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Going up in the world!

Street 251 Takhmau - our new concrete road elevated 1 metre above surrounding land
The idea behind this blog had been in my mind for a long time.  Apart from the sad case of the Boeung Kak Lake community who had lost their homes, and Phnom Penh city a wonderful amenity, the way we have been treated in Takhmau illustrates just what keeps going wrong.  There is a dedicated up-to-date blog about our own case.

May 2019 - Robin Spiess in the SE Asia Globe has written a great relevant article about Takhmau.

Going up in the world?  Or from one extreme to the other?

A blog continuing the theme of comparing and contrasting Northumberland (UK) with Cambodia, and how things can be done better, lessons learned, if there is the good will to do so.

Planning permission to build or change land use in the United Kingdom is often a long-winded process, if for good reasons.  In Cambodia it’s the exact opposite and for reasons known only to a select few.

Alnwick in Northumberland has had its planning sagas over the years, with people and interests pitted against each other. Sometimes there are accusations of skull-duggery on the part of the privileged.  One recent saga that I followed with keen (and a vested) interest was with the application by pub group Wetherspoons to convert the Corn Exchange, currently derelict and in a state that belies its past glory, in to one of their grand pubs. Grand some of them are indeed, if you are a frequent visitor like me.

By contrast things happen in Cambodia with breath-taking speed.  Bureaucracies exist, so do laws and rules, but even the largest development approvals go through swiftly.  Demolitions of buildings of great historical or cultural value are seldom a barrier. Tragically many of the great architectural gems of Vann Molyvann of the "Paris of the East" have all but disappeared. The country does have young Architects following in his tradition, building upon it, wanting both built and rural environments to serve everyone not just the rich, but they're treated with disdain not welcomed and encouraged.. (For more please see "Sahmakum Teang Tnaut" and this article.)

In the UK, the system is meant to work so that development is sound and a net benefit to communities, yet only goes ahead provided essential conditions are met. Here are just a few:

1.       Notice of planning proposals must be posted for people to see near the planned spot and in local newspapers, with the ability of people to raise objections or suggest modifications.
2.       Various local authorities; business and community groups must be sent plans too, some of these have statutory powers in the consultation processes.
3.       The development must be in-keeping with the current environment.
4.       It must meet regulations – an appropriate structure, to required standards, including for associated works such as pedestrian and vehicle access; services and utilities.
5.       Where it will affect local populations by bringing more people in to an area or leading to them departing, that too must fit in with local plans as it affects provision of public facilities, such as schools, and the viability of local businesses.
6.       The decision of the planning authority can be appealed, ultimately to a national government minister.  There may be even “Public Enquiries” held to examine contentious issues.
7.       At any stage, there is recourse to judicial authorities, as a further external independent check.

So the process can be daunting and some developers like Wetherspoons give up in the face of obstacles or delay in Alnwick.  In general, however, the system works properly, if not at first then eventually, at least in the vast majority of cases.  The long-winded process is intended to prevent new ultimately undesirable developments going ahead while historic much-loved buildings are preserved. If new buildings are not up to standard they end up demolished earlier than planned for more desirable facilities and amenities.  The Grenfell Tower fire certainly questioned high-rise “tower” block residential blocks. Most people do not like them.

The "Planning Applications" page in the UK local newspaper Northumberland Gazette, also posted online, that ensures people know well in advance about planning proposals to affect them.

Meanwhile in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh and in its outskirts our provincial capital Takhmau, there has been a frenzy of urban construction and destruction.  My twitter followers will have seen my postings about the constant flow of heavily-laden sand-barges sucking the “entire bed sediment” of the River Mekong and its tributaries to supply the concrete.  Much development in recent years is funded by China with Chinese state corporations and workers. 

Various ministries have responsibilities – local authorities have negligible powers (and even less technical ability) – with a new ministry in effect established by World Bank funding in the lead.  This is the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.   

I have made several  formal representations to this ministry including a request for a professional land and hydrology survey.  So far it has not replied.

Our Case in Summary:  Rarely in Cambodia has an entire process of development been documented from before it began to during changes, to monitoring of ongoing and the resultant aftermath.  An exception is how our small residential area of Takhmau, Kampong Samnanh, has changed since we moved here in 2000.  

