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23rd August 1998

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Green and compact?

By Sujith Sivasunderam

"In 20 years time Colombo will be a city plagued with an over-burdened infrastructure that is in complete mayhem." This was the answer of Deshabandu Surath Wickremasinghe, President of the Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka, when asked what the future holds for the capital city if chaotic construction continues. However, if effective town-planning is taken on board Wickremasinghe promised this for the Colombo of 2018:

"It will be an organised place with plenty of green areas, open spaces and concentrated development, perhaps even vertically. It will not sprawl needlessly but will be compact; people will walk to work if they wish to; transportation will be minimised and the city will have mixed residential and commercial areas so that it will be a vibrant centre of activity at all times."

The Institute of Town-Planners, Sri Lanka, that Wickremasinghe presides over, has just completed a conference titled "Public-Private Partnerships in Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development".

This conference aimed to bring the latter vision to a more certain reality by giving leading architects, engineers, geographers and economists the forum they needed to learn from each other and discuss ways of re-energising our worn out cities. Two hundred delegates were present including Dato Prof. Muhammad the Director General of Town Planning in Malaysia and Dr. Lui from Singapore. The chairmen of the various sessions included A.S. Jayawardene, Governor of the Central Bank and Prof. Nimal de Silva.

Wickremasinghe gave a two-pronged definition of the buzzword of their discussions: "First, town-planning does not deal with the planning of cities and towns alone; it involves the preparation of plans at the national, regional and urban levels. Second, it is a comprehensive agenda that includes not just roads but open spaces, pollution, and environmental upgrading also." Thus it was clear that consolidation is central to town-planning. Colombo's problems will not go away if plans are made for it alone; communication and transport links should be established to other towns and cities so that they may take some of the stress too. Similarly Colombo's problems will not go away if one of them is isolated and dealt with individually; it is necessary to bring all its woes under one umbrella.

When Wickremasinghe was asked to identify Colombo's most striking failings he replied: "42% of Colombo's population lives in shanties and slums occupying prime land in the city centre. If we find proper housing for these people this extremely valuable land may be used for development. Panchikawatte is a good example. There is also a tendency for Colombo to spread for 30-40 miles at the periphery in an unnecessary fashion harming the ecology and making our rural countryside vanish. We should ensure that our periphery stays green. Pollution is another problem. It is difficult to breathe today in the city. This may be eased with more open spaces and expressways".

The town-planners' magic economic solution to find the necessary funding for these various proposals is private-public partnerships. More of this and other details of the conference may be found in the adjoining interview.

'Public - Private sector partnerships the key'

Extracts of an interview with the President of the Institute of Town Planners Surath Wickremasinghe.

Q.The Institute of Town Planners, recently held a National Conference on "Public - Private Partnerships in Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development". What was the rationale for selecting the theme ?

A. This was the second National Conference hosted by the Institute on key issues of National Development. In June we deliberated on the "Role of Sea Ports in Economic Development". This Conference was an outcome of the Institute's concern that the Urban Sector which has become increasingly important for economic growth is severely constrained by physical obsolescence and the crises in Traffic, Transportation and in Utilities. The Conference also explored alternative Ports in the Country and stressed the need to integrate the essential services for rapid growth.

The rationale for the 'Theme" therefore was for the inevitable need for Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development as essential pre-requisites requiring the urgent attention of the policy Sarath Wickremasinghemakers professional community in association with the public and corporate Sectors.

Q. In his keynote address, the Chief Guest Minister G. L. Peiris, indicated that the economy will need to grow from its present rate of 6.4% to about 8%, if we are to meet the challenges facing the country. How did your Conference address this issue ?

A. Prof. G. L. Peiris also emphasized the rapid growth of the manufacturing and service sectors which are concentrated in the urban areas. The competitiveness for production and services in them are being effected by deficiencies in infrastructure.

The massive capital needed to modernize these services however could not be borne by the Government alone. Therefore the Minister commended partnerships between the public and private sectors as being pre-requisites to accelerate development.

Q. Minister Peiris spoke about the need for the change in attitudes of the public sector in facilitating partnerships. What do you have to say on this ?

