New energy, new approach at Department of Planning

It was 1991 when I first stepped into the Department of Planning of Stellenbosch Municipality in their offices in Plein Street. A few offices, a ledger room crammed full of files and a few dedicated town planners and building inspectors formed the whole Department of Planning. As a journalist, I could come and go as I pleased and scrutinise every document that I needed. Town planners Deon Carstens, Leon Fourie and Bernabé de la Bat were also very helpful and introduced me into the intricacies of town planning with all its foreign expressions and difficult documentation.

Armed with knowledge acquired by regularly studying plans and strategies, I would frequently suffer along with these dedicated officials when councilors failed to see the importance of the planning documents the department had supervised and commissioned experts to compile. Excellent transport plans, a survey of most important trees in the town centre, buildings of historical interest in the town centre, documents too many to remember, were ignored at Council meetings and left to gather dust on municipal shelves through the years.

This time around, I am not at the department to study plans or ask questions. I am intent on discovering what the Department of Planning and Economic Development entails and what its functions are.

Firstly, their offices are no longer in a small section of the main municipal building, but comfortable, modern, interlinking offices in the Eikestad Mall, now serve to house a much larger staff component.

In the department’s conference room I am met by the man at the top of the planning pyramid, Anthony Barnes, Director of Planning and Economic Development, as well as Craig Alexander, Senior Manager of Development Planning and Bernabé de la Bat, Manager of Spatial Planning. Barnes was previously employed by the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, where he served for more than 10 years as Chief Director of Development Planning.

Through the years the demands on the department have increased from just processing inter alia building plans, enforcing zoning guidelines, conserving architectural heritage, protecting the environment and creating housing. Now spatial planning, tourism and job creation have been included in the responsibilities of this very important department of the Municipality.

Three separate departments have been created to deal with all the planning responsibilities. These are the Department of Development Management, the Department of Development Planning and the Department of Integrated Human Settlements.

The Department of Development Management, which includes land use and the building plans department, is under the stewardship of senior manager Stiaan Carstens. He is a registered professional planner with the South African Council of Planners, and apart from his experience as chief town and regional planner at the Western Cape Government, he also worked in the George and Drakenstein Municipalities.

The Department of Development Planning is under the leadership of senior manager Craig Alexander, who is also a professional registered planner. He previously worked at the Drakenstein, Stellenbosch and Cederberg Municipalities, Western Cape (DEA&DP and partially DT&PW) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Pretoria. He is responsible for spatial planning and economic development and tourism. Currently Widmark Moses is the Manager of Economic Development and Tourism. Also included in this directorate is the Heritage Management Resources, where a suitably qualified Manager and experienced Senior Heritage Planner is currently being appointed. The GIS (GeographicaI Information System) unit also resorts under this directorate, with Ndudize Nhleko providing the necessary expertise and leadership.

Bernabé de la Bat, who has been in the Department even before I had visited the Planning Department as journalist for the first time in 1991, is responsible, together with Craig Alexander, for the municipal Spatial Development Framework (SDF), which is the spatial representation of the objectives and the strategies as depicted within the municipality’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and to coordinate the various role players (public and private) to enable the implementation of the SDF and its catalytic projects. The third Department, that of Integrated Human Settlements, includes the Housing Development Section, managed by Lester van Stavel, informal settlements under Johru Robyn and housing administration under Rotanda Swartbooi. The housing administration section’s responsibilities include, but are not limited to, the management of the municipality’s rental stock and the housing waiting list.

Not only have their premises changed and the department grown exponentially since 1991, their communication with the other departments within the Stellenbosch Municipality has considerably improved and they have regular discussions with for example, the Director of Infrastructure, Deon Louw, and his team.

Cooperation with Stellenbosch University (SU) is also on a firm foundation with regular meetings between planning officials from both institutions. The Mayor and Rector’s Forum offers the opportunity for the rector and mayor and their officials to communicate on matters that affect both “the town and gown”. “The University is very important to us, it is a big ratepayer and also developer,” Barnes emphasised.

The Stellenbosch Network enables officials from the SU to meet with Alexander and Carstens of Stellenbosch Municipality to discuss developments such as the ambitious Adam Tas Corridor development as well as local tourism, in which both institutions have an important stake.

With reference to local politics and possible political interference by councillors in the decision-making of the town planners, as had been experienced in the past, the officials agree that their interaction with councillors is excellent, emphasising that the councillors expect a professional service from the directorate.

I recollect frustrations experienced by the planning department in the past when their advice was frequently ignored by the Appeals Committee – which used to comprise councillors not serving on the planning committee. At present a Municipal Planning Tribunal deals with some of the first instance decisions. Other first instance decisions are delegated to authorised officials. Appeals are dealt with by the Executive Mayor, Advocate Gesie van Deventer. The chairman of this forum is Dr Danie du Plessis.

All planning decisions are published on the Stellenbosch Municipality’s website for all to see. It is also evident that some of the wonderful plans commissioned in the nineties, have finally been dusted off and are now being included in  future planning for the town and its surrounds.

The era of technology has had a drastic effect on the department of planning’s ability to providing more streamlined processes and more accurate information. Two systems BPAMS (Building Plans Application System) and TPAMS (Town Planning Application Management System) embrace technology, with BTAMS enabling an applicant to follow his or her building plan, step by step, on line. TPAMS, which is still being refined, will be finalised and fully implemented during 2021.

Apart from the permanent priority of delivering housing, other interesting developments currently enjoying the department’s attention include the development of the Rhenish complex, together with Die Braak, the Church Street pedestrian project, the Adam Tas Corridor (a huge mixed-use urban development along the railway line from Vlottenburg to Kayamandi) and non-motorised transport, De la Bat explains.

Klapmuts is also a focus point where there will be private-public partnerships to develop informal trading hubs and sites, which will lead to job creation in this largely residential town.

These developments are exciting in themselves, with opportunities of sustainable growth, job creation as well as the conservation of sensitive environmental areas in the municipal district.

All these projects have been included in the Stellenbosch Development Framework (SDF). At the same time, a Stellenbosch Environmental Management Framework has been compiled, making any development subject to strict environmental guidelines. The Heritage Inventory Management Plan – under the guidance of De la Bat – a much acclaimed plan which and has won several prizes – is a strategy for the conservation for the architectural as well as the environmental heritage.

It is clear that the objectives of the SDF have to be adhered to in the planning and budgeting by the municipality. “The municipal budget is coupled to the SDF and its capital expenditure is linked to these projects,” Alexander adds.

Furthermore, everything indicates that the Directorate of Planning and Economic Development of Stellenbosch Municipality has grown significantly in stature and professional capacity during the last decade. The importance of opportunities for sustainable urban development and environmental and heritage conservation in the Stellenbosch municipal area has clearly also been recognised by the Western Cape Government and other levels of government.

Projects such the Rhenish corner and Die Braak, Klapmuts and also the very exciting Adam Tas Corridor urban development, are any town planner’s dream and have attracted interest from far and wide. The challenge of a new, modern town within an historical town within a very sensitive natural environment which the Adam Tas Corridor project presents, is also a huge one, and one can only wish the Directorate of Planning and Economic Development the best of luck with these exciting projects and prospects for Stellenbosch!