Takhmau is the provincial capital of Kandal Province just 11 kilometres South of Phnom Penh.  Back then it was mainly rural with no metalled roads; a rudimentary electricity supply, and no mains water.  We joined an ordinary poor to modest Cambodian community.  There were then just a few elite Cambodians associated with the Prime Minister whose fortified house is less than a further two kilometres out.  I was the only expatriate.  (For more about Takhmau over the past 20 years go here)

For 10 years we lived a quiet life often away from home working away in Kampong Chhnang; Banteay Meanchey, and Mondulkiri.  Relationships with local officials were cordial.  The first sign of change and the trouble we would face began when the ownership of an adjacent plot changed.  He wanted to develop it but needed better road access.  As he was connected to authorities – some neighbours maintained that this was how he acquired the land cheaply in the first place – they resorted to all kinds of tactics for us to give up land for nothing or for a pittance as most Cambodians would have been forced to do. 

The view to the rear of our house just as the landfill began.  It blocked the natural drainage channel that proceeded ahead and to the right. There it originally joined a channel to the Tonle Bassac tributary that was itself blocked by the new arterial road. Hence the creation of stagnant water-ponds. The full story is documented here.

The once purely residential area is now mixed use including some industrial and commercial.  Most modest abodes are gone, replaced by large villas and blocks of condominiums of the new well-to-do.  There are still “ghettoes” where garment workers are crammed in to blocks with few proper living facilities but even these are now going as factories close or move out.  Takhmau is now a much more modern town; still developing apace, with infill to a new Phnom Penh arterial road that now traverses the land between the Prime Minister’s and our house.  

Takhmau is “on the up” literally and economically.  It seems as this story tells that someone has decided its elevation is to rise by at least a metre, presumably to reduce the risk of flooding from the Tonle Bassac tributary just a kilometre to the East.  The land had sloped gently in that direction with natural drainage channels and sandy alluvia- plain soils that meant storm water was soon absorbed. 

Today roads have been built and new houses erected on landfill brought from far away with no regard, creating a myriad of stagnant stretches of mosquito-infested water during tropical downpours. For older properties resting on the original low-lying land, it now means floods; greater risk of water-borne disease, and little choice but to elevate their grounds with land fill too or to move away altogether.

Cambodian Planning - based on our case:

1.     Not once ever have we ever seen a planning proposal published or subject to local consultations.  We have never been invited to a local meeting although – ironically – one of the many “good governance” training sessions I have organised with authorities are on the subject of local development planning as part of official decentralization reforms.
2.     Usually the first indicators of new development is when work begins on site – even Provincial Governors and Authorities, equivalent of County Councils in the UK or Departments in France, are caught off-guard.
3.     As Cambodia has little proper overall planning including over the use and character of neighbourhoods, the design of buildings does not seem to matter.  By contrast, some such as those built by the Chinese are direct imports from there.  Cambodia does have a tradition of fine Architects with Van Molyvann the most famous.  Sadly in his later years he saw many of his fine buildings disappear.  There is a Board of Architects (housed in the Land Ministry’s building), and a Cambodian Society of Architects, plus some bright keen creative young Architects as you find within Samakum Teang Tnaut. However I do wonder about their impact in the face of vested interests and high officialdom.
4.     Cambodia does have building regulations and public policy is to strengthen and enforce them.  The problem is that in a country with weak rule of law and corruption it is easy to circumvent them.  Serious deficiencies are obvious – health and safety ; lack of fire precautions, but structural weaknesses will only emerge as constructions age or modifications made beyond design specifications.
5.     There is little or no associated requirement to provide and support local services to sustain any new greater use to which land is put.  This should not be the case.  A World Bank-funded “Land Management and Administration Project “LMAP” ought to have introduced better integrated land-use planning and implementation methods, especially for local communities to be consulted about change and to be compensated.  It is a long story as to how it failed but fail it did, and what went wrong is yet to be addressed despite causes and remedies being clearly identified.
6.     As there is little or no transparency as to who exactly make up the planning authority and how decisions are made, there is simply no reasonable way to challenge developments through legal processes in good faith and without incurring the wrath of officialdom.  This why poor people resort to public demonstrations, often travelling from distant provinces, but even these are deterred and subject to violent suppression.
7.     Final resort to the Cambodian Courts does exist but with virtually no legal aid it is an expensive process with the judiciary regarded as partisan to ruling party interests and corrupt.  Cambodia came out 112 of 113 countries in assessment for Rule of Law.

