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Reforming Africa’s urban laws: some practical guidance – Stephen Berrisford, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

By on July 10, 2017
Lecturer - profile

Stephen Berrisford

Honorary Adjunct Professor

Main affiliation
African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town


South Africa




Stephen Berrisford is an international expert working at the intersection between law and urban development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Stephen is also an Honorary Adjunct Associate Professor at both the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities and the University of the Western Cape’s Dullah Omar Institute. A central focus of his work is on the need to use economic and financial data better in the design of regulatory interventions into the management and planning of African cities, in order to understand better the range of possible consequences of urban regulation.

Stephen is an Associate Director at Pegasys Global, responsible for leading the firm’s Resilient Cities practice area. Prior to that he ran his own consultancy for seventeen years after having worked for the town planning departments of Cape Town and Johannesburg municipalities as well as the South African government’s Department of Land Affairs where he was Director: Land Development Facilitation. In that capacity he was responsible for the implementation of South Africa’s first post-apartheid land development legislation.

Stephen has been central to the evolution of key laws governing the intersection of land use planning, land administration and human settlements in South Africa. He was the principal drafter of the 2001 White Paper on Spatial Planning and Land Use Management and has played a key role in the development of provincial planning legislation in five provinces. Currently he is advising the National Treasury in South Africa on new legislation for municipal development charges in South Africa. Before that he has conducted strategic reviews of the country’s spatial planning frameworks, the use of city land for PPPs and a methodology for costing the impacts of urban development regulation.

Within the African region, he led the multi-donor (Cities Alliance, DfID and UN-Habitat) funded initiative to develop a guide for practitioners on how to improve urban land and housing legislation in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, Reforming Urban Laws in Africa: a practical guide, which he wrote with the late Patrick McAuslan. Between 2014 and 2015 he co-led the African Centre for Cities’ DfID-funded research project on Urban Infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa: harnessing land values, housing and transport, which examined the opportunities for developing land-based financing for urban infrastructure in the region, looking specifically at the cases of Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. In 2012 he drafted UN-Habitat’s first global Urban Legal Knowledge strategy. Between 2006 and 2009 he was the team leader for the revision of spatial planning legislation in Zambia (2006-2009), was central to the development of new urban land and planning legislation in Ethiopia between 2001 and 2005 and was legal adviser to the team preparing for the establishment of the Lesotho Land Administration Agency. Currently he is facilitating the Global Land Tools Network’s Phase 3 strategy.

English Proficiency
Mother tongue

Previous experience of recording video lectures

Experience of lecturing to large audiences

Experience of lecturing to large audiences

Frequency of lectures

Recording opportunities
Habitat III attendance and availability

Recording preference – not Habitat III
Record via UN-Habitat UNI video team

Upcoming conferences etc
I will be attending at least one meeting in Nairobi (at UN-Habitat) during the next two to three months, and that would be a good opportunity to record the lecture.

Currently I am sourcing a local video team to make a series of shorter clips on each of the chapters in the Guide, for use in tertiary institutions as a teaching aid, but I have not yet finalised these arrangements. It may thus be that this team could record the lecture here in Cape Town.

Details of video team

Main themes

Urban Management

Municipal/Urban Finance



Capacity Development

Reforming Africa’s urban laws: some practical guidance

Introducing new ideas to make the urban law-making process in African countries work better, in order to achieve new urban laws that are effective in achieving more efficient, more inclusive and more sustainable cities.

Issues which the lecture addresses
In 2017 Stephen Berrisford, together with the late Patrick McAuslan, finalised a new publication: Reforming Urban Laws in Africa: a practical guide, for Cities Alliance, UN-Habitat and Urban LandMark.The starting point for the Guide is that a) there is agreement that urban laws in Africa are a major problem, b) past efforts to improve these laws have largely failed and c) we need to focus on the way in which we go about the law-making process. We need to think differently about who drafts the laws, whose views and interests are taken into account and how to ensure that new laws fit the urban challenges of the 21st century, can be implemented by public authorities and set compliance levels that ordinary people can achieve.

