Saturday, February 24, 2018

Fixing people’s problems

Express editorial logo465

Mark Fraser

In an outstanding demonstration of community self-organisation, a new residents’ association is publicly opposing the location in their area of two schools, whose operation it is feared would worsen traffic congestion. The Lower Maraval Residents’ Association resorted to buying a newspaper ad to condemn the inaction of planning and traffic officials toward “commercialisation of residential areas”, with dire effects for congestion, parking and livability.

Calling the relocated two schools the “last straw”, the association has questioned whether planning permission was given for the conversion of a dwelling house into a school building. The association claims to have lobbied the area MP and the regional councillor to demand evidence from Planning and Sustainable Development Minister Bhoe Tewarie that official approval had been given for such land-use conversion.

By going public in defence of its interests, the association signalled a measured community resistance to unregulated commercial expansion, ignored by state officials or with their connivance. Dr Tewarie, who promised Parliament to investigate and take due action, should commit to responding before the re-opening of schools.

This should head off resort to the more common and confrontational community reaction of burning tyres, dumping garbage, and blockading roadways, in yet another desperate bid to attract official attention to problems. It is an indictment on the performance of State agencies that people should have to go to such lengths as paid advertising to get information out of them or shame them into work.

Not every community has the resources to finance paid ads which is why so many have to depend on media coverage for getting their messages to public officials. While public officials often take umbrage with community protest, they need to recognise that the problem is being fuelled by their own unresponsiveness to people and their problems. In the case of the Lower Maraval Residents’ Association, the source of their distress is the common occurrence, all over the country, of intrusive and disruptive physical development which creates problems that seem to belong to no one.

Whatever systems exist for processing public complaints appear to have completely collapsed. This is where muscular local government should be making a difference. Embedded within communities, these bodies are close enough to identify problems even before they occur and to intervene early enough to head them off. The recent cases in San Fernando of mysterious building approvals are just one example of the lapses occurring at local government level.

The Government’s response to this is the Planning and Facilitation of Development Bill, 2013, which continues to make its way through parliament. Compared to other pieces of legislation which miraculously pass through the House in the course of one night, this bill has been moving at snail’s pace. The proposed National Physical Planning Authority, coupled with decentralisation of certain powers to local government bodies, should bring significant improvement to the planning process.

For the residents of Lower Maraval and communities across the country, properly planned development would save them the trouble of having to protest, whether through advertising or burning of tyres.