Within one month the grace period for settling a range of building violations will end, according to a recent announcement by the cabinet extending the deadline to the end of October. Fines collected in return for settlement will be used to provide services that benefit citizens, including building hospitals, schools, and government housing projects.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli has said the cabinet may extend the settlement deadline further should a large number of people come forward with new requests. “We are not interested in demolishing buildings occupied by families,” said Madbouli. “Our goal is to codify the status quo and prevent anyone from being in violation of the law.”
MPs recently demanded another six-month grace period “due to the economic situation of millions of Egyptians and their inability to pay the settlement fees”, and some analysts believe the recent limited protests in some governorates were triggered by anger over the building code law.
By the end of October, according to the cabinet, there will be a six- to 12-month period during which submitted requests will be examined and final decisions reached either approving or denying the requests.
Hussein Al-Gibali, former first deputy to the minister of housing, said the settlement law was timely and sent several messages to violators, including that the state is serious about addressing the problems of the past and will place severe limits on building in violation of the law.
He argued that the law is consistent with the results of research and studies carried out by the Ministry of Housing which show that building violations and slums increase whenever the authorities announce their intention to reconcile over past misdemeanours. Al-Gibali supports the state’s decision to be resolute in ending building code violations and disrupt a pattern of illegal building that for decades relied on a lack of will on the part of local administrations. But he warns of problems in implementation that include a lack of resources allocated to local administrations and a shortage of engineers. In some municipalities one engineer can be responsible for 10,000 buildings. “The number of engineers in municipalities is clearly not proportional to the volume of construction underway that needs monitoring and supervision,” he said.
Al-Gibali also pointed out the lack of equipment needed to carry out immediate demolition orders and the absence of budgets to allow engineers to quickly hire registered contractors to implement demolition orders.
Al-Gibali argued that strong and decisive local government was required to monitor and supervise construction given that studies over three decades have shown 80 per cent of building violations occur during the initial construction phase. It is essential, he added, that the government work with local authorities and empower them to put in place mechanisms that ensure building laws are applied.
Mohamed Abu Samra, formerly of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), believes some violations — building on lands on the banks of the Nile, historical sites or government land — cannot be subject to reconciliation. Other violations, though, which do qualify for reconciliation, are all too often dealt with badly.
Abu Samra argues that for the state to settle violations by collecting fines ignores how the illegal building impacts on the owners of property that was constructed legally. The value of such legal buildings falls when they are suddenly surrounded by slums, and the quality of life in affected neighbourhoods slumps.
The settlement law, he warns, is flawed because it approaches the problem from one angle only and social and market value problems caused by the building violations are not addressed. Non-code construction invites inappropriate activities to the area, including polluting and noisy projects that lower the value nearby buildings. The settlement law, therefore, should carefully categorise all violations before settling them.
Abu Samra also notes that the settlement law fails to clarify whether neighbourhoods where settlements are reached remain categorised as slum areas or will become regulated areas, which implies major changes to levels of infrastructural spending.
The legislation allowing building violations to be settled expires one year after it was issued, after which building violations will be governed by the unified building code issued in 2008 which does not allow for any settlement for violations on desert or agricultural land.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: October cut-off