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Is heaven a place on earth – Challenges and blessings of an ever-growing region

By Athane Scholtz

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Is heaven a place on earth – Challenges and blessings of an ever-growing region

By Athane Scholtz

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4 min read

As thousands of people continue to flock to the Garden Route for a better quality of life, the impacts on the region’s bigger picture are becoming increasingly evident. And while there is a sense that things are sometimes slipping through the cracks, the belief prevails that a unique set of blessings can ultimately overcome the worst of the challenges.

Glorious Garden Route

If you are reading this, there is a good chance you already know the secret: compared to pretty much anywhere else, the Garden Route is as close to heaven on earth as you are going to get in South Africa. It has all the benefits of the best-run province in the country, but without the traffic and pollution of Cape Town. Natural beauty, a temperate climate, safe neighbourhoods, well-managed municipalities, good schools, excellent medical care, decent roads, an airport and a harbour contribute to the region’s popularity as a residential and business destination – in addition, of course, to its longstanding reputation as Holiday Headquarters.

I am preaching to the choir, I know, because you and I are already here, but it would be remiss of us if we did not acknowledge that the region’s rapid growth is likely to have far-reaching impacts on many levels. These include rising property prices, long waiting lists for schools and retirement estates, not enough hospital beds and medical specialists, more employable people than there are jobs, and increasing pressure on municipal services and infrastructure that was originally designed to sustain small holiday and retirement communities.

Exceptional growth

George Municipality’s Acting Director: Planning and Development, Delia Power, says that George and the Garden Route had seen exceptional growth since 2000 and were expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. ‘Despite many ups and downs – including the global economic crisis in 2008, major natural disasters and political uncertainty – the Garden Route district has shown economic growth of 1.87%*, with George doing the best with GDP growth at 2.25%. Population has grown by 6.4%** in the district since 2011, with Bitou (Plettenberg Bay) growing the fastest at 20.3% followed by George and Knysna at 7.5% each. With a population of 212,120 people (Statistics SA 2017), George is the third largest municipality in the Western Cape after Cape Town and Drakenstein (Paarl). ‘Local municipalities on the Garden Route spotted the trends early on and have been compiling integrated development plans to address current and future issues on all levels of service delivery, including development frameworks, bulk infrastructure plans, economic development and social support,’ says Power.

Responsible municipal management has ensured government grants and projects for other infrastructure for George and neighbouring municipalities, including installation of low-energy electricity masts in informal settlements across the region, power stations, road and pedestrian bridges, weirs in rivers, and larger water treatment facilities. ‘George Municipality has policies in place to promote responsible development around well-defined business, industrial and residential zones that address the bigger picture while protecting the area’s strongest resource, the natural environment,’ says Power. However, it takes more than good planning to address the varied impacts of fast-growing areas, and municipalities across the Western Cape have had to deal with realities beyond their control.

New challenges every day

George Municipality’s Acting Director: Financial Services, Leon Wallace, says fast-growing municipalities across the country were experiencing similar problems as annual government grants were not on par with the growth requirement. ‘This impacts on everything from infrastructure maintenance and delivery of basic services to employment of sufficient and qualified staff.

‘Municipalities’ income streams such as rates, electricity and water are diminishing, as ongoing economic impacts on ratepayers are making it increasingly difficult for them to keep up with payments. The growth of informal settlements that are generally inhabited by indigent people who can pay little, if at all, for services often exceeds the growth of other areas. ‘COVID-19 continues to impact municipalities on levels that were unimaginable a year ago. George Municipality is making a real effort to think outside the box to use resources sustainably, and continues to investigate and pursue other sources of income such as grants, innovative projects, public-private partnerships and international funding,’ says Wallace.

It’s not all bad news

Despite many challenges, the inherent traits of the Garden Route remain its strength. George Tourism Manager, Joan Shaw, says the region’s natural beauty, world-class hotels and golf courses and diverse tourism offerings were internationally renowned, and contributed far beyond tourism. ‘Most people who ultimately come to live or invest here had initially been introduced to the region via tourism. It will always be a desirable destination, and we continue to believe in its ongoing resilience despite the challenges,’ says Shaw. The region’s inhabitants have long been credited with a survival attitude and strong community networks that had been especially evident during recent disasters such as the Knysna and George fires and COVID-19. George Fire and Disaster Management Chief, Neels Barnard, says that the municipality had been overwhelmed by the unwavering support from local businesses and individuals who went out of their way to help in whichever way they could. ‘Community involvement is not always quantifiable, but it makes more of a difference than people realise,’ says Barnard.

Delia Power said that potential local and outside investors and developers continue to inquire about investment opportunities and availability of land for a range of offerings, including medical and educational facilities, which bodes well for the future. ‘George Municipality has a long-standing record of victories and award-winning projects, and we believe we can weather the storms,’ she says.

*GDP Statistics for 2013–1017 by Quantec 2018 for #InvestGeorge

**Statistics SA 2011 Census and 2016 Community Survey

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