Editorial | Bernard Lodge city requires robust debate
The Holness administration, we note, has resurrected the idea of developing a town at Bernard Lodge in St Catherine on land that was once better known for the growing of sugar cane and has, in the past, been considered for the production of other crops.
While it is not this newspaper's intention to oppose the idea, not being sufficiently apprised of the details of the plan to which the Cabinet gave its blessings a fortnight ago, we urge the Government to proceed with caution. At least, this matter should be the subject of robust public debate before the sale of any government-owned land takes place and developers given the green light to proceed.
To be fair to Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the current crop of ministers, they are not the first to have agreed to a township or urban community on the Bernard Lodge lands. Indeed, as this newspaper reported last week, in 2013, when the People's National Party led the administration, the Government approved a proposal for the Housing Agency of Jamaica to develop 1,584 housing units on 295 acres of land in the area at a cost of $5.6 billion. The proposed partnerships with two private-sector companies that were to provide the finance collapsed.
What Mr Holness has in mind is, on the face of it, of a far grander scale. It would involve, the prime minister told Parliament, "17,000 housing solutions", as well as commercial offices and light industrial facilities, while allowing for agricultural production in what Mr Holness called "a symbiotic relationship".
This project, the PM said, was based on a "master plan" developed for the entire area, which would end the "piecemeal approach" to development that has, in the past, characterised development in Bernard Lodge.
We are indeed happy for this integrated approach to development that the prime minister says is being taken by the Government. But this strategy, even if it produces the best possible outcomes, should proceed with the public's involvement and not merely the tokenism that often passes for public consultations.
There are three primary reasons why we urge caution and serious public engagement on this project. The first is that it is easier for a government to proceed when there is public buy-in for its big ideas. Moreover, the process of engagement enhances democracy.
Moreover, we are concerned by the continuing encroachment on primary agricultural lands for housing. We acknowledge the terminal illness of Jamaica's sugar industry and have indeed warned the Government of the moral hazard it faces with its penchant for intervention with life support for the industry. But sugar cane is not the only crop that can be grown at Bernard Lodge or on the other agricultural lands across the island that have been handed over to housing.
This is not to suggest that there ought to be no greenfield housing or municipal developments, but their locations have to be chosen with care to ensure the best and most appropriate use of Jamaica's limited land space. In that context, urban development has to take into account environmental conditions, as well as Mr Holness' recent declaration about pursuing a strategy for food security. Growing food is more difficult if your best agricultural land is under real estate.
Further, we would wish to see how the Bernard Lodge project, including its consumption of public and private resources, fits into the massive assault on urban blight that has been highlighted by this newspaper, and to which Mr Holness and the Opposition leader, Peter Phillips, committed themselves during the recent Budget Debate.
Most of Jamaica's urban communities, especially those in Kingston and St Andrew, with their high levels of crime and social dysfunction, are badly decayed. They will require huge amounts of resources and creative initiatives to effect renewal. What many of them have going for them, though, is the presence of basic infrastructure and, in some cases, redeemable housing stocks. The development of new cities will compete for available resources.