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UNECE Committee on Human Settlements 64th session

(Geneva, 15-17 September 2003)
Statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová,
Executive Secretary

Ms. Chairperson, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by welcoming you to this meeting, and express my sincere gratitude to all speakers who will certainly stimulate our discussion today. Together, you will bring a wide range of perspectives to both the implementation of human settlements policies agreed at the Habitat II Conference, defined in the UNECE Strategy for a sustainable quality of life in human settlements in the 21st century, as well as to the new challenges stated in the Plan of Implementation of the Johannesburg Summit.

The Committee’s in-depth discussion on Reforms and Social Equity in Human Settlements, which is to be held today, is very timely and important for orienting the Committee’s programme of work and its contribution to the UNECE Regional Implementation Meeting as follow-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The Regional Implementation Meeting, to be held on 15 and 16 January 2004 will be the first of its kind; its purpose is to undertake a review of the progress achieved, and present opportunities and challenges on the implementation of commitments, goals and targets agreed upon in Rio and Johannesburg. As you know the areas to be discussed at that meeting will be water, sanitation and human settlements. UNECE countries have stated their commitment to a major role and responsibilities in global efforts to achieve sustainable development by concrete actions.

To bring human settlements of the UNECE region into a sustainable development pattern will take time. Existing physical infrastructures, housing stocks, patterns of energy use in human settlements, urban transport and waste management, are still insufficiently sustainable in most countries and communities. Present trends indicate that the increasing volume of consumption more than outweighs improvements in energy and resource use efficiency.

Particular emphasis will be given to the social dimension of sustainable development, closely linked to the economic and environmental pillars and related to the mandate given to the regional commissions by the Johannesburg Summit through the Plan of Implementation. The discussion will thus facilitate and promote a balanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development.

In many UNECE countries, social protection has declined considerably, resulting in poor health care, deficient educational and social infrastructure, a degradation of housing and living conditions and increased poverty. Certain groups of the population, such as the unemployed, refugees and ethnic minorities, are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion and in some countries live in substandard settlements. Sustainable development policies are not always a prominent part of urban development programmes and practices.

The rise in urban poverty is one of the most serious concerns in the region. Reforms to promote social stability and social equity need to become a critical element of national strategies for sustainable human settlement development. The best way to respond is through a new focus on people-centred and socially inclusive policies. In the urban arena this reorientation implies a new generation of municipal policies – spatial planning, housing, transport and delivery of urban services – that promote social equity.

Cities of countries in transition have remained the centres of economic growth, technological innovation and cultural diversity. However, in many countries fiscal constraints have eroded the quality of the social infrastructure and social services. These challenges have become particularly significant in large urban centres where the decline in living conditions is accompanied by rapid social polarization, poverty and environmental degradation.

There is a growing recognition that sustainable reforms to address these challenges need to focus on the economic, social and environmental issues simultaneously, with a particular emphasis however on policy solutions that are locally appropriate and socially equitable. This implies new models of governance with decentralization of responsibilities from the State to the local level, democratization of the decision-making process and effective public consultation.

The topic of today’s discussion and the questions that you have before you are challenging and will hopefully stimulate the discussion. The questions will include social housing, country profiles, privatisation, spatial planning and land administration.

The Committee on Human Settlements has dedicated major efforts to the country profiles. These country specific strategic housing sector analyses are intended to assist governments of countries with economies in transition in improving performance in this sector, while promoting sustainable development. The housing sector is an integral part of a market economy and improving the performance of this sector is an important factor for the success of the ongoing transition process. There is also a need for the countries in transition to provide decent housing and social protection for needy households. Besides this social objective, the housing sector can be used as a vehicle for economic growth and is an important factor in job creation.

Let me briefly mention another item on your agenda, Development Planning at the Local Level. This reflects the Committee’s work in the area of spatial planning which was centred on developing a concept for sustainable and liveable cities as well as on guidelines for sustainable planning and management. In addition a series of studies and workshops have been held which have contributed to the dissemination of good practices in sustainable urban regeneration. This discussion may lead to a possible follow up activity representing a good contribution to the modernization of spatial planning systems through the elaboration of guidelines on local planning.

Recent urban policies in the UNECE region are characterized by the decentralization of planning powers. Planning is now a process monitored and controlled to a large extent at the local level. Effective land-use planning is indispensable to avoid unsustainable outward expansion of towns and cities. Planning is also used to meet the complex demands of urban renewal areas. As responsibilities are gradually handed over to local authorities, the central government should enable local authorities to have the organizational and financial means to fulfil their tasks. On the other hand, urban design should improve social communication and interaction and facilitate the integration of commercial, institutional and residential facilities. The idea should be to create a more balanced community, as opposed to the dormitory type, with a wide range of community services and infrastructure.

Societies which have created internal stability and a functioning market economy recognize that to a great degree this has been achieved thanks to an effective system for registering private land and real estate transfers. Appropriate land administration and land information systems are vital for land management, urban and regional planning, housing, the banking sector, taxation, agriculture and environmental protection.

We are all aware that the Working Party on Land Administration provides an effective support to countries of Central and Eastern Europe engaged in establishing land registration systems which will guarantee title to land and real property. The backlog in registration of property rights is a major constraint in the development of effective real estate and housing markets.

No country can sustain stability within its boundaries, or economic development, unless it has a land rights policy that promotes internal confidence among people, its commercial enterprises and its government. Recognizing that land is a source of wealth lies at the heart of good government and effective public administration. States that prosper promote widespread and secure private ownership of land as a foundation of social and economic policy.

I am confident that this session will provide us with the opportunity to learn about a variety of different innovative approaches to the human settlements sector. The exchange of examples and experiences will help us all to make the provision of housing and the planning of our cities increasingly environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

Thank you.


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