The SA Property Owners’ Association (Sapoa) is taking the City of Johannesburg to the high court on Monday and Tuesday over new outdoor advertising bylaws it says are onerous and target private property owners for specific fiscal penalties not applicable to council land.

Sapoa CEO Neil Gopal said at an annual media breakfast on Friday that the organisation needed to intervene on behalf of its members. Sapoa has about 1,000 members, including real estate companies, architects, quantity surveyors and property service providers. 

“According to the city’s own report, approximately 70% of all advertising boards in the city are illegally erected, with the majority on council land. The same fiscal penalties do not apply to illegal structures on council land,” he said.

The City of Johannesburg advertised its draft outdoor advertising bylaw for comment in June 2017. The bylaw was approved on March 20 this year and was supposed to be promulgated in May,  but Sapoa secured an interdict that prevented this from going ahead. 

“Sapoa submitted comments and concluded by stating that the city council is, in terms of the current regulatory system, already conflicted in that it is player and referee in the outdoor advertising sign industry, an intolerable situation that we object to,” Gopal said.  

He said the city owns vast tracts of road reserves, or the unoccupied space alongside roads, which are ideal places for displaying advertisements. This meant the city council is a direct competitor with private property owners on the same road. The council is the decision maker on the approval of such advertising signs. 

The council then charges rent for the display of advertisements on road reserves, which has long been a substantial source of income for the city. Therefore there is a conflict in the dual regulatory role it is fulfilling, Sapoa argued. 

The introduction of this draft bylaw presents an opportunity for the city to consider divesting itself of one of the two regulatory functions, Sapoa said.

“The most suitable to divest itself of is, of course, the approval process. There is nothing contained in any of the constitutional provisions that prohibits the city council from appointing an independent body that will adjudicate the applications for the approval of advertising signs,” Sapoa said.

This body would be represented by all role players in the industry, including private property owners, billboard companies and the council. “Such a system will be objective and fair and will avoid the clear conflict of interest the city council is currently vested with,” said Sapoa.   

Sapoa will state its concerns over the bylaws in the Johannesburg high court on Monday and Tuesday.

Gopal also told media that Sapoa has reached a deadlock in talks with Buffalo City over steep rates increases, which it feels are unconstitutional.

The Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality has raised rates between 30% and 300% on different properties. Gopal said this does not bode well for attracting further property investments into Buffalo City and has created a business-unfriendly environment. 

He said the municipality has indicated it will raise property rates by a maximum of 7%. Sapoa wrote to executive mayor of the municipality Xola Pakati, who failed to respond months later.

“Some property owners are paying more than their rent in rates and taxes,” Gopal said.