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Renewal of Sierra Leone’s Social Housing Stock: The Case for Local Government Intervention

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

25 March 2010

On the 3 March 2010, President Koroma met with members of the Sierra Leone Institute of Architects, the Institute of Engineers, building contractors, entrepreneurs and financers. The aim of the meeting was to discuss how the President could realise his dream of having new and affordable housing for ordinary citizens, in celebration of the country’s 50th Independence Anniversary. Nice dream to have, but how real is it?

If the President is serious in realising this dream, he did not say how many houses he had in mind, nor discussed how the programme could be financed. He had no plan, nor did he provide the necessary strategic leadership to establish a public - private sector partnership that could make his dream a reality.

Nonetheless, the debate as to the efficacy and need for a large scale public sector driven social housing development programme, is one that ought to start now. And this must be a national debate, with cross party political consensus.

The need for a national social housing renewal and rebuilding programme cannot be over-emphasized. It is now thirty years since the government of Sierra Leone embarked on a national low cost housing development scheme.

The 1970s social housing scheme was largely successful in meeting the needs of a fraction of the low income population in just a few of the major towns and cities. But it was highly politicised, and driven by corrupt officials, with the blessings of ministers. Lessons must be learnt.

The ultimate destruction of what was once regarded as a brilliant public policy instrument aimed at addressing housing shortage began with the crumbling of key state institutions. The programme was crippled by poor management, nepotism, corruption, and the erosion of the culture of maintenance.

The low cost housing units ceased to provide reasonable shelter for its occupants, as they became dilapidated and unfit for human habitation. Yet thousands of people continue to live in them, as the alternative is homelessness.

The low cost housing programme was not huge by any stretch of the imagination, but it served as a national icon, which sadly in some parts of the country has become a national disgrace – an obscene waste of public funds.

Some may argue that the low cost housing programme ought to have been left in the hands of the private sector. They say that it would have been well maintained and managed; and its stock would have grown annually in keeping with market demand and rising population.

Sadly, by the beginning of 2000 – marking the end of the rebel war, most of the low cost housing stock had been destroyed. A few of those that remain standing have been refurbished and illegally taken into private possession by sitting tenants. Some were sold off by the state, with proceeds unaccounted for.

Yet the vast majority continues to provide shelter for some of the poorest in Sierra Leone’s society – notwithstanding there are still thousands of poorer citizens that live in makeshift shelters made of card boards, plastic and corrugated sheets.

Speaking to local architects, engineers, building contractors, entrepreneurs and financers at State House in Freetown, President Koroma told his guests; “I have convened this meeting to remind you of your responsibilities in nation-building.”

But the private sector does not take political dictates from above seriously. They will only listen and act upon strategic economic development opportunities that have the potential, for them to pursue their business interests, no matter how altruistic they may be.

The President went on to inform the meeting that; “When I took up office, I specifically appealed to architects to design our towns and villages so as to help minimize unemployment rate and simultaneously show something that is Sierra Leonean. The architects initially presented a very impressive design; unfortunately they are still fine-tuning the diagram.” They are waiting for the Strategic Plan Mr. President.

The President's ambition is laudable, but the approach and process should be much more strategic. The need to redesign our towns and villages should have been enshrined in the government’s ‘Agenda for Change’ strategy document.

The Agenda for Change incorporating a proposed ‘Local Housing Renewal and Renaissance Programme’, should have acted as one of the drivers of the country’s decentralisation programme. Local people and their councils should be empowered to work in partnership with the private sector to identify, plan and deliver local services – such as housing.

In an attempt to outline his objective, the President said that he would like “to address Sierra Leone’s housing problems, urging the architects and engineers to design decent houses with the aim of using our local materials at affordable costs and to make it possible for the ordinary farmer to have an affordable, not sophisticated, but decent house.”

“We must work with the local councils to come up with designs for the average citizen. If we don’t take that approach now, we could find ourselves in a difficult situation as it is now happening in Freetown” – said President Koroma.

If this is the President’s objective, then there is now an urgent need for him to establish a Strategic Partnership Group, made up of local council representatives, the Institute of Architects, the Institute of Engineers, building contractors, entrepreneurs and financers.

This Group should be tasked with putting together an integrated and coherent National Housing Renewal and Renaissance Plan. The Plan should identify housing needs in each of the provincial towns and the capital, with a clearly defined budget requirement.

Although costs of the Programme would be quite high, this should be seen as a necessary investment in the nation’s housing stock. It will also lead in kick starting the country’s economic recovery after two years of decline sustained from declining mining export and reduced government tax revenue.

A National Housing Renewal and Renaissance Programme could stimulate the creation of thousands of building construction job opportunities in local communities; spearhead private sector business development through sub-contracting and supply chain involvement.

Sierra Leone’s decentralisation programme is facing serious political setbacks, as some central government departments continue to obstruct the process, so as to preserve their jobs, authority and budgets. But this is untenable.

The government has to genuinely speed up the process of decentralisation, and the proposed National Housing Renewal and Renaissance Programme should be regarded as a key component of that strategy.

President Koroma’s ambition is clear: “On the fiftieth Independence celebrations, my plans are not to have an elaborate party, but to show that we as a country can do things on our own, things that will make people know that we are making a difference.”

While the President may not achieve this ambition before the 27 April 2011, urgent steps must now be taken to empower stakeholders to act in partnership.

To achieve a dream is to start with a coherent Plan. But the debate as to the need for a ‘National Housing Renewal and Renaissance Programme’ should start now, and it must be incorporated as part of the government’s Agenda for Change.

And equally, as the main opposition SLPP begins to focus on its manifesto, it may want to seriously address the issue of social housing in local communities, as part of the decentralisation strategy.

The need to provide suitable shelter for people who continue to be homeless as the result of the war, along with those in society that cannot afford habitable standard of housing, is one of the greatest challenges facing Sierra Leone.

There must be a cross party political consensus in addressing this issue, with the international community including the World Bank and the African Development Bank, standing ready to offer financial assistance. This should be done through a long-term repayment loan agreement. The price of failure to act collectively and decisively is far too high to contemplate.

As the President remarked in his address; “government cannot do it on its own, but the country can do it through the consortium of architects, engineers, contractors, local businessmen, financial institutions and local councils.”

Decentralisation is the vehicle for achieving this ambition.

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