Advice and Opinion

Self-certification critical to built-environment’s rescue

Deon van Zyl, chairperson of the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF).
Deon van Zyl, chairperson of the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF).

Internationally, the use self-certification to combat public sector bottlenecks which impede the building process, is becoming more popular. The Western Cape Property Development Forum believes that South Africa urgently needs to do the same for a distressed industry which entered rescue mode prior to Covid-19.

In a first for South Africa’s built environment, the property industry with 34 representative organisations came together during the national lockdown to form the Construction Covid-19 Rapid Response Task Team (CC19RRTT). While its most pressing concern was to reopen construction sites during the lockdown, it also collectively presented the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Patricia de Lille, with a medium-term plan for the Activation of the Industry post-lockdown.

The plan highlights the crucial bottlenecks that had to be tackled to enable the South African property development and construction sector to recover nationally post the pandemic with the intention to save the sector from the collapse it was heading towards even before the pandemic struck.

One of the key features of the plan is to convince authorities at all levels for the urgent need for self-certification, looking towards countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand that are actively engaged in the process to untangle their own public sector blockages.

We are certainly not the only country that encounters red tape but for a number of years now, we have watched a plethora of ever-increasing regulations and legislation being placed upon our sector by all spheres of government, requiring certification of processes at every step of the way and slowly strangling the development process” commented Deon van Zyl, chairperson of the Western Cape Property Development Forum, a founding member of the task team.

Van Zyl says that part of the problem is that while these certification processes have increased, the essential employment of qualified staff within the public authority structures to deal with these certifications has not taken place. “It has gone seriously backwards as staff leave and are not replaced wither at all or by suitably trained professionals in the field.”

In the Western Cape, even before a spade can hit the ground these days, standard approval processes now take an average of between four and eight years – double the time compared to a few years ago.”

Self-certification enables municipalities to establish databases of qualified private practice professionals in collaboration with the professional registration bodies who are then able to assist with approvals and unlock the vast blockages municipalities face. Currently, only structural engineers can self-certify and there is an urgent need to extend this to other engineering disciplines along with professions such as architects and town planners.

There is general concern over the lack of will on part of the national, provincial, and local government to work together to streamline and to overlap approvals in the fist place, let alone extend self-certification to other professionals” commented van Zyl.

And yet this overlapping is critical,” notes Simmy Peerutin, chair of the Practice Committee of the South African Institute of Architects, “because of the major time delays to project starts due to regulations such as the National Building Regulations (NBR), the National Environment Management Act (NEMA), the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) and the City of Cape Town Planning Bylaws needing sequential rather than simultaneous action.”

The document presented to Minister Patricia de Lille by the 34 organisations stresses the need for  efficient statutory approval processes, noting that the current situation across all spheres of government reflects:

“… a fragmented approval process which is mired in long-drawn out processes and often characterised by the lack of transparency and dependence on the whim of officials who often flout their very own processes and Spatial Development Framework provisions. This causes risk and frustrates building and development opportunities in the sector, causing construction delays and costing the developer, in both private and public sector, and design consultants valuable time and money.”

Calling for an urgent rethink, the document also notes that: “… Municipalities are understaffed with many vacant posts” and that “… officials, who are certainly not incompetent, some with years of experience, appear reluctant to make decisions or recommendations which may result in legal processes or reflect badly on themselves. There is too much political interference in the approval processes, accompanied by cumbersome and punitive Treasurer General’s Auditing processes.”

To deal with this institutional incapacity, the document further recommends that municipalities therefore establish planning and approval directorates which co-opt registered and accredited professionals to help municipalities unlock the blockages they face.

Explains Van Zyl: “What we have recommended with self-certification is not that professionals be allowed necessarily to approve their own projects, but that broader categories of private professional practitioners – beyond just structural engineers – be given this role to assist municipalities.”

Alwyn Laubscher, COO at project management company AL&A and himself both a civil engineer and previously an Executive Director of Development at the City of Cape Town elaborates further: “Certification of a project ensures that an application adheres to the applicable legislation and regulations. However, it is a bureaucratic approach to say that only an official has the ability to apply such judgement.  For example, it is generally accepted that a structural engineer can and will self-certify.  Why then can this principle not be extended to cover other professions such as architects, planners, other engineering disciplines?

With the administrative burden on local authorities is becoming bigger every day, Laubscher agrees that a new approach is required to save time and money.

Not only for the developer applicant but for the local authority and ultimately the taxpayer. South Africa has a very good system of professional bodies and professional registration regimes. We have seen that in the coming together of the Rapid Response Task Team.  Why not use it to our advantage?” he concluded.