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BEHIND THE QUAKES - Ministry moves deadline for new building code to yearend

Published:Friday | August 1, 2014 | 12:00 AM

 Petre Williams-Raynor, Contributing Editor

THE MINISTRY of Local Government and Community Development is looking at yearend as the new deadline for the passage of legislation that will herald an updated legal building code, essential to bolstering Jamaica's earthquake readiness.

The ministry had earlier announced a March 31 deadline to have the Building Bill considered by Parliament. It was a move welcomed by disaster risk-reduction professionals, including Franklin McDonald and Dr Lyndon Brown, formerly of the Institute for Sustainable Development and the Earthquake Unit, respectively.

But four months on, the bill has not reached Parliament, prompting raised eyebrows and 'I told you so' comments from some quarters. This, as the island's more than a century-old code remains in place, following other failed attempts to have a new code added to the books.

"I have a newspaper clipping from April 1983 ... . It is a statement from Edward Seaga saying we will have a building code by the end of that year. Thirty-one years later, we have consensus from both political parties that we need this thing," McDonald, currently a visiting scholar at York University in Canada, told The Gleaner in February.

"[Now] I hear some very concrete plans being made and that, by March 31 this year, it will all be done. But I have heard that before," he added.

Economic reform

Minister Noel Arscott on Wednesday explained this most recent delay.

"It was originally set for March to be tabled, but because of the substantial piece of legislation to do with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and economic reform, it was set back for later this year," he said.

Arscott added that the time since then has been spent making needed revisions to the bill, which was only this week sent to the Legislative Committee of Parliament for deliberation.

The minister also sought to quiet concerns over the value being placed on the bill becoming law, thereby ushering in the new code - modelled off the International Building Code of the International Codes Council of the United States.

"The World Bank has put it as a benchmark, as one of those pieces of legislation the country needs to have. And they would see this as important, [with] Jamaica being a disaster-prone area [as well as] an investment destination," he revealed. "And World Bank or not, we had it set as one of the legislations that needed to be in place, as it fits into our local government reform."

The others include the Disaster Bill and the three strategic laws - the Local Governance Act, the Local Government Finance and Financial Management Act, and the Local Government (Unified Services and Employment) Act.

Chair of the Legislative Committee Senator Mark Golding, up to Tuesday night, had not yet seen the bill, but indicated it was likely they would be able to make the yearend deadline.

"I think, based on what I have heard, we should be able to get this into Parliament this year," he said, noting he'd had discussions with Arscott on the matter.

"I know the minister is anxious to complete the process to get the bill into Parliament, and I know they are pushing and working [to have that done]," Golding added.

The Legislative Committee meets weekly to go over bills before they are sent to Cabinet for approval and later tabled in Parliament.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a new legal code, 70 per cent of the island's building stock is designed without professional inputs — despite the 200 or so earthquakes that occur on the island each year.

At the same time, Jamaica remains at risk of earthquake devastation, sharing, as it does, the Enriquillo Plantain Garden Fault, which erupted to cause the devastation in Haiti in 2010. The island also has a history of highly destructive earthquakes. The 1692 quake destroyed Port Royal, while the 1907 event claimed 1,000 lives in Kingston.