Peter Espeut | Flawed public consultation
It's a long bad road from Harbour View to Port Antonio, with potholes aplenty, and long have I awaited the promised, smooth, new highway to Boston jerk and Winnifred's Beach. So last week Wednesday, I attended the second of two public consultations on Section 1A of the proposed Road Improvement Project (Harbour View to the new Yallahs Bridge).
The space at the Little Copa Club in Bull Bay was full - standing room only. The ribbon of communities which is Bull Bay, St Andrew - Seven Mile, Eight Mile, Nine Mile, Ten Mile - will be severely impacted when the present narrow two-lane road is widened into a four-lane highway.
According to the envi-ronmental impact assessment (EIA) report presented at the public consultation, 391 structures are in the path of the widened road and will have to be demolished, including 218 houses and 105 shops and other retailers. Also slated for demolition are a number of other business places, including garages and tyre-repair shops, the recently built clubhouse of the Bull Bay Football Club, and a church complex including a chapel, pastoral centre, basic school and health clinic. In all, 632 parcels of land will be affected, and will have to be acquired, in whole or in part, by the Government to facilitate the right-of-way for the new highway.
As much as we want the new highway, there is a lot at stake, and the hundreds of residents who turned up at the public meetings came to hear the details of whether they personally would be impacted or not. Almost all would leave the meeting no more the wiser as the presentation was full of technicalities, and was vague on matters of direct interest to the residents.
I was able to access the 418-page EIA report from the website of the National Works Agency (NWA) and to study it prior to the public meeting, but apparently very few other people had seen a copy or been able to study it.
The document was not user-friendly, that is to say, it may have been useful to the NWA and the NEPA (the National Environment and Planning Agency), the government environmental agency to which it was addressed, but it clearly was not written with the residents in mind. If I were a property owner, I might be able to find out whether my property would be impacted by looking for its land valuation number or for the volume and folio number of my land title in Appendix 3 of the report; but if I were a tenant resident, or a family member of the legal owner without access to those numbers (the owner might be overseas, or dead), or a squatter, I would be none the wiser, even after studying the EIA report carefully.
And even if I found my property number on the long list of 632 affected parcels, I would still not know whether I would lose a sliver of land at the edge, a good chunk, or the whole thing; or whether I would lose my house or just the shop at the front. There was no listing of how each parcel would be impacted.
In only a few places was the actual road alignment shown on a map in such detail that the reader could see which properties and structures would be affected. I do not see why this type of graphic could not have been presented for the whole alignment of the highway.
In my view, the EIA report was incomplete, and did not provide enough information to allow the public to come to a conclusion on whether they would be personally impacted or not. The EIA report, as presented, should not have been approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA). When a public consultation is convened, the public has a legitimate and reasonable expectation to be provided with that type of information.
When members of the public asked when they would know if they would be affected, the authorities replied that in the weeks to come, they would be served with a notice. The meeting, held last week at Little Copa, was not so much a public consultation, but a public announcement of what was about to happen.
I have in mind the 2006 ruling of Justice Brian Sykes in the matter of the EIA and public meeting concerning the Bahia Principe Hotel near Pear Tree Bottom, St Ann, "that the NRCA and NEPA breached their own stated standards of consultation in that they failed to give the public and the applicants all information required for them to make a fully informed and intelligent decision ... . This was a breach of the legitimate expectation of the applicants that when they were invited to participate in the consultation, either as members of the public or in their own right, the information provided would be full, fair and accurate".
I wonder whether the public consultations held last week could stand up to judicial review?
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a rural development scientist.