Public Works an expensive ‘extra’ for KZN

Tom Stokes, MPP

DA KZN Spokesperson on Public Works

The Democratic Alliance has consistently not supported the KZN Public Works budget, and we do so again this year because we see on a daily basis the inefficiencies in the delivery of infrastructure, particularly in Education and Health, and the frustrations experienced on the ground regarding simple renovation and maintenance of facilities.

Let me from the outset concede that both the MEC and the HOD are aware of these inadequacies and have been working at remedying them.  But the reality is that the gap between Public Works as implementing agent, and the end user is far too wide.

The Public Works management has, on numerous occasions, argued that the fault lies in the client departments themselves, and although these client departments have improved their timelines around planning, the administration log jams still exist so that there is continuing frustration between the two.

Evidence of this frustration is raised at almost every oversight visit both by Public Works but also education and health. At basic institution level the simple task of getting roofs fixed or floors replaced, there is a veritable maze of hurdles to overcome to get the job done. Whether the problem has its source within the Public Works or client departments, the present system is not working effectively and the loss of time and resources because of these impediments is unacceptable. Perhaps this is an area of oversight that our portfolio committee needs to focus on in the coming year, particularly now that a joint committee involving Public Works and client departments has been formed. At the end of the day teachers and health workers are not interested in inter-department squabbles and administrative excuses – they simply want the urgent repairs and renovations done effectively and timeously.

The DA has long argued that centralized government is less efficient than local government, and that private enterprise more effective than public enterprise. This truism is the basis of the DA’s continued call to devolve Public Works to local client departments. There seems to be political misunderstanding on the other side of the House around the issue of job retention if services are privatized. Evidence provided world-wide is that the development of small business is the best way to create wealth amongst previously disadvantaged groups, and that small businesses are the best ways to increase jobs. The Public Works function is the very area where opportunities to provide entry for emerging small businesses are most available, and that although the EPW initiative has value in poverty alleviation, far more emphasis should be directed at building small business. The trick of course is to ensure quality of delivery when new entrants to market are used.

To this end the DA believes that whereas the Public Works department has a role to play in contract management to ensure that standards are maintained, project management is best done by the private sector.

The DA sees the value of the Integrated Provincial Management Commission, the body designed to co-ordinate province wide infra-structure spends.  It makes sense that we will now have a body that oversees National, Provincial and private infrastructure investment in a co-ordinated manner and it makes sense that this is located in the Public Works department. Perhaps this will be the central focus of Public Works in future, as a planning nexus rather than an implementing agency.

Two particular areas of concern are the questions around the need to dump the asset management programme, Premis and spend another R25 million on a new one. This question was posed at Portfolio committee but the answers really didn’t fully address the reasons for this apparent wastage.

The second concern is continual questions around the tender process and getting value for money. Until the Public Works department has fully implemented costing guidelines and pricing parameters for projects, the fear remains that cover quoting and inflated pricing will allow the leakage of our scarce resources into the pockets of clever tenderpreneurs.

Finally, the Public Works department has improved under current management, but it is still a very expensive department. Its employee cost has risen 50% in 4 years. It is disturbing that while every other province in the country has reduced employee numbers over the past few years, KwaZulu-Natal has increased its employees by 5 000 and some of the financial pressures on our current Public Works budget arise out of increasing employee numbers as well as increased OSD.  It is interesting to note the average employee cost in Public Works is R460 000pa, whereas the average education cost is R280 000. Public Works employees are expensive and consequently the expectation of greater efficiency from this expensive workforce is not unreasonable.

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