Ideas & Debate

How land banking can cut mega projects costs

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Road works for the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) Station under construction along Thika Road Superhighway at Survey on June 7, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

The high cost of land has often been cited as one of the biggest challenges facing infrastructural development. This is particularly so, where infrastructure development is carried out in phases.

Latter phases end up being hit with higher land acquisition costs due to enhanced commerce, habitation and other opportunities resulting from the earlier phases of the investment.

To illustrate this point, one can look at the case of the Thika Superhighway. The project was constructed between 2007 and 2013.

In 2021, the Hass Consult extended land value index showed a near ten-fold increase in land value along Thika Superhighway compared to the 2007 price, due to the enhanced opportunities created by the new road infrastructure.

Ironically, the increased commercial activity and habitation around the road has ended up exerting pressure on existing trunk infrastructure, necessitating further investment by the government in bulk sewer and water infrastructure, among others.

The challenge now comes from the high cost of land to be shouldered by the government for the additional trunk infrastructure, making it the unintended victim of the success of its own project.

From a policy perspective, this highlights the importance of land value capture, which simply put, is a policy approach that facilitates recovery and reinvestment of land value increases resulting from public investment and government actions.

One of the tools of land value capture is land banking, where a holistic approach toward infrastructure development is taken at the outset.

This means that if a major road is being developed, for example, a master planning and zoning approach is taken and extra land acquired in anticipation of the commerce, human settlement and other outcomes expected from the project even where these are to be developed at a later date.

As with most good things, this approach toward land acquisition is not devoid of challenges.

First is the sheer amount of resources required upfront for land acquisition under this approach.

Even then, this approach still ends up being cheaper in the long run by locking value. It also leads to better-planned cities and towns by avoiding haphazard developments around large infrastructure.

More importantly, it can be used by the government to unlock some of the value gained from early infrastructure investments, particularly where it partners with private sector investors either through public-private partnerships or other frameworks to develop the land acquired in an organised manner per the master plan.

Another challenge could be the issue of squatters, who are notorious for settling on large tracts of vacant land, sometimes in opportunistic anticipation of major infrastructure projects. This can be mitigated if the land bank keeps an up-to-date register, preferably one that is integrated with Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.

A GIS is helpful when integrated with land banking as it can be used to provide a host of information on the land at the click of the button including connectivity, basic facilities, drainage, and importantly — illegal occupation.

This technology has been used by telcos and urban planners for many years and can be a source of valuable and profitable data for the government as land values increase.

Connected to the squatter issue is that of land fraud. Who hasn’t heard of a case where the government land has been irregularly allocated to individuals and illegal title documents issued?

Some years ago, many public institutions fell victims to such scams where their land was allocated to third parties. With the kind of affinity that we have for the land, the temptation to grab unoccupied government land is always looming large.

Happily, the same solution for squatters cited above can be adopted for this problem. Some of the land registries have also been going through digitisation of their records and it is hoped that once this exercise is complete, there will be traceability and accountability for all land transactions, making such allocations a thing of the past.

On the social front, acquiring land en masse will cause unnecessary suffering and displacement as innocent citizens will be displaced prematurely from the targeted land. However, there are many lessons to be learned from projects, which have experienced delays in land acquisition.

These have ranged from project delays and overruns such as some of the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company transmission line projects that have suffered this unfortunate fate due to wayleave acquisition challenges and the failure of the government to meet its promises to the citizenry.

Accordingly, although the holistic planning approach in land acquisition can be unpopular, it avoids many problems, which come from a piecemeal acquisition on a project-by-project basis.

Another associated concern is litigation risk, which can sometimes be inevitable, particularly where a massive land acquisition exercise is at play. The good news is that Kenya has elaborate laws on land acquisition, including compulsory takeover.

Many projects also adopt international benchmarks such as the International Finance Corporation Performance Standards, for managing environmental and social risks related to the acquisition and use of project land. Where fully observed, this can go a long way towards containing the litigation risk.

These are some of the pros and cons linked to the use of land banking as a value capture tool. Countries such as India have adopted land banking with some level of success. In our context, a proper legal framework is needed to support land banking and proper sensitisation carried out to ensure buy-in from the public.

Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as stating that “failing to plan is planning to fail”. We should not plan to fail. It makes sense to adopt a master planning approach to maximize value for the public and encourage more planned developments.