Editorial | Of maintenance and accountability
The suggestion last week by a group of development planners that it should be mandatory that maintenance systems be built into all significant projects ahead of approval finds sympathy with this newspaper. The proposal must be seriously considered by the Government.
However, we are also aware that often the problem in Jamaica is not, or primarily, an absence of laws or rules, but a failure of enforcement. Which adds another dimension to the search for solutions to a real crisis.
The larger context of last week’s discussion, organised by the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of Technology (UTech), was climate change and the potential impact of rising sea levels, longer droughts, and more and more violent storms on the island. Essentially, most of those concerns are already in play. So, even as the world struggles to contain global warming and keep the rise in the earth’s temperature, by the end of the century, to below 1.5°C, compared to the pre-industrial levels, Jamaica, simultaneously, has to think about policies that mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
How we maintain things has to be high on the agenda.
“Without doubt, [weakness in] maintenance is our main issue,” said Ava Maxam, acting executive director of the Mona GeoInformatics Institute. Therefore, a point of departure for the institute when it advises clients is that they build maintenance arrangements into their projects, so as to ‘sustain the system for the long run’.” But perhaps, Dr Maxam suggested, “our laws need to catch up with building in maintenance regulations from the beginning”.
A related suggestion was to make approval of projects by regulatory authorities, such as the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), contingent on a project having a maintenance programme.
We agree, in principle. Except, given NEPA’s history on these matters, there is no guarantee of compliance, even on matters within its purview.
Indeed, there have been several instances in recent years of the courts chiding NEPA, and other regulatory agencies, including the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation, which issues building permits for the capital, for their failure to fulfil their regulatory obligations. Rogue real estate developers seemed to have free range. Environmental campaigners, too, believe that NEPA is far too lenient with respect to its oversight of the natural environment, and in how it allows the exploitation, and encroachment, of protected areas.
The crisis, however, extends beyond the regulators of the soft environment. There are also issues, as was observed by Professor Carol Archer of UTech’s Faculty of the Built Environment, to do with the country’s approach to the hard infrastructure, much of which is in the purview of the central government.
Said Professor Archer, “You don’t maintain the roads, you don’t maintain the drains and sewage system. The population is growing, but you don’t provide the necessary system to ensure that they get adequate water … . All of these things contribute to [problems] we are facing now.”
Policymakers often blame these failures on a lack of money and other resources. That, however, is only a part of the problem.
The larger issue, in our view, is weak systems of accountability, which allows for waste, or worse, inappropriate planning and misplaced priorities. So, a government may decide to build a new city on the country’s best agricultural lands, the “most fertile … A1 soil”, as graded by, say, NEPA. Yet, that same agency provides the green light for the project to proceed, when a more appropriate solution would be a major programme of urban renewal, to help arrest the decay and the crisis of social dysfunction.
The bottom line: upgrading of the law to include mandatory maintenance should be accompanied by efforts at a fundamental shift in culture to a mindset that establishes the primacy of systems over feelings of the gut, or what, in the moment, is expedient. Indeed, we might start with doing the little things, such as periodically maintaining the photocopier at the Supreme Court to prevent its long-term breakdown, hobbling the work of the judiciary. Drains and gullies should be cleaned regularly to lessen the likelihood of floods during heavy rains or storms, like during the Atlantic hurricane season.
And we should hold people to account, in accordance with the rules and the laws, when they fail to behave appropriately, or do the right things.