Editorial | If local government is to be relevant
We have no confidence that the change of their names, from parish councils to municipal corporations, will do anything to either lift Jamaica's local government authorities from the incompetence in which they have long wallowed, or bequeath to those who run them a new vision of what they might be.
Further, nothing said so far by the new chairmen of these councils, after the local government elections of a fortnight ago, causes us to be sanguine about their capacity for transformation. Mostly, they have talked about approaching the central government for support for this or that project - without offering substance, scope or cost.
Nonetheless, we are willing to be convinced otherwise. In that respect, we will offer advice and support to those councils, and leaders, who demonstrate an inclination to new ways of doing things and fresh, big ideas for the growth and development of communities and regions.
Our first deliverable on the mission is to commend to municipal corporations an article published Sunday in this newspaper by Carol Archer, an associate professor in urban and regional planning and public policy at the University of Technology,
Dr Archer anchors her piece in the outcome of a recent UN Habitat conference that focused on integrated approaches to urban development and planning. Or, as she put it, of approaching development in a way that "cities, towns, and villages must be tied together, or integrated", so that any changes in cities or more urbanised areas must benefit rural areas and vice versa.
These ideas have relevance for Jamaica, which has urbanised rapidly over the past half-century. Fifty-three per cent of the population live in urban, or near-urban communities - and not just the parish capitals. Urban growth poses new challenges to policymakers and governments: for shelter, infrastructure, public safety and, critically, for how these services are to be funded.
Moreover, it requires new narrative and vocabulary other than that which Jamaican local government authorities have hitherto employed. Up to now, municipalities have seen big ideas as being solely within the purview of national governments. Job creation meant for them the seasonal employment of low or unskilled labour, not to exchange value for money, but lend process to handouts.
As Dr Archer observed: "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."
Jamaicans recognise this disconnect. They have rewarded it with an absence of "confidence in the ability of local government to shift awareness, actions, and activism to address" their needs. So, only 30 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote in the municipal elections.
The national government gave a nod to this shifting paradigm in the new local governance act, passed this year. It affords greater powers to municipal corporations, including the ability to raise some debt to finance programmes. That is important.
But if local government authorities are to be relevant, what they require first is an intellectual alignment, which means extricating themselves from their pasts and embracing ideas and visions of the kind that are being offered to them.