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Carol Archer | Jamaica’s local government and the new urban agenda

Published:Sunday | December 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Carol Archer

Now that the dust has begun to settle from the recently concluded local government elections, I am in a better position to reflect on the issues that have come to the fore and place them within the wider global context of governance of human settlements, be they village, towns, cities, or municipalities. The recently concluded international conference, organised by United Nations Habitat (UN Habitat), provides this global perspective.

UN Habitat is the leading international organisation on issues relating to human settlements and the impacts at local, national that and international levels. The conference, dubbed 'Habitat 3', was held in Quito, Ecuador, from October 15 to October 20.The majority of the 40,000 participants agreed that the conference was a tremendous success.

There were official delegations from more than 160 countries, but interestingly, Jamaica did not have an 'official' delegation. Based on my inquiry, Jamaica was represented by an officer from Jamaica's UN Mission in New York. The public should be concerned that no representative from the national or local government saw it fit to attend and participate in a global discussion on this fast-paced urbanisation and its impact on human development, environmental well-being, civic and governance systems worldwide.

Certainly, the involvement of local government officials would have helped to inform the local understanding of the challenges and opportunities resulting from rapid urbanisation and some of the best practices being used to address these challenges.

 

Urban development

 

The conference concluded with the adoption of the 'New Urban Agenda: Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All'. The New Urban Agenda reaffirms, among many things, the United Nations' "global commitment to sustainable urban development as a critical step for realising sustainable development in an integrated and coordinated manner at the global, regional, national, subnational, and local levels, with the participation of all relevant actors.

The implementation of the New Urban Agenda contributes to the implementation and localisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in an integrated manner and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and targets, including Goal 11 of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

More specifically, in common speak, one of the commitments of the new urban agenda is that for any country to adequately achieve sustainable development in a meaningful way, cities, towns, and villages must be tied together or integrated.

In order for this to happen, the new urban agenda is insisting on a new approach for integrated land-use planning and management. The most recent spatial plan that determined the hierarchy of cities and towns in Jamaica was done in the late 1970s.

 

PRIORITY AREA

 

The growth and development of Jamaica since the 1970s necessitate the development of a new spatial plan to fit the current situation. This must be a priority for all municipal councils. Sadly, this discussion was missing from the local government debate and general public discussion. I suspect that land-use planning was missing from the public discourse because it is not well understood or appreciated that this is one of the main responsibilities of local government.

Also missing from the discourse is a clear understanding by our local government elected officials of the global vision of sustainable development, climate change, and the new urban agenda. In other words, it seems as if our local government leaders are neither thinking nor acting globally or locally.

United Nations officials are of the view that local government can and must play a key role in the implementation of the new urban agenda, achieving the sustainable development goals and administering the programmes for addressing climate change. The UN's view is informed by the position that people are very much engaged in local government, and it is at this level that there can be a great shift in awareness, action and activism for countries to achieve the agreed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Unfortunately, Jamaicans do not share these views on the importance of local government on the national stage and certainly, not at the global stage. This is evident by the low-level involvement by way of attendance and participation in matters relating to local government and governance. It is also clear that there is limited or no recognition by our local government elected officials to linkages and connectivity between decisions made at parish councils and the wider global mandates.

A more telling sign that Jamaicans have no confidence in the ability of local government to shift awareness, actions, and activism to address these global mandates is the low level of voter participation in the recently concluded local government elections.

The current administration should note these signs and use the remaining years to reverse the growing apathy citizens have shown towards local government. There is need for greater public education and awareness about the roles and functions of local government.

This public education must be placed within the broader context of the global mandates of climate change, sustainable development goals, and the new urban agenda if Jamaica is serious about achieving those goals by 2030.

In addition, the Government should put on pause the mandate given to the board of the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) to create a third city given the absence of a clear governance framework for municipal bodies as evidenced by the Portmore debacle regarding municipal boundaries and citizen participation in the electoral process.

 

Local Gov't Reform

 

The formation of this third city should be put on hold until the creation of a revised National Spatial Plan to inform the current status of the network of villages, towns, and urban centres across the country. Furthermore, the Government must move with alacrity to advance the other recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on Local Government Reform, chaired by the late Professor Rex Nettleford (of blessed memory) and Professor Edwin Jones. The report from the Advisory Committee calls for, among other things, a legal framework that makes local government relevant to current realities and emerging trends regarding local governance and conducive to the achievement of good governance, sustainable development, empowerment of communities, and the active participation of citizens in the local governance process.

• Carol Archer is associate professor in urban and regional planning and public policy at the University of Technology, Jamaica.

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