Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 July 2021:
Communities in low-lying areas of Freetown are once again at the receiving end of the heavy rains that are peltering the country. Many people have this week lost their homes, as floods reaching several feet destroy houses and livelihoods.
Heavy rains and flooding in the capital is nothing new, nor is the lack of sustainable long-term response from the government whose preoccupation is waging political dogfight with the mayor and elected councillors of Freetown, in a bid for the ruling SLPP party to take over control of the running of the council when local elections are held next year.
Since the 1960s, successive governments have allowed the capital to be overpopulated by encouraging and facilitating uncontrolled migration, especially from their party political heartlands in the provinces, so as to achieve electoral advantage.
This dangerous and reckless policy has destroyed the capital – a city established for no more than 250,000 people – now accommodating over 2 million households, many living in corrugated shacks in deplorable conditions.
Although the 2004 Local Government Act empowers local councils to run their communities, the mayor of Freetown and elected councillors do not have powers to control urban sprawl and environmental degradation that is choking the city. The minister of lands does – defacto, and is abusing his powers.
The government, in particular the ministry of lands is refusing to devolve land use planning and issuing of building permit to Freetown City Council, for fear of losing a gravy train that has enriched many public officials. Neither do they want to lose control of their political agenda.
The rapid growth and expansion of slums in dangerous sites and the suffering shown on this video are a direct result of the absence of development control in Freetown, because the ministry of lands has not instituted any land use planning, compounded by the lack of job opportunities outside of the city.
The government must devolve land use planning and building controls to local councils and concentrate on providing jobs for people across Sierra Leone to prevent mass migration from the rural areas to the capital city.
Freetown City Council (FCC) can and should be given the mandate to restrict the growth of slums in the city, if the government is honest about development and the empowering of local communities, rather than fighting the mayor of Freetown whose agenda is to transform the city.
An audit report on the Assessment and Issuing of Building Permits by the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Environment, published by the Auditor General in October 2019, reveals serious mismanagement by the government.
This is what the report says:
“One of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (Goal 11 target 1) aims to ensure access for all, to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services. This is also expressed in pillar 3 of the Sierra Leone’s National Development Goals 2013-2018-Provision of affordable housing for citizens.
“The Housing Division of the Ministry of Lands, Housing and the Environment (MLHE) plays a key role in the process of achieving the development goals through ensuring that all building plans comply with local/international standards for land use, zoning, and construction projects. Despite the establishment of the housing division for the purpose of overseeing building activities, Sierra Leone continues to face housing and land planning challenges that reflect the current unplanned state of the city and its provincial towns.
“The existing regulations in respect of land and housing activities are flouted with impunity across the board and have consequently caused numerous pitfalls but not limited to situations of houses being erected in an unplanned manner and in disaster prone areas as well as houses erected with inadequate necessities to support human settlements.”
So, what did the Auditor General find in her investigation of whether procedures were effectively followed by the housing division of the ministry of lands in assessing and issuing building permits?
Existing Legislations The legislative frameworks (Freetown Improvement Act of 1960 amended in 1961, Building Fee Act, 1993, Town and Country Planning Act, Cap 81 of 1946 which was reviewed in 2001) does not address the current situation considering the socio-economic changes that have occurred since the enactment of these acts. Moreover, there are limitations in these acts in terms of their impact, coverage and penalties. Typical examples of these limitations include but not limited to the following:
- The Freetown Improvement Act (FIA) 1961 did not take into consideration new methods of construction (such as fire protection systems, structural design, elevation and conveying systems, special inspections and tests, and encroachments into the Public Right-of-Way) and demolition of structures as stated in the International Building Code (IBC), 2015.
- The Building Fee Act 1993 did not indicate payment of building fees for churches, mosques, hospitals and private schools. It also did not make provision for the payment of fees for buildings that are more than one storey, resulting in potential loss of government revenue.
The FIA 1961 is only enforceable in some parts of Freetown (i.e. Up-gun, Kissy Road and Cantonment Road to Brookfield’s). Emerging settlements in Freetown and rural areas beyond 1961 were not considered in the Act.
- The fine levied (i.e. £100) at defaulters of building permits (i.e. construction without permits) has not changed since 1961. As a result, builders have continued to flout building laws and regulations with impunity. Although efforts have been made to review most of these out-dated acts and policies through the National Building Code -NBC (which seeks to address the lapses of the FIA and to particularly regulate construction projects nationwide), we noted that the NBC is still at its draft stage (since 2015) with the Law Officer’s Department (LOD).
