New Urban Agenda in Kenya

Aerial view of Nakuru town that is set to be elevated to a city.

One event that seems to have passed unnoticed by a majority of Kenyans has been the establishment of municipalities and cities in all counties, save for Mombasa and Nairobi. This move has effectively created a third layer of devolution, under county governments, to run the affairs of urban areas and cities present within counties. And this is part of the new urban agenda in Kenya.

Prior to the promulgation of the constitution of Kenya in 2010, the management of urban areas, which were either city, municipality, county, or town councils, was governed by provisions of the Local Government Act Cap 265. These were essentially set up to aid the central government in delivering services to the people of Kenya complementing the provincial administration that run further down to the villages.

The constitution of Kenya 2010 affirmed the new urban agenda in Kenya and cemented the place of urban areas and cities as agents for economic growth and development. Article 184 established these urban areas and mandated parliament, within one year of the date of the promulgation of the constitution, to enact legislation that provided for, among other things, the criteria for classifying urban areas and cities; establishing the principles of governance and management of urban areas and cities and provide for participation by residence in the governance of the urban areas and cities. Thus, the Urban Areas and Cities Act was enacted in 2011.

While deeply sucked in efforts to understand the running of devolved units, none of the pioneer county governments made any effort to operationalize urban areas. Growing towns, most of which were county headquarters, suffered as no special attention was paid to how they were managed despite them having unique challenges compared to other rural centres within counties. They were left to grow unplanned.

Developers run roughshod putting up structures haphazardly to tap into the growing demand for real estate in counties. Buildings were approved without clear criteria as counties used the building approval process as a source of revenue and not as a tool for development control. There was uncoordinated development of urban infrastructure. Mistakes of the past were being repeated and this time around, they were being replicated in counties all over the country. This was posing a real and immediate threat to the new urban agenda in Kenya.

Towards the end of the first term under the devolved system of government, it was clear that the deteriorating situation needed to be arrested before matters degenerated further. The national government through the Urban Development Department (UDD) in the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure had to intervene.

County governments would hear none of it. For most of the County Executive Committee Members (CECM) and County Chief Officers (CCO) in charge of urban development viewed the new cities and municipalities as agencies that had come in to dip into the same jar they were drawing from, of responsibilities and resources, and thus enabling the boards would have meant that their clout and influence was reduced.

The Urban Areas and Cities Act of 2011 had created powerful City and Municipality boards to manage and run the affairs of these urban areas. As per the functions outlined in the act, the boards were to literally take over all county government functions within the boundaries of the urban areas. The boards were largely composed of persons who were nominees of various stakeholders in the urban sector, most of whom were independent of the county government and they were to report directly to the governor despite being anchored in the urban development department of the county. This did not sit well with many county government officials.

To arm-twist counties into implementing the new urban agenda, the national government through the Urban Development Department (UDD) secured a USD 300 Million loan from the World Bank under the Kenya Urban Support Program (KUSP) whose main aim was to establish and strengthen these urban institutions to enable them to deliver infrastructure and services in the counties. This loan was to be disbursed as grants to counties over a duration of five years on condition that they had properly set up their municipality and city boards and have continuously enabled the boards to carry out their mandate as envisioned in the law.

To ease the tension in county governments, the National Assembly amended the Urban Areas and Cities Act in 2019 to, among other things, include county government officials, specifically the County Executive Committee Member (CECM) and County Chief Officer (CCO) in charge of urban development as members of the city and municipality boards.

These moves have seen the successful establishment of city and municipality boards in all the counties and a release of the first batch of funds under the Kenya Urban Support Program to build institutional capacity of the city and municipality boards, to enable the boards to prepare spatial plans for their urban areas and to carry out select infrastructural development projects based on the integrated development plans developed by the urban boards.

Shortly thereafter the British government, through the Department for International Development (DFID), launched a five-year Kshs 9 Billion Sustainable Urban Economic Development (SUED) program which competitively selected 12 municipalities to benefit from the funding.

The municipalities that include Eldoret, Isiolo, Iten, Kerugoya, Kathwana, Kisii, Kitui, Lamu, Malindi, Mandera, Bungoma and Wote would each receive technical support of up to Kshs 400 Million over the five years and would be able to draw from the available seed funding of Kshs 4.5 Billion to finance infrastructural development and value chain projects.

The support from DFID just goes to show the potential that these municipalities and cities have of attracting partnerships and funding for development. Having come in at the inception of the program, it signifies a brighter future ahead for the urban boards that will be properly set up and well managed. It also shows that the new urban agenda in Kenya is part of a global urban agenda that we need to be part of.

With unequivocal support from county governments, city and municipality boards will be the next big frontier of development in counties as well planned urbanization will radically improve the quality of life for citizens through strengthening their economic, political and social structures.

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