Short analysis of the above issues
Urban laws need to be pragmatic, give effect and strength to the right of all citizens to live and work in a city and be responsive and scalable. These are formidable challenges in most African countries. A new approach to urban law-making is needed. Drawing on the Guide’s authors’ many decades of experience of urban legal reform in the region, the lecture identifies the different triggers for urban legal reform and how each different trigger gives rise to different challenges for the law-making process. The lecture will then highlight the specific aspects of a country context that are relevant (legal context and urban context), before proposing an approach to meaningful stakeholder consultation in the law-making process, a process that is often highly contentious in a country. The lecture covers practical steps for officials to follow as well as identifying the characteristics of effective urban law. In conclusion the lecture emphasises the need for continuity between the law-making process and the law-implementation process, which must be accompanied by effective monitoring of actual effects and outcomes.

Propositions for addressing the issue
1. Urban legal reform is not a purely technical exercise. It is fundamentally political, determining who benefits and who pays in the process of urban development, which levels of government get to exercise decision-making powers that have long-term impacts and shaping the urban environment for generations.
2. New, improved urban laws are a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for African cities to meet the challenges of the SDGs and NUA. There is thus an urgent need to drive urban legal reform, but in ways that do not repeat the failures of past efforts.
3. If we do not understand the political, social and economic context we will not achieve laws that actually change behaviours of both government and firms/households.
4. We can draw on some of the regulatory reform techniques and methods championed in developed countries, adapt them and use them to ensure that proposed urban laws are designed to be implemented efficiently with currently available capacity by public authorities and designed so that ordinary, poor and resource-constrained firms and households can comply with them.
5. We have to think differently about what urban law seeks to achieve – it is not simply something that needs to be enforced more vigorously – so that we can have legislation that accommodates the current challenges (widespread informal/extralegal development, selective use of law by repressive states, legal pluralism in peri-urban areas and widespread urban development corruption).
6. Financially sustainable cities are essential to realizing the international urban agenda, and new laws are needed to rebuild city governance systems in which there is a strong and robust integration of legal rules and financial needs and instruments.

The laws and regulations that apply in African cities are widely criticised for being inappropriate and out of date. Too often law imposes impossible compliance burdens on both city governments and citizens. This leads to widespread disregard for those laws. Nobody can afford to comply with the laws and the costs of implementing them is beyond the reach of city governments. Where laws set out the respective powers and functions of city and national governments they are often vague and ambiguous, which makes it difficult for citizens to know which level of government is responsible for different types of decision-making. The rights and interests of households and firms become useless if there is now way of using the law to protect them.
As African cities prepare to tackle the massive challenges of the twenty-first century the need to have effective and appropriate laws in place is a key priority. Without clear and straightforward laws, laws that are easy for citizens to understand and for officials to implement, it is virtually impossible to build the governance systems that the cities need to meet their many challenges.
Not only do the laws need to be clear and easily understood, but they also need to be designed and written in a way that addresses real and practical problems, protects cities’ key strategic policy objectives and accommodates the distinct challenges that each city faces in its particular economic, environmental and political context.
National and city governments as well as key international development partners all agree that new laws are needed, that urban legal reform is a priority. The track record of urban legal reform has however proved to be very poor. Thus the Guide focuses on the law-making implementation challenge – how do we implement our intention to make better laws for our towns and cities? Typically, a legal expert – often an international expert with little exposure to local context – is appointed, given a brief and told to come back with a legal technical solution in the form of a new law. This solution, in practice, is seldom helpful. The Guide thus proposes an approach to urban law-making that is solidly grounded in an understanding of the local context: how the cities work, how the legal system works and how the government works at different levels.
Many non-lawyers find the law-making process intimidating and confusing. In the Guide I break down these barriers and explain clearly how good urban laws need the informed participation of all stakeholders. I also introduce techniques and approaches to promote a law-making process that takes as its starting point what is practically do-able. We all aspire to cities that are more efficient, more inclusive and more productive. For this we need laws that work well and work for everyone. This Guide provides invaluable support to African countries tackling the urgent task of urban legal reform.

Additional Reading Materials

Reforming Urban Laws in Africa: A Practical Guide

Planning Africa’s urban future

Draft presentation