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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Abiodun: How planning blunders deface Lagos

This article was prompted by the fall-out of what Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State said at a lecture he delivered at the Yoruba Tennis Club’s Annual Business Luncheon and Lecture on May 8, 2015 at the Club’s house, Onikan Lagos.

A major shopping mall alleged to have inadequate setbacks is under construction just a few metres away from a major roundabout along the Epe-Lekki Expressway in Lagos
A sizeable shopping mall alleged to have inadequate setbacks is under construction just a few metres away from a major roundabout along the Epe-Lekki Expressway in Lagos. Photo credit: businessdayonline.com

Delivering the lecture titled “The Nigerian Agreement” as guest speaker at the club’s Annual Business Luncheon and Lecture, the governor harped on the need to set the right agenda about what should constitute the responsibility of the government and the governed (the citizenry) in our democratic setting. Aside the responsibility of government to provide security, fight corruption and fix the economy, Governor Fashola believed that the citizens must also set, for themselves, their own agenda anchored on their expectations of what good governance is all about. The governor then pontificated on the various ways to achieve this. The one that is pivotal to this writer among what he suggested was his admonition to the citizenry that “such agreement should include voluntary compliance to Law and Order” and other suggestions which he broached at length during the lecture.

This piece focuses on compliance with the rule of law as it affects urban planning in Lagos State, where the chief culprits of law breaking are the government itself and majority of the citizenry and, by extension, the urban planners who are often in collusion with the public to violate planning regulations, given their penchant and bad reputation for underhand dealings (euphemism for corruption). We shall expatiate further with a few examples to buttress the point being made.

That Lagos is now a full-fledged member of league of mega cities (cities with a minimum population of 10 million and above) around the world such as Tokyo, New York, Beijing, Mumbai and Cairo is not a matter of debate. But the primary concern is the million-dollar question: Is Lagos Mega City functioning properly the way a mega city should function? What most residents of Lagos often complained about, which points to its dysfunctionality, are the issues of perennial traffic congestion, shortage of water supply, environmental pollution (waste, noise and air) overcrowding, insufficient recreational facilities, slum proliferation and concern for security of life and property.

A city can only be functional, liveable, productive and sustainable based on the way it is planned and managed by competent and responsible authority. And to make this possible, it is the tripartite responsibility of government which prescribes the law about governance, the planners who craft the visions for the city in the form of development plan or master plan as well as the citizenry who should comply with the provisions of the law in order to achieve urban sustainability.

Unfortunately, the Lagos Mega City is being deprived of this urban planning ethos by its own government through the misguided efforts of its officials and cavalier attitude of the residents concerning what their roles should be in the planning process. Planning practice in the State of Excellence is contrary to what it should be. Planning is about creating a sense of place and making connections. It is also people-centred – the community members, the officials and others who support planning and, last but not the least, the planners who craft the visions that create livable, productive and sustainable cities.

Despite Governor Fashola’s valiant efforts to revamp the Lagos Mega City region towards the path of livability, functionality and sustainability, the same government openly violates its own planning regulations at its whims and caprices. For example, there is a provision in the State’s Urban and Physical Planning Law that stipulates the setting up of Urban and Regional Planning Tribunal, which is the body to preside over disputes arising from planning activities in Lagos State. The state, under the watch of the governor over seven years, did not bother to set this body up, despite its importance in the effective and equitable operation of the state’s planning machinery.

The citizenry who are aggrieved by the anti-planning activities of government officials have no place to go to obtain justice against the excesses of town planners.  On the contrary, when people violate town planning regulations, the officials are quick to apply the sledge hammer on erring citizens. Sometimes, buildings are demolished on the excuse of land use violation, whereas there are instances where the Lagos State Government equally run afoul of development control regulations. The sitting of a ferry terminal at a site earmarked as a play ground for the residents of Osborne Foreshore Estate Phase II, Ikoyi without due consultation with them (as the state’s planning law stipulates), is a perfect definition of abuse of due process. The state government does not seem to be guided by the axiom that: He who seeks equity must come with a clean hand.

