fourteen years after embracing democratic government, much urban planning in this country still acts as an exclusionary factor, particularly for the poor. Given the ongoing racial divide that characterises rich and poor, it is imperative that centres of integration be specifically developed and that new development is not allowed to further fragment racial integration.

At a workshop on Poverty alleviation and exclusion in the inner city, in 2003, Professor Sue Parnell said, "Not all of the people who are unable to access the resources or opportunities of the city are poor, but they are excluded through prejudice, law or the failure to be able to achieve their rights because of the way the social or administrative system is structured."

Silo mentality
The silo mentality persists at all three levels of government, with the national government curtailing any form of public entrepreneurship through controlling legislation.

Municipalities that tried to become more efficient by corporatising services, as Johannesburg did, now have these entities also subject to the massive bureaucracy imposed through the Municipal Finance and Management Act - government aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Even then, corporatisation doesn't appear to have resulted in increased efficiencies in all our municipal-owned entities.

Our so called "integrated planning" is another approach that appears brilliant on paper but has little effect on the ground.

Typical of our ability to design competent legislation based on world best practice and then not to fund its implementation, is our national heritage legislation, but it goes far beyond that. Bureaucracy and lack of enforcement have bred inefficiencies on a massive scale as well as corruption.

Lack of enforcement, or at local level selective enforcement, is restraining proper development and I think is still one of the biggest negatives we live with. I read and hear of promises that a new administration will focus on poverty and service delivery but we've been hearing that for 14 years! As someone said to me, "We talk so good that we believe our own lies!"

Grumpy? End of the year blues? Not really. Maybe my recent trip to Europe and the US elections have exposed me again to what things could be like when politicians are brave enough to say real things for which they will be held accountable and civil servants do what they should be doing when it needs to be done.

Regards, Neil

Walking tour: Saturday, 15 November
Wits West Campus - a nostalgic trip to the showgrounds
Start at the Tower of Light and the memories will come flooding back as you recognise building after building. Since the university acquired the grounds of the Rand Show (Witwatersrand Agricultural Society) the exhibition halls and pavilions have been adapted for new uses.

Some additions have been made and new buildings have sprung up in between, but the layout of the Empire exhibition remains intact.

Meet Raymond Cardoso, Liz Parker and Flo Bird inside the grounds of the University of the Witwatersrand West Campus. The tour starts at 2pm. The cost is R55 for members and R75 for non-members and booking is at Computicket, on 083 915 8000 or 011 340 8000, or through the Computicket website.

For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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Last Updated on 10 November 2008