Sat | Oct 1, 2022

Editorial | Clean up building permit regime

Published:Friday | January 14, 2022 | 12:07 AM

Mayor Delroy Williams perhaps ought to be recognised for, at last, moving to address the scandalous incompetence – and probably worse – with which his Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC) regulates construction in the capital. But Mr Williams did not go far enough. His new regime is, at best, picking at the margins. What was recently announced should be the norm in any half-decently run operation.

More importantly, though, while the issue may be more obvious and acute in the KSAMC, the problem of poor oversight of real estate development transcends Mr Williams’ jurisdiction. The rot infects all the local government authorities and other institutions. It has been so for a long time, and talked about in more than whispers.

A sustainable fix, therefore, requires national action. This must start with a clear understanding of the depth and breadth of the corrosion.

Mayor Williams was no doubt embarrassed into action by the ruling late last month by Supreme Court Judge Natalie Hart-Hines, in which she not only refused a developer’s petition for the lifting of the restrictive covenants on a property in the Arcadia district of St Andrew, but called out the KSAMC and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) for failing to properly do their jobs in the granting and monitoring of construction permits.

In the first place, the lot for which the multi-family apartment was approved, as Justice Hart-Hines noted, did not meet the minimum size for such a development. Worse, the developer built more habitable rooms than he was given permission for. Officially allowed 12 one-bedroom apartments, he instead constructed 32 bedrooms in 15 apartments, and attempted to disguise the real dimensions by not putting up the internal walls. This, presumably, would happen later on.

NOT UNIQUE

Justice Hart-Hines discovered these diversions not because KSAMC inspectors reported them, or the other breaches. She found out because she personally visited the site. The judge described the behaviour of the KSAMC as “dilatory” and employed a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his soliloquy reflecting on the murder of his father, to highlight the dereliction of the agencies involved: “Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature.”

Added Justice Hart-Hines, “The garden metaphor in Hamlet was used by Shakespeare to represent the decay of a country when it becomes lawless and corrupt because those who are tasked with the responsibility for pruning and managing it fail to carry out their responsibility. In this case, it seems that the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC) and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) have been dilatory in their mandate to enforce local planning laws and regulations, and to promote sustainable development in respect of the building situated on the property, which is the subject matter of this application.”

The case on which Justice Hart-Hines ruled was not unique. There have been several other court matters recently of regulators appearing to exercise discretion in granting environmental and building permits for construction that did not meet the normal criteria for approval. Builders often proceed to breach the terms of the granted permits.

Additionally, developers are in the habit of beginning construction ahead of being granted court approval for changes to the restrictive covenants. Their assumption, it appears, is that people affected by the development, or have standing in the matter, are disinclined or can ill afford to challenge their actions in court. Increasingly, though, such challenges have arisen, and residents are becoming more vocal about their concerns. The authorities have fallen under increasing pressure to uphold citizens’ rights.

A year ago, with public attention on the failure of the KSAMC to spot, or do anything about, breaches of the permit for a multi-family development until the matter was highlighted by the press, Mr Williams announced a review panel at the KSAMC to deal with these kinds of projects. How that panel was to operate in relation to the corporation’s building committee was never made clear. It is also hazy whether it was ever activated.

He has, however, felt the pressure to follow up. His latest actions include the KSAMC’s chief engineer having to produce regular reports on the number of construction works ongoing in the KSAMC, a minimum number of inspections of building sites; multiple inspectors have to view building applications ahead of approval; and complaints about approvals have to be logged.

These, as well as transparency about building applications, should have been a normal part of the KSAMC’s approval regime, rather than new initiatives to confront a crisis.

INDEPENDENT EXPERTISE

Probably the most significant of Mr Williams’ disclosure was that he had ordered an internal audit of the corporation’s building approval process and that he had requested Prime Minister Andrew Holness to launch a wider “interrogation” of the system, which, it appears, would include a review of what takes place at NEPA.

We agree with Mr Williams on this score, except that these reviews and audits should not be internal functions. They should be undertaken by independent people with expertise in environmental, development, building and logistical planning. All local government authorities, and other agencies involved in the approval process, should be subject to the audit.

We suggest, too, that the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) be invited to conduct a sweep of all the agencies.

Further, the Local Governance Act allows the municipal governments to invite non-elected members to sit on their standing committees and participate in their discussion, without the right to vote. In those cases where this is not happening, it should be instituted, starting with the building committees. If the right persons are invited, it would help add expertise and transparency to the approval process.