A.The public sector has a vital role in the partnership. I did mention in my welcome address that its facilitating role must be equal to that of a 'blockbuster". At a stage when the country is trying hard to get over the impasse for rapid growth, it becomes critical for both partners to have a matching mind set. The public sector needs to acknowledge that the participation of the private sector in nation-building in the past two decades has proved beyond doubt its credibility. Therefore, the cautious attitudes must transform itself to facilitating attitudes. The Minister cited the example of the Panchikawatte Triangle Redevelopment Project which has stagnated on the drawing board for seven years, although two successive governments have approved it at Cabinet level. The pioneering nature of this project can serve as a model for building partnerships in comprehensive urban renewal in this country. The presentation by Planner Lakshman Jayasekara of the UDA gave hope when he urged the urgency to unlock the constraint facing the immediate progress of the Panchikawatte Project.

Q. Can you elaborate on the Panchikawatte Project and the current problem ?

A.The Panchikawatte Triangle Project is bound by three road frontages, Panchikawatte Road, Sangarajah Road and Maradana Road. The land area is 34 acres in extent but is highly congested with obsolete development in its inner-core of about 14 acres. Hence its re-development involves the relocation of 2040 slums and shanties to a site across Panchikawatte Road by building alternative accommodation for them. The investment for relocation housing has no direct returns and hence requires priming funds from a multi -lateral lending Agency. The Government must recommend to the lending agency its commitment for urban renewal and infrastructure development through public/private partnerships and that funds be made available to the enabling Company, comprising of the UDA, BOI, NDB and the Developer. The enabling Company will repay the loan by undertaking Urban Development in the vacant prime land within the Panchikawatte Triangle, and with the income generated will settle the loan received from the lending Agency.

If this Project takes off the ground, then ten other Projects identified by the UDA can follow. If these concepts are not followed it will take a long time to transform our cities in a comprehensive manner.

Q.Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development require large amounts of capital. What were the Conference deliberations on the issue of attracting and mobilizing funds?

A.The issue of insufficient domestic savings for investment in Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development was seen as the cause for the inevitable requirement for attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The flow of US $250 Billion of FDI into developing countries in 1997 has been reported by the World Bank of which Sri Lanka has attracted only a miniscule amount. Hence the review of what should be done differently, was highlighted at the Conference, as the problem was not lack of capital but the design of a right formula to attract same. This is the key issue that has to be resolved between the Partners. It led to the discussion of the role of the BOI and of the Colombo Stock Exchange.

Q.It was recently reported in the media that the Cabinet has decided that local agents of foreign bidders for large scale infrastructure projects in the country must be Companies listed in the Colombo Stock Exchange, with a market capitalization of 200 million. How do you see this in the context of your conference deliberations?

A.The serious limitations of this decision will be the exclusion of the wider participation of domestic agents of development. It will definitely hamper the overall thrust of encouraging partnerships, especially to undertake urban renewal at this stage of the country's development. I pointed out the tragedy of this misguided decision. The professional community in this country, has now expanded its horizon to formulate well conceived projects and also to network investors and lenders in the domestic and foreign capital markets. They are also better equipped to formulate urban renewal projects which can articulate the objectives of the Public sector while also ensuring market sensitivities. On the other hand, they do not have the status of listed companies with a market capitalization of Rs.200 Million. Thus the automatic exclusion of the participation by such enterprising professionals will be a major detriment, especially in undertaking comprehensive urban renewal Projects which are necessarily large scale.

Q. What were the principal findings of the conference that would be relevant for partnerships to create rapid growth through Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development ?

A.The key finding of the conference was that it was imperative that the government must demonstrate the political will and firm commitment to Public - Private Partnerships.

Q. What specific commendations were made to expedite the actual commencement of projects on the ground, based on Partnerships?

A. The conference agreed that the key Urban Renewal and Infrastructure Development Projects at nationwide level and at Metropolitan or City wide level should be pursued for investment through Partnerships. The raising of its awareness in public sector agencies was therefore considered to be a high priority. It's parallel urgency was to gain practical knowledge by the immediate facilitation of the Panchikawatte Triangle and Colpetty Urban Renewal Projects and also of the Elevated Expressway integrated with Urban Development between Katunayake, Colombo and Seethawaka.

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