Inspection and Monitoring Inspection and monitoring of sites and buildings are not only required in the process of assessing and issuing building permits, but also essential at the different stages of construction from commencement to completion.
These processes ensure that construction projects carried out and completed are aligned with urban and rural plans. The housing division has not been able to carry out inspection and monitoring of sites and buildings effectively. This has been due to several challenges ranging from lack of manpower and capacity to logistical constraints.
The main findings are as follows:
- Handwritten reports which were similar in contents were submitted by the housing division to confirm that building sites were inspected in Freetown. However, it was difficult to corroborate these reports to the disclosures made by senior personnel that the lack of measuring tools, manpower and logistics created a situation where inspection of building sites was hardly conducted.
- In the provincial regions, site visitations were rarely carried out before the issuance of building permits. This was evidenced by the fact that inspection of sites and buildings was not carried out in 9 of the 11 districts in the north and southern regions. In the remaining 2 districts i.e. Bombali and Bo, only 12% and 51%, of their files, respectively, contained site inspection reports. In these 2 districts, site inspections, according to senior personnel were mostly carried out at the expense of applicants, which had the tendency to under-mine the process, and the independence of the inspectors.
- Personnel files where staff credentials and other documents are kept were not made available for inspection despite several requests by the audit team. This made it difficult for the auditors to determine whether staff possessed the required skills and knowledge to perform their roles and responsibilities in respect of inspection and monitoring.
Even though the Human Resource Manager tendered a management representation, confirming that staff possessed the relevant academic qualifications and years of experience, this information was not corroborated in the absence of personnel files. This could mean that personnel files were not maintained by the division. The audit also revealed that no training was conducted for staff of the division for the period under review. This may have negatively affected the performance of staff and the division’s output.
- The number of staff deployed to the division was not proportional to undertake housing activities in the country (with a perimeter space of 71,740 km2) and support the administrative workload of the division. The 2018 manpower budget revealed that there were 35 staff in the housing division as compared to the proposed establishment of 116 staff (i.e. a decrease in staff number of approximately 70%). Of utmost concern was the disproportionate allocation of the limited staff nationwide, as 28 were deployed in Freetown, and 7 in 12 provincial districts. This could have prevented the division from conducting inspection and monitoring activities in the provincial regions.
- The process of monitoring building projects after obtaining building permits had not being carried out at the different stages of construction as there was no evidence in the form of routine monitoring reports in the files reviewed. The authorities of the division at both headquarters and the regions reiterated that the lack of logistics over the years had resulted in non-monitoring of building projects across the board. As a result of this challenge, building projects have been erected without recourse to their original plans, which have consequently distorted community plans. It has also given the leeway for structures to be erected in disaster prone as well as restricted areas such as recreational grounds, access routes or reserved land for cemetery and other purposes.
Issuance of Building Permits before Construction The issuance of building permits to applicants is an authorisation granted by the GoSL through the housing division of the MLHE before the legal construction (including repairs, alterations, renovations, installations, disposals and demolition) of new buildings/existing buildings. The audit revealed that most building owners did not obtain permits or consulted the ministry before embarking on construction projects.
Even when ‘Stop Work Signs’ (X) were inscribed at building sites, indicating that no construction work should continue until clearance was obtained from the ministry, building owners persisted with their construction projects. The housing division’s assessment method for the payment of building fees by applicants was sometimes in contravention with the Building Fee Act of 1993, and building permits were most times not processed within the required 12 days’ period.
The main findings are as follows:
- Inspection of 95 building projects in Freetown, Bo and Bombali revealed that all those projects were being constructed without the required building permits. It was also noted that the inscription of ‘Stop Work Signs’ (X) by the housing division on building projects did not stop land/building owners from continuing with their projects. According to senior personnel of the division, the laws did not give them the powers to compel defaulters to stop construction; rather an alternative method was for the ministry to seek authority from the courts, which they said had to go through a long process.
- In the north and southern regions, it was observed from their reports that building permits were not issued for construction projects in 9 districts. According to the officers in charge of those regions, the low manpower, lack of mobility and logistical constraints made it impossible for them to cover those districts.
- Building fees were calculated in contravention with the guiding Building Fee Act of 1993. The funds lost to government due to wrong calculations amounted to Le178,560,579. There were also instances in which payments amounting to Le65,470,000 were made for building permits as evidenced in the register of the housing division but were not recorded in the cash book of the National Revenue Authority (NRA).