Governor Fashola is an unrepentant advocate of rule of law. But there are proven cases of his government being selective in enforcing its own law(s), especially urban and physical planning law and development regulations. There are many law suits in court against the Lagos State Government by property owners who felt aggrieved by the violations of their rights due to the rascality of Lagos State town planning officials. If gospel according to Governor Fashola, as he canvassed in his lecture under reference, that the citizenry should voluntarily comply with law and order, then, charity should begin at home and the citizenry would follow suit. It is not enough to admonish that the residents should be law abiding, while the custodians and enforcers of the law are law breakers, as typified in the examples cited in this piece. Therefore, it goes without saying that government must walk the talk.

The Lagos Government officials who are saddled with the responsibility of monitoring compliance with development regulations in the state are the chief violators of the law they are supposed to enforce. Town Planners in Lagos are not in the good books of the citizenry. Their connivance and underhand dealings with the members of the public to break planning law is an open secret in the public domain; and a source of constant conflict with Lagos residents, especially property developers who have cause to interface with the planning officials. Lagos State planners are known to approve anything under the sun based on the bargaining power of those who seek their services.  If the stake is high, your plan is approved in a jiffy. If the stake is low, you cause their wrath and, if you dare them, you do so at your peril. Your property will be demolished, instead of being advised to amend your plan in order to make it approvable.

Most are arm chair town planners who sit in the comfort of their office to carry out their planning duties. They seldom conduct site inspection to ascertain the compatibility of land uses and, as a result, they create land uses that are inimical to investment. If not, how does one justify the location of a petrol station right in the middle of a residential area such as the one located on Rear Admiralty Way in Lekki Phase I, which went up in flames last March when a petrol tanker had an accident during the process of discharging fuel within the premises of the station, injuring some people? Or the rampant location of crowd-pulling establishments such as banks, churches and shopping malls in areas with minimal parking space and where they would further aggravate the traffic problem in their vicinity?

For example, a shopping mall (bigger than The Palms in Victoria Island) is under construction just a few metres away from a major roundabout along the Epe-Lekki Expressway. The facility has inadequate setbacks and, consequently, the ease of traffic in-flow and out-flow from the shopping mall have been compromised. Time will tell when the consequence of this planning gaffe begins to manifest after the mall starts operating. The traffic jam would be better imagined.

While all these development infractions persist, the planning authority looks the other way. Erring officials are never sanctioned against the wanton abuse of the very soul of planning by planners in the employ of the Lagos State Government. Such lack of disciplinary actions against offending officers further embolden them to behave the way they like with the aura of the “king-can-do-no-wrong.”

Citizens’ indiscipline and careless attitude to planning is another advertent mistake militating against good urban planning practice in Lagos State. The residents cannot be exonerated from blame for the neglect of their neighborhoods. In our clime, cities are not perceived as “communities” where the residents share common vision, values and concerns; and where life is regulated by co-operation for the common good, most especially the promotion of better quality of life: good schools, provision of urban basic services, recreation, job opportunities, security and nature conservancy. In Lagos State, most of her towns are not communities in the true sense of the word. They are “no-man’s land” where shared values are uncommon but instead, individualism/survival instinct reigns supreme. At the slightest opportunity, the citizens are ready to break the law, a behaviour that is becoming the norm in the society because of the seeming societal biased against the honest and obedient. The management of the city which ought to be a joint responsibility between the government and the governed is left in a fluid state. At its whims and caprices, the government plans for the people instead of planning with them. The citizens never have “our plan”; but government plan. Public participation in planning is perfunctory.  It is practiced in tokenism in Lagos State.

Admittedly, laws are meant to guide the conduct of the citizens. Those who violate the law are reprimanded. However, compliance of the law by the citizenry has to do with the seriousness government attach to the enforcement of the law. If government use double standard, favouritism or has less regard for its own law, the citizens are more often disposed to breach than obey the law. Governor Fashola’s homily about the rule of law and voluntary obedience of law and order by the citizenry will gain more traction if the Lagos State Government leads by example; and by curbing the excesses of its town planning officials who flagrantly commit environmental crime without being brought to book. Once precedence is set in violation of planning law, it becomes a reference point for others to copy.

By Yacoob Abiodun (Urban Planner/ Former Secretary, Housing Policy Council, Abuja)  

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