Population boom in urban areas

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 16th December 2011

EXPERTS have predicted that urban populations in Africa and Asia will double, such that by 2030, developing countries will host 80% of the world’s urban population. UN projects that during the next two decades, 90% of urbanisation will take place in developing countries, whose total populations is expected to grow by almost 2 billion during the first three decades of this century.
This is the world scenario on urban population growth. Locally, population boom in the towns and cities of Papua New Guinea is mounting – and this sociological process will no way end. PNG’s population is estimated to reach seven million by this year. The United Nations office says ignorance by the government to address this population growth rate is already having adverse effects on land, housing and public utilities in Port Moresby, Lae and other cities and towns.
With an ever increasing movement of people from rural to urban areas, PNG is now wedged in an absurdity, as most cities and towns have failed to keep pace with increasing demand for housing and land. The prospect for a better life – even the slimmest hope – is better than these migrants place of origin and urban-rural drift will not be stopped by a Vagrancy Act.
Apart from the ethnic conflicts that add to this ambiguity, many urban boundaries are now growing rapidly than accessibility and expansion of public utilities and services. With this comes exorbitant costs associated with land and housing. More than two-thirds of developments, especially buildings, in the National Capital District are informal; all maybe due to confusing or irrational building regulations and insecure property rights. If such a mass is in the capital city which is administered by a commission, other cities and towns are far worst.
An average employee working in our cities and towns, who earns a net of K500-K800 a fortnight, can’t afford to rent a decent house let alone meet other basic family expenses. Most rooms with common facilities are rented out for K300 – K400 a fortnight and houses are from K800 – K1500 a fortnight. An average net income earner of K500 – K800 a fortnight cannot adequately meet his/her cost of living.
A life testimony from a senior public servant reveals an everyday state of affairs in Port Moresby. This person who wants to remain anonymous is an assistant secretary with a government department. On a Grade 16 pay scale, his gross salary is about K1,400 every fortnight. After tax and Nambawan Super deduction, his take-home-pay is K900. As father of four, he needs a decent house to accommodate his family but his salary can’t afford that. He now resides with his family at 8-Mile Settlement, a kilometre out of Gordon suburb. He commutes to his office with struggles daily. He competes with vendors of Gordon market at 8-Mile Bus stop to get on a bus. At times, he jumps into the bus through the windows to occupy a seat because he couldn’t make his way in through the door. Commuters compete every everyday for the limited seats in the unroadworthy buses.
Many public servants and staff from the private sector, who fall in the same income bracket, can’t afford a decent house or even a car loan, and contemplate if they can live through to the next day. Most below this income bracket are all living in the squatter settlements. There are many others out there who would have their own chronicle of life-in-Port Moresby.   
Unlike the PNG scenario, in other countries, the basic expenses of a family are accommodated fortnightly in their take-home pay. Such expenses include rent, food, clothing, transport, leisure and a bit of savings for school fess. This becomes the bases for governments to set their minimum wages.
One may stroll through the streets of cities and towns, meander along the pathways, or follow the roads that bisect the city and town boundaries on the way to the surrounding countryside, it seems there is enough land – in the physical sense. However, scarcity of serviced land is causing housing prices to increase rapidly. This is caused by distortions in the land release system, ill-considered policies and regulations.
The land release system in the Department of Lands and Physical Planning is not meeting demand. Demand for serviced land is high but the department is not tendering vacant serviced plots as often as expected. Tenders in the recent past were initiated by individuals for formality sake. High covenant buildings are built in most of our squatter settlements and this is an indication of availability of housing finance but lack of serviced land.
Most people find it difficult to access serviced land but a select few take joy ride through the land release system because of favours and bribery. They are speculating land and making millions of kina out of nothing. Many of the urban poor are found residing on hillsides, flood plains, waste dumps and in slums. The class system is now obvious in many urban places. Majority of residents, especially the middle and lower-income earners, are building homes incrementally, adding rooms or floors as resources permit. They do so with no access to long-term formal financing, in violation of zoning or building codes, and often on land not legally owned. Typically, they earn irregular incomes from periodic employment and/or informal jobs and markets, and are not viewed by bankers as good prospects for mortgages. Hence different solutions are now needed for households at different rungs in the income ladder when it comes to making more land available for housing opportunities for all.
The Urban Development Lease Scheme (UDL) is given prominence by Department of Lands and Physical Planning as a private-public partnership mechanism in land development. However, it is not achieving its desired objectives because of abuse. Most leaseholders of UDLs are not complying with lease conditions. They don’t have the required financial capacity to develop and keep the vacant land under their custody for too long and sometimes sell them to others.
These individuals and businesses who comply with the lease agreements create overly ambitious plot sizes and road widths on new housing developments and end up with units that are too expensive for middle and low-income residents. A typical example is the Malolo Estate at 8-Mile. Planning laws and regulations were not given any attention during the subdivision and construction phase. The prices for the houses are too high and the whole development is in chaos.
With so many cities enduring the same growing pains, PNG’s cities and towns have an opportunity to learn from others. To the extent we are successful; others have the opportunity to learn from us. We should recognise too, that the flip side of the country’s burgeoning growth is the great social and economic potential that comes with urbanisation – and with which our urban area may lead our country to greater prosperity.
A close examination would reveal that the ad hoc and uncoordinated policies and systems of the land release system are contributing to the shortages of affordable land resulting in high land and housing costs. Policies can be changed, regulations can be modified or abolished, and innovative solutions can be found – as long as there’s political will. These are not needed to work in a vacuum.

l Vincent Pyati is research fellow of the land research programme His programme falls under the wealth creation pillar at the PNG National Research Institute


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