Tedious construction approval process fuelling building collapses

Engineer Elias Morang'a from NMS looks at the rubble of a nine-storey building in Kamukunji that collapsed in a picture taken on July 23, 2021. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

There has been a lot of debate in recent years as to the reasons behind increasing building collapses in the country. Is it unbridled greed among developers, alacrity for shortcuts, the inherent phase of ethics deficit we are going through as a country or even lack of diligence from the statutory authorities mandated to supervise the built environment?

The factors contributing to the collapse of buildings that we are witnessing are numerous and a majority of them is of our own making. However, not much has been talked about the effect of the bureaucratic, highly fragmented, and fractured construction approval system on the building collapses. Could this be a major contributing factor? I think so.

I have been a crusader for the government to develop a one-stop approval system in the construction industry. In fact, I was extremely sanguine that the outgoing administration would not end without realising this, more so after the idea was mooted by the Housing Principal Secretary. It is highly unlikely this dream will be realised by this government. We are approaching the sunset of President Uhuru Kenyatta's administration and politics is at the centre-stage of every fibre of this country at the moment.

This would have been a game-changer in the built environment. I believe it would have been a good incentive for investors and would have undoubtedly spurred the industry’s growth.

Simply put, they failed. I do not want to excuse the glaring short-cuts being taken by some developers resulting in building collapses. Blasphemous greed has been the impetus for most, driving them to do the inevitable in order to cut costs and make more returns.

Cheered on by a corrupt construction supervisory system that can be easily made to look the other way, they have become emboldened to break the set guidelines with unparalleled impunity. The result – frequent building collapses that we are slowly becoming numb to. Nonetheless, I am deeply convinced that our approval system is contributing to this.

The easiest construction approval to get is the one by the National Construction Authority (NCA) - kudos to them. It is usually the last to be given after obtaining all the others. It can be ridiculously hectic and grotesquely frustrating to obtain construction approvals in this country.

The system, in my view, is designed to deliberately frustrate so that ‘facilitation’ would be inevitable. It can be a painstaking exercise. As a result, many developers choose not to go through the frustration of acquiring the approvals. They instead prefer to start construction and bribe their way to completion.

Acquiring construction approvals, especially in Nairobi, takes you three to four months if you are lucky and have deep pockets. Otherwise, it could even go up to six months. I was on a project that took us eight months to get county-approved drawings only. If it was not the online systems that was down, it was the lack of quorum to allow the technical committee to meet.

By the time we were clocking on the rest of the approvals, nine and half months had lapsed. The client was exhaustively frustrated to a point of abandoning the project. Rightfully so, for someone who wants to earn from their investment as soon as possible. That was nine months wasted.

There are many developers now who are opting to avoid the fragmented approvals system and commencing construction without them. Their decision is wrong and inexcusable but can sadly be justified.

If you are going to be asked by some officer to fuel their car so that they can come and check on the riparian distance allowed for you after rigorously going through a more or else similar ordeal at the county, then you may be left with few choices the next time you are developing.

It doesn’t make sense anymore to wait for two months to get a change of use, wait another three months to get county drawings and another one and half months to get National Environment Management Authority (Nema) approvals. Can we think better and have these approvals at the same place, done at the same time?

What is it with us and thinking? Winston Churchill puts it best: “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” We are losing it.

We are witnessing an unprecedented surge in building collapses, most of which usually do not have the approvals required by law. I am convinced that our tedious, lengthy construction approval system is contributing to many people opting to start projects without approval. I refuse to shield myself under the legal scale that everyone ought to get approvals regardless of how long or whatever it takes to get it. No.

We must make it easy for anyone who wants to get approvals to do so without much hustle; it is good for our investors as well. Our laws should serve us, not oppress us. A one-stop approval system will not eliminate building collapses but will undoubtedly reduce them. Let’s tick that box.