Squatting a problem in Ochie
OCHO RIOS, St Ann:
THE ST Ann Parish Council has begun laying the groundwork to address, once and for all, the long-standing scourge of squatting, which is having a negative impact on the tourism resort town of Ocho Rios. Deputy Mayor Delroy Redway recently disclosed that the council has enlisted the help of the National Land Agency to determine which of the squatter communities are located on state-owned property, as a first step towards regularising where necessary and putting in place effective measures to curb this illegal activity.
The deputy mayor told a Gleaner Editor's forum at Mystic Ridge Resort in the town that even without this information in hand, the council has a sense of the magnitude of the problem and is well aware of the need for sustained follow up action, in order to achieve the desired results. Acknowledging that some of the necessary remedial actions such as demolition of housing and business structures, as well as relocation of people might prove unpopular with the affected groups, he called for a coordinated approach to cleaning up the problem.
Redway used the occasion to appeal to other agencies such as the police, acknowledging that any effective solution must include a multi-agency approach and include follow up activities and engaging the squatters as part of the solution going forward. He however, warned that not all persons would qualify to be regularised, as each case would be determined on merit.
Squatters tend to fall in two broad categories: those desperate for somewhere to live and so take the chance of occupying any empty land. The other category comprises professional squatters, persons who go from community to community, parish to parish, occupying mainly government land, usually prime land, with the hope and expectation that Government will regularise their occupation of these lands by providing utilities like water and electricity and infrastructure, including roads.
Ocho Rios has for decades struggled with both categories of squatter and its tourism products continues to suffer from the attendant social ills, but now policymakers are wrestling with the reality that this growing problem is literally hampering the scope for further expansion and development of the Garden Parish.
Businessman Marino Maffesanti told the mix of business people and players in the tourism industry who participated in the forum that the situation was very serious.
"We've allowed, whether it's through political expediency, or maybe just through a lackadaisical attitude on behalf of the political directorate, a severe amount of squatting to occur around the periphery of Ocho Rios and this has created two problems," he admitted. "It has created pollution, it's created a problem of exacerbating drainage issues, but more importantly, it's reduced the ability of the town of Ocho Rios to expand."
Maffesanti who is a director of the St Ann Chamber of Commerce lamented that the failure to curb the expansion of these squatter communities has also robbed Ocho Rios of legitimate investment projects which have gone to neighbouring areas of St Ann's Bay, Laughlands and even the neighbouring parish of St Mary.
He blamed successive political administrations for their ongoing failure to address this all too common and visible problem.
"We've had these years of development without there being a coherent and consistent plan from city planners, from government planners to say let's not allow development here because we will need to increase road capacity in 10 years time, in 20 years time. No, we've allowed the development to occur, even on the so called Ocho Rios bypass road, we've allowed development to almost crowd the road on both sides which means there is no future scope for increase of that ..." Maffesanti noted.
While it was agreed that squatter communities are potential breeding grounds for criminals, these settlements are also the homes of many of the people who work in these resort facilities, and hotels, yet little has been done to improve their living conditions. Many continue to live without proper amenities such as potable water, electricity and basic social development facilities, such as community centres and proper roads.
Meanwhile, another businessman Joey Issa, while admitted that squatting and the many negatives associated with it such as harassment, is not acceptable and warned against buying into the idea that squatting is a tourism issue, declared that it is in fact a national concern and should be so treated.
"This is a localised manifestation of a greater ill in our economy, in our society," is how Maffesanti said in endorsing Issa's view.