Editorial | Innswood and urban renewal
The Government, through its spinmeister, Robert Nesta Morgan, continues to engage in strategic ambiguities over the use of Jamaica’s arable land for real estate development, rather than declare an end to, or placing a long-term moratorium on, the practice. Which should be accompanied by a reversal of zoning regulations that allow it to happen.
The alternative to these greenfield suburban developments is a drive for urban renewal, including the development of empty and under-utilised spaces within cities. While urban redevelopment is more difficult, requiring hard work, it would be an ultimately more efficient path to development than what’s now being done.
The question of how Jamaica uses its limited land, especially the approximately 19 per cent that is suitable and potentially available for agriculture, has been an issue of debate in recent years, ignited initially by the Government’s plan for a 17,000-home city at the Bernard Lodge Estate on the St Catherine plain, which the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) said contained the island’s “most fertile … A1 soil”. Ironically, it was NEPA that created the master plan to permit the planting of concrete on that soil.
The matter received renewed attention this month when it emerged that a company owned by billionaire Michael Lee-Chin wants to buy 1,000 acres of land at Innswood Estate, St Catherine – which is part of a more than 2,600 acres previously leased by another Lee-Chin entity for a high-tech farm – for a housing construction. It has also been revealed that the land on which the homes would be built was formally approved for real estate in 2019, the year the farm lease was sealed.
At a briefing last week, Mr Morgan, the de facto information minister, reaffirmed that the leases held by Lee-Chin’s company were for agriculture and had not changed. “That policy decision that was made in 2018-19 has never changed … it has never shifted,” he said. “There has been no discussion in the Cabinet about changing Innswood, that 3,000-acre property, from agriculture.”
DOES NOT ASSURE
This newspaper notes and welcomes the statement. It, however, does not assure Jamaicans of a clear halt to the take-over, either in this case or generally, of the country’s best agricultural lands for real estate.
Indeed, Mr Morgan spoke specifically to the 3,000 acres of Innswood that are currently the subject of controversy. However, Innswood, a former sugar estate, is a much larger property. Although, like Bernard Lodge, many hundreds of acres of the estate have already been encroached on for housing, thousands more remain untouched.
In a September-5 statement on the matter, the Government said that no decision was made on the sale of the land for housing. Like Mr Morgan’s last week, it did not rule it out as a possibility. Indeed, that earlier statement reported that the Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings (SCJH), the agency that owns the Innswood lands, and NEPA, the author of the Bernard Lodge development plan, were invited to return to the Cabinet “with a detailed report on the Innswood lands, proposed and ongoing developments in the area, agricultural prospects and plans, and all other pertinent information to assist Cabinet in making the best decisions about the use of public assets in the national interest”.
Mr Morgan did not say whether that follow-up happened, or when it was scheduled. But clearly, the mandate of the SCJH and NEPA left open the possibility of more homes being built at Innswood, Bernard Lodge and other such places, rather than drawing a red line under what already exists on agricultural properties.
WRONG IN ITS VIEW
This administration – as were previous ones – is wrong in its view of tension, or “competing demands”, between the use of land for agriculture or affordable housing. The pandemic-induced supply chain crisis and food inflation driven by the Ukraine war, underline the logic of food security, already made stark by the effects of global warming. It makes little sense, in the circumstances, to put Jamaica’s potentially most productive land in real estate.
In any event, the logic for compact, organised, well-run cities, rather wanton suburban sprawl, is unimpeachable. Indeed, in regional urban planning reviews, Portmore is a case study of how development ought not to be approached – this concept of dormitory communities, where all infrastructure has to be developed from scratch and residents have to travel long distances for key services; or they require huge investment for them to work tolerably.
While they have been allowed to become decayed and gritty, Jamaica’s cities and urban towns have basic infrastructure and critical services within them. They also have significant stretches of unused spaces that can be used for recreation, or for housing and/or businesses. Urban renewal, therefore, is where the Government, with the help of domestic and global partners, should start in addressing Jamaica’s shelter crisis. Thereafter, the move would be to marginal lands.
One of the ironies of the push for suburbia is that the flight from the cities by those who can afford to go leads to even greater urban decay, further marginalisation of those left behind, and an exacerbation of the antisocial behaviour and crime that drive the outward trek. Yet, the problem is fixable, if there is will.