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Habitat for all: secure land tenure and property rights matter

02 October 2017 Author: Geoffrey Payne

In a world characterised by globalisation, urbanisation, migration and climate change, accessing affordable and secure land reasonably close to work and social amenities is increasingly difficult in the affluent West, not just the urbanising South. For vulnerable groups, such as the poor, women and minority groups, the challenge is particularly daunting.

The UN estimates that 1 in 8 people now live in slums.

This is especially a major challenge for those living in informal settlements where land tenure and property rights are minimal. Accessing services like water and electricity usually requires an address and obtaining formal credit relies on owning an asset like a deposit or property – something that many don’t have.  

With most of the world’s population now living in urban areas, and many countries unable to keep abreast of rapid urbanisation, the UN estimates that 1 in 8 people now live in slums. So how then are we to achieve the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda which governments have signed up to and which aim to achieve no poverty, equality, access to clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth in cities and communities without secure land tenure and property rights?

I spent most of my professional life focussing on ways to improve access to low-income groups to affordable and secure land and housing.  In an online lecture I gave during the Habitat III conference to help the UN build capacity and implement the New Urban Agenda, I distilled all this complexity into a simple, easy-to-understand summary by providing a conceptual, methodological and practical framework for understanding and addressing these issues. It also highlighted some good examples of where rapid solutions have been implemented.

Here’s a gist of what it says:

Land use reveals culture, politics and so much more - The ways in which a society manages and uses land illustrates a great deal about its cultural, historical, legal, institutional and political nature. Globalisation has promoted the dominance of market-based forms of land management, in which land is regarded primarily as a commodity to be traded like any other asset. But state supply systems still apply in many countries (e.g. Cuba, Ethiopia and Vietnam) and religious systems operate in most Islamic countries, whilst all these statutory systems co-exist in many countries, such as Indonesia. In addition to such legal plurality, a wide range of non-formal and semi-formal tenure categories constitute the most common forms of tenure in rapidly urbanising countries. If this were not complex enough , property rights, or what one can do on or with a given area of land, represent yet another dimension for analysts and policy makers to consider.

Inequality - Whilst the issues apply globally, they are most challenging in urban and peri-urban areas where demand for land is greatest. Increasing competition, combined with the penetration of market forces, enables those with money, influence or inside information to capture the benefits, leaving others to cope as best they can in substandard and often unauthorised settlements.

No single tenure option meets all needs - The lecture defined land tenure and property rights and the characteristics of the most common statutory tenure regimes. A summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each demonstrates that there is no single tenure option that meets all needs. The current popularity of individual ownership is not suitable for all those in need, especially the young, the poor and the elderly.

Given the overwhelming growth of various types of unauthorised land development and tenure systems in urbanising countries, policy makers must identify what works in a given context and enjoys a degree of social acceptance, and build on it. It is also essential that options reflect the diversity of demand in terms of access costs, location, and rights and that these achieve gender equality.

Innovative tenure options - There are some good examples of innovative, incremental options that have enabled vulnerable communities to access urban land in locations and on terms that they can afford. These include short and medium term options, such as the Temporary Occupation Licenses in Kenya and the Certificate of Comfort in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as longer term options such as Community Land Trusts and co-operative ownership or lease.

All of these are relatively cost effective and easier to administer than traditional methods. Such pragmatic approaches offer valuable lessons for countries at all levels of economic development. This allows governments to adapt to rapid changes without having to go through the lengthy process of changing their legal systems or political structures – all of which take time. These solutions also help governments to implement international commitments on sustainable development, provide access to jobs and basic services, and create more equitable societies.

If you are interested, you can download my 12-minute lecture. You can also read my previous blog on Habitat III.  

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Geoffrey Payne

Geoffrey Payne

Geoffrey Payne is an international housing and urban development consultant focusing on developing countries. He is particularly experienced in land tenure issues and has worked in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.