Cambodian courts do intervene in land use development disputes, usually to convict protestors. The most famous of these is Tep Vanny who is still imprisoned despite a World Bank Inspection Panel finding that her community and others were victims of project safeguards not being observed that should have led to families bring protected or compensated.


Cambodia’s land-planning and development system is clearly failing all but the country’s elite.  The impunity they enjoy means that they even have no fear of taking on foreigners as in my case.  Our nuisance or embarrassment factor - that in the past enabled us to speak up and out for poor Cambodians who dare not – is disappearing.  Some of us believe that donors must shoulder the blame for allowing the Cambodian Government to breach international standards and obligations.  It started when it cancelled the periodic “Cambodian Develop­ment Cooperation Forum meetings in 2011 to discuss progress and benchmarks for assessing the impact of reforms.  Donors still award money; some more than in the past.  No longer does it hold that “He who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune”.

As on 13 June 2018
This blog is posted on 29 May.  Early rains have started.  The heavy ones will start soon. when they do I will post pictures of our property flooded***, as well as those of our neighbours, as a direct result and only as a result of landfill and new road construction approved by authorities.  Very likely the storm water will be polluted by toilet-waste and within a few days the malaria and dengue mosquito-breeding cycle will begin again as it did last year.  Will authorities pay attention this year?  Will donors like the Global Fund for HIV, AIDS, Malaria and TB also not ignore representations as they see vast funds wasted given to prevent diseases, when the same authorities are complicit in creating new avoidable water-borne diseases?

*** Picture duly posted - for more pictures and latest situation, please click here and scroll to end.


Sadly Cambodia's lack of building regulations and inspections is demonstrated again with the collapse of a building in Kampong Cham. please see this tweet and thread. The problem is the same. There's never any money to be made from saying No!

Final Word

At the risk of this blog becoming too much of a homily, one amusing finding cropped up in my research for it when I was looking up details of Wetherspoons’ pubs in the UK.  There is one called: ”The Chief Justice of the Common Pleas” in Keswick Cumbria, neighbouring fellow most-Northerly English county to our Northumberland This was a legal office in England as the name suggests part of the Common Law one of the earliest institutions for redress through the Law.  It still exists today extending to Commonwealth countries and to the United States.  Cambodia inherits some of this in its mainly French Codified Law system but both traditions  of course operate in the Extra-ordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia “The Khmer Rouge Trial”.

Cambodia could do with a Justice of the Common Pleas” whereby people could have easier direct access to justice.  King Sihanouk, who I met, adopted a variation on the idea with his  “National  Congress” whereby he would hold open forums for his “Little People” to raise issues.  In fact there is an explicit provision for one in the current Cambodian Constitution Chapter XIV.   Unfortunately the government has never seen fit to observe this constitutionally-mandated requirement.  It too would be a mechanism, a safety-valve, that could be helpful in Cambodia avoiding conflict.

Update 4 June 2018

As followers of my Twitter account will have seen the new concrete road has now been completed. It doesn't yet appear on Google Earth satellite imagery but it is easy to discern as our house and property. I have marked the road with yellow wedges.  The most vivid demonstration is of course the landfill development to the South in brown showing very clearly how it has (with the new road) hemmed in our land - meaning flooding is inevitable sooner or later.

Update 19 June 2018

Excellent article here by Pheakdey Heng, Ph.D, Global Green Growth Institute.  Eventually Cambodian authorities will have to accept such good advice from within instead of relying on external advice (and money) from the likes of China.  Do we really need them to come to Cambodia for basic planning and development studies, as was announced over the weekend.

"....unstructured urbanisation can create significant socio-economic and environmental challenges, including urban sprawl, insufficient provision of basic services and infrastructures such as housing, transport, energy, water supply and sanitation, as well as increased congestion, pollution, unemployment and inequality."

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