This could mean that building permits amounting to the same were issued by the housing division for which payments were not made to the NRA. In addition, several structures such as churches, mosques, schools, and hospitals were not included or categorised in the legislative instruments of the ministry, and hence no policy to guide their calculations. This may have led to wrong calculations, and a risk of loss of revenue to government.
- Analysis of data showed that 48% of the building permits issued for the period under review exceeded the required processing time period of 12 days. This was as a result of inadequate number of staff members deployed to carry out site inspections, lack of basic equipment and logistics, such as computers, printers, photocopiers, motor vehicles and motorbikes, and delays caused by applicants in making payments to the NRA.
The Local Government (Assumption of Functions) Regulations 2004 which required the Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment (now known as MLHE) to devolve six main functions to the Local Councils in 2007 and 2008 including; training of inspectors; inspection of building/building sites; and issuance of building permits had not been adhered to.
These functions were performed by the MLHE up to the conclusion of the audit fieldwork on 31st May, 2019.
This may have derailed the decentralisation process and prevented inspectors from being trained. Overall Conclusion The housing division of the MLHE has not been effective in the discharge of its roles and responsibilities across the board.
Its efforts in ensuring that assessment and issuance of building permits are absorbed in all building projects have been faced with several huge challenges but not limited to the following:
- Outdated legislations in respect of the assessment and issuance of building permits.
- Lack of basic equipment and logistics to carry out housing activities.
- MLHE’s failure to prioritise resources for the housing division.
- Lack of staff capacity.
The audit also revealed that the division has struggled to mete out penalties on building defaulters probably as a result of the insignificant charges enshrined in the legislature in respect of defaulters, and lack of logistics to enhance follow ups on defaulters. These shortfalls are even worse in the provinces where the average number of staff members in a regional unit is three.
The consequence of such shortfalls has undoubtedly ushered situations in which construction projects are carried out without recourse to the housing division that is responsible for the issuance of building permits. Further consequences are the erection of buildings in an unplanned manner, disaster prone and restricted areas, deforestation, and erection on water catchment areas.
- The Minister of Lands, Housing and the Environment should liaise with the LOD to facilitate approval of the draft NBC. He should also seek to review the Building Fees Act of 1993 in order to address the challenges surrounding building fees.
- The Permanent Secretary (PS) of the MLHE in collaboration with the Director of Housing and Planning should ensure the following:
- Relevant authorities including the Human Resource Management Office and the Ministry of Finance should be informed about the urgent need for additional staff to be recruited and trained to facilitate the process of site inspection and monitoring of building projects. In addition, resources should be prioritised in order to enhance the work of the division. This will help to facilitate inspection and monitoring of construction sites and buildings from commencement to completion, identify defaulters of building projects, prevent inspection and monitoring from being done at the expense of building applicants, and curtail the problem of processing building permits beyond the required 12 days period.
- A standardised reporting format should be established for site visitations. The format should provide for exhaustive narration of the whole site visiting exercise and must be authenticated with the signatures of the site owner and the building inspector. This will enhance transparency in the inspection process.
- The assessment and issuance of building permits should be extended to all the districts in the country. This will help to generate more revenue for government and facilitate the erection of houses and other building projects in safe and planned manner.
- The Human Resource Manager at the housing division should immediately create personal files for all staff. These files should constitute information such as staff credentials, recruitment, training and promotion records, medical documents, handing over/taking over notes and transfer letters.
- Staff should be deployed to the regional offices to help support the technical and administrative workload in the regions.
- Sensitisation exercises should be carried out nationwide for stakeholders to be aware of the importance of obtaining building permits, inspection and monitoring of building projects, and for them to be aware of their roles and responsibilities in the process.
- Operational procedures and financial controls should be implemented to enable the housing division to ensure that calculations in respect of building permits are accurate and complete (i.e. in accordance with the Building Fee Act, 1993). In addition, regular reconciliation in respect of building permits issued and payments made to the NRA should be carried out between the housing division and the NRA and follow up action should be taken on reconciling items.
- The PS of the MLHE in collaboration with the Head of the Decentralisation Secretariat and the Ministerial Committee should ensure that the regulations to devolve the above functions to the Local Councils are immediately implemented.
Management (Ministry of Lands) Response
Following discussions of the draft report with the MLHE in an exit conference held on 6th June 2019, the management of the Ministry took note of the findings and was mandated by section 93 (3) of the Public Financial Management Act, 2016 to respond to the report within 15 days upon its receipt. Due to the failure of the Ministry to respond within the above stipulated timeframe, the draft report was finalised by the ASSL.