Chaos rocks system

Chaos rocks system

MASERU-MASERU City Council (MCC) officials are allegedly sabotaging an electronic system designed to make it easier and faster to get construction permits.
Architects say this is a well-orchestrated ploy by some MCC officials to keep on raking in bribes as they did under the previous manual system.
So serious is the sabotage that the digital system launched in January 2017 is now much slower than its predecessor.

Known as the Automated Construction Permit System, it was designed to reduce the time it takes to get a permit from an average 106 to between 14 and 30 days.
But according to the latest estimates it now takes more than 120 days to get a construction permit.
The result is that building projects are delayed or stalled altogether, adding more misery to the construction sector that has shrunk by more than a quarter since January and is still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Corruption is said to be rampant as some desperate property developers bypass their architects to deal with some unscrupulous council officials they bribe to quicken the process.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

At its launch, city council and local government officials waxed lyrical about how they will make it easier and faster to get construction permits.
Six months before the launch a senior council official said the system would “greatly” reduce the time it takes to get a permit and “encourage foreign investors to set up businesses here”.

Another official promised that the system will issue a construction permit in 14 days.
Both officials were right because that’s precisely what the system was designed to do.
Most architects were fed up with the old manual system that forced them to knock on several council doors clutching wads of documents.

From the council they would trek to offices of the Water and Sewerage Company (Wasco) and the Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC), utility parastatals whose approval is mandatory for construction permits.
Then the long and torturous wait would start: one week, two weeks, one month, three months and six months. Sometimes one year.

Visits to the MCC offices would be met with answers like: “it’s in the process”, “Wasco has not approved”, “it’s not yet signed”, “the responsible official is on leave” or “there is a query”. And that is if the officials were in the office and willing to rummage through the piles of files.
The Automated Construction Permit System was supposed to change all that.

There was reason to be optimistic because the same system is working well in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. Rwanda, which Lesotho used as a model, had significantly reduced turnaround time for construction permits.
An October 2013 report submitted to the World Bank, the funder, said it will be an “automated, predictable and transparent” system.

Compiled by the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP), the report said the ultimate goals were to save time, reduce the regulatory burden on the private sector and trim the MCC’s transactional costs.
The report said the system will improve service delivery and reduce opportunities for rent-seeking.
For a few months things seemed to be going according to plan, much to the delight of architects and property developers.

At its most efficient the system was supposed to issue a permit within two weeks.
Architects say although the system did not live up to its “permit in two weeks” promise there was some progress. One said he got a permit within a month while another one had his within two months.
But then the wheels started coming off and things soon took a turn for the worst.

Just three years on architects say the situation has regressed.
And it is not because of the system’s shortcomings but some council officers allegedly throwing spanners in the works. They don’t necessarily fiddle with the system but simply bypass it or just don’t follow its processes.
For example, an application can be left hanging in the system for weeks or months. Without action, the system doesn’t generate the updates required at the several stages of the application. Nothing moves.
As frustration sets in some architects have asked for a forensic investigation into the system.

That was the consensus of the meeting a dozen architects had on Monday with the PSCEDP, through which the World Bank funded the system.
Chaba Mokuku, the PSCEDP’s Project Manager, has since escalated the matter to the MCC’s Director of Planning.
“It is sad that things have turned out this way when so much investment has been made on the system,” Mokuku told the meeting.
“What is clear from the feedback is that the system works perfectly but there seems to be a human element spoiling everything.”

Architects told the meeting that some council officials were deliberately slowing the approval process to pressure property developers to pay bribes.
“After the application they don’t make updates on the system and when you call they raise query after query,” said an architect who said he has been waiting for a permit since August last year.
“If you push harder they will simply side-line you and deal with your client. When the client meets them the queries simply disappear and the permit is approved,” he said.

Another architect whose application has been stuck since last November said some clients are now forcing them to violate council bylaws “because they can pay off the council officials to get their buildings approved”.
“What you say doesn’t matter because you will be arguing with a property developer who has their own person at the MCC. The system is now more rotten than it was when it was manual.”

“When you call, they will tell you there is a query like a missing document. But when you submit that document they will ask why you uploaded it on the system without consulting them,” he said.
“This consultation and interaction is what the system was meant to stop because it breeds corruption.”
The architects’ stories illustrate a council whose planning has become haphazard because property developers bribe some council officials to approve their project.

“As long as you pay a bribe you can get away with anything,” said one who said he watched in horror as his client started construction before a permit was approved.
He walked away but later discovered that the council issued a permit when the project was almost half done.

Another had his application for a warehouse along the Main North 1 Road rejected but another developer got approval to build a similar building on the next plot.
“I was told it belonged to some Chinese guy who owns several warehouses in Maseru,” he said.
The architects also shared anecdotes of how several projects in Maseru brazenly violate council bylaws.
A school in one village allegedly sits on land designated for residential houses. It is now crammed between houses and doesn’t have a playground or enough parking.

A religious building in one upmarket suburb is said to have been approved by a junior council official without thorough consultation with residents who are now complaining about congestion and noise.
A hardware in a village in the southern part of Maseru is perched on what was already a busy and dangerous intersection. The intersection is now almost impassable during peak hours.

“Even the building in which the MCC has offices has issues,” said one.
Their stories paint a picture of a council that appears to have lost control of its processes and cannot enforce its own bylaws.
For instance, some buildings have been allowed to encroach into areas demarcated for roads.
The architects say it is not clear what distance the city council allows between a building and a road.

“One day they say it’s 3.5 metres, sometimes it’s seven metres and on another day, they say it’s 15 metres,” said an architect, adding that “it depends on who you meet and who is paid”.
“One colleague was told that even 1.5 metres is fine,” he said amid chuckles from participants.
There appears to be little control over what a developer does on a building once the permit is granted because the council doesn’t conduct inspections during construction.

You can get approval for a two-floor building and put up three storeys.
A building approved for housing can be turned into a church, bar or crèche.
“Once you get that permit you have the freedom to do whatever you want on the site,” said another participant who is not an architect but works at a construction company.
One said some developers have become so bold that they tell architects to just do the drawings, submit the application and they will take it up with their contacts in the council.

“You tell them that the application will not pass and they will say you should leave that problem to them because they have their ways,” said another architect.
“The reality is that most of the buildings in this country don’t meet the standards and should not be where they are.”
In March last year architects met the MCC officials to discuss the system. They recommended some changes which the council accepted but never implemented.

One architect said the council’s excuse at that time was that the delays were caused by Wasco and LEC.
In April 2019 the MCC, with help of the World Bank through the PSCEDP, ungraded the system to include an electronic payment. The idea, which fit well with the system’s objectives, was that applicants would not have to queue at the council offices or banks to pay the fees. That too has not helped.

Lintle Mosala, the MCC spokesperson, said the council accepts that there could be some delays in the system but it doesn’t believe those are deliberate.
“We do experience some technical problems from time to time but we always try our best to sort them as quickly as we can,” Mosala said.
“But as to how the system works I think these are matters that should be brought to us so that we resolve them.”

Mosala said some of the delays cannot be blamed entirely on the council because the system depends on the work of utility companies.
“In fact we have always raised issues with the utility companies. In a way this speaks to the need for a one-stop shop arrangement so that everything is monitored at one level.”

Mosala said she could neither confirm nor deny the allegations of corruption because they are “complex issues”.
“Unless there is a report from someone it is difficult to speak conclusively about issues of corruption. If there are such reports the council will take appropriate action.”

Staff Reporter

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