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Phnom Penh’s development not fair for all?

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A new luxury house in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post

Despite the massive spike in development underway in Phnom Penh, a new report says that the public interest is becoming marginalised in favour of the political and business elite.

The report, from NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), says that currently “commercial interests are driving the urban development agenda, meaning needs such as adequate low-cost housing, public transportation, and inclusive urban planning are not addressed.”

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A slum on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Photograph: Mai Virak/Phnom Penh Post

STT’s Nora Lindstrom told Post Property, “It boils down to the fact that urbanisation currently in Cambodia is commercially driven and there’s very little planning behind what’s going on. That’s having a long-term impact on the city, on the liveability and also on the city’s development for the people in the city, as opposed to commercial interests.”

Lindstrom says she believes the Phnom Penh planning department has “very limited influence, and so there needs to be a decision from higher up that we are going to develop this city in a way that benefits the people and then look at how that is actually going to take place.”

Chris Ponniah of international property agents Henry Butcher agrees: “I think any solution has to come from a government initiative, controlled through the Phnom Penh authorities. My feeling over the last three or four years: they know there is a problem, but there is no solution in their sights at the moment and the reality is that the government lacks their own land, so they can’t build cheap housing. Land in the city is expensive, and it’s not fair to expect the government to buy the land and then build cheap housing.”

Lindstrom says there are a number of issues: “There is clearly money coming from the private sector, and for that they’ve been given something of a free hand, but there is also a lot of collusion between the political and business elites. What we would hope for is that there is stronger government control over how urbanisation happens, but with a focus on building the city for the people – the Cambodian people who live in the city – and making the city for everyone.”

The relocation of communities to make way for development projects in the central areas of the city is having a particularly strong impact, Lindstrom says. “At the moment, what we’re seeing is a lot of slum creation, where people are being moved from the centre of the city, where they’re admittedly poor and could have used upgrading in their community, but they’re being moved from where their livelihoods are, from where their social safety nets are, to the outskirts and they become even poorer as a result,” she said.

“So there’s this band of relocation sites surrounding Phnom Penh now where people are incredibly poor, so this resettlement policy amounts to slum creation, and that’s not necessary or sustainable.”

Ponniah agrees: “The lack of public transport is one of the biggest problems. As long as we are relocating people to the outskirts of the city and they still have to come back into the city for work, transport here is expensive, fuel is not cheap. If people have to move out and they can’t come in to work, then you see labour shortages. So there needs to be a plan in the current years to solve this problem. It shouldn’t be a case of fire-fighting problems.”

Ponniah feels that land-sharing agreements would be a sensible way forward for the city. “Last year, the government approved 600 new projects, 72 per cent higher than the year before, and I feel that all these guys are landowners, and in the business of making money from development; they should be the ones to bear some of these costs.”

He went on: “In Malaysia, if you submit a project to the authorities on more than three hectares of land, you have to give away 30 per cent of the number of units for low-cost housing. That’s how you solve the problem. If you don’t, what are people going to do? They’ll be sleeping on the streets.”

However, Lindstrom is more cautious. “Land-sharing agreements have been discussed before; unfortunately, the big example of land sharing agreements in Phnom Penh is Borei Keila, and it was an absolute farce, so the idea of land sharing is a viable one, but, as with so many other things in Cambodia, it’s about the implementation.”

In 2003, a land-sharing arrangement was proposed for the Borei Keila area, which allowed a construction company called Phanimex to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing housing for the residents on the remaining land. Phanimex was supposed to build 10 apartment buildings for the villagers in return for receiving land for commercial development.

However, in 2010, Phanimex reneged on the agreement and only constructed eight buildings, leaving 300 families homeless after the company bulldozed their homes, leading to violent disturbances.

Sunny Soo of international property agents Knight Frank says a balance needs to be struck between economics and morality: “In any pure free-market analysis, people build things that people can buy, not necessarily what people might need. Developers are using their own money to build things, so they’re entitled to build what they want. But it is a moral issue. The government should take care of the poorer citizens, and building a compulsory social housing element into any new, large project would be the sign of moving towards a more advanced economy.”

But Lindstrom is less optimistic. “Development is needed – it’s a question of how it’s conducted, and what we’re saying is that it needs to be conducted in a way that respects peoples’ rights, both legal and human. It needs to develop in a way that takes in to account those rights, and is inclusive. We need to develop the city for the people who live here. A big real estate guy I was talking to at a recent property seminar said to me, ‘I’m a capitalist – I’m here to make money.’ And that was the end of the discussion.”

Officials from the Ministry of Lands, Urban Planning and Construction, and Phnom Penh City Hall were unavailable for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rupert Winchester at rupert.winchester@phnompenhpost.com

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