Real Estate - Property Matters by Afra Raymond
PROPERTY MATTERS - Articles written by Afra Raymond
Raymond & Pierre - click for website

Back Index Next

Our Planning System - Part 2

Published Thursday 16th September, 2004


Construction at Corner Duke and St Vincent Streets, Port-of-Spain.
Photo: Lester Forde

This week we continue to look at our planning system and its impact on property values here. As we mentioned last week, there is a permanent tension between the constitutional rights of landowners to develop their property and the duty of the planning authorities to limit those rights. We need to note that there is also a tension between the landowners themselves. This is because the interests of those who have already developed their land can be in conflict with those who are yet to do so.

For example, the development of more apartments or houses would have the effect of increasing the supply and, all other things being equal, slowing the rate of price and rent increases. This is not normally welcomed by property owners, although some of them have the view that any development is good for their area since this would lead to higher values generally.

There are other possibilities mentioned last week, such as the loss of a scenic view or the reduced peace and quiet with the arrival of new neighbours. All these are examples of matters in which the planning authorities have a role in mediating the needs of both sides.

Some issues which our planning system should address in the future include:

(1) Urban renewal

We have described in previous columns the likely long-term impact of today’s planning decisions in the granting of planning permission for large commercial buildings outside our traditional city centres.

When this trend is considered alongside the continuing decline of those city centres—due to generally unappealing conditions, heavy traffic, inadequate parking and public transport—we can see that planners have a responsibility for urban regeneration.

Is it a good use of our limited “developable” lands —in an earlier article, we detailed that only nine per cent of T&T is flat and non-agricultural—to allow our city centres to decay while consuming ever more of that limited resource?

(2) Unit sizes

Earlier on in this series of columns, we had cause to criticise certain State property management policies as being “one size fits all” and therefore inherently inefficient.

It has to be said that some of that criticism could also be levelled at private developers who sometimes appear to be emulating these State policies. Of course, I am referring to the fact that we live in a society with diverse needs and a falling size of family unit.

This results in part from the rising number of single person households, single parent families and retirees. Despite this market reality, there is almost no variety in the output of our private sector housebuilders—it is virtually a guarantee that townhouses and houses for sale will have three bedrooms, the exceptions are extremely rare.

What this means is that there would be significant numbers of people at the very margins who could only afford to buy a smaller unit than that offered for sale.

In other markets the planners would intervene to ensure a greater and more appealing range of choice by only giving consent to proposals which addressed those concerns.

Some say the private sector is better at allocating capital and, therefore, developers should make this sort of choice. But the role of our planners ought to be to balance the developers’ inclination towards cutting costs by reducing choices of units with the need for variety from the purchasing public.

(3) Info access

A serious reform of the planning system is needed in the area of public access to information on the development control process since only a limited amount of information is available from the planning register.

The register will tell a member of the public what planning permission has been granted on a piece of land and that only in bare outline.

One is simply unable to determine the applications on a particular piece of land: the precise details of what is approved—i.e. how many floors, shape/footprint of the development, unit mixes (accommodation and number of buildings, etc)—far less see the plans which are approved.

We are told that that is a private set of information and its release is not covered under the law. We would suggest that a more modern, participative planning system needs to have this information readily available since applicants are submitting their details for approval and we the public need to see what is proposed in our neighbourhoods.

(4) Development & public access

We are all familiar with what happens when some large buildings are being constructed and the pavements are blocked. In addition to this inconvenience, we can get the impression that there is little effort to reduce the period in which we have no use of the pavements.

Is this permitted? Are there any measures that planners can take to stop this or at least minimise the period of inconvenience?

We need to make a determined effort to adopt longer-term thinking about the future shape of our society if 2020 is to be a better time to raise our children. Long-term thinking for a viable future must involve unpopular choices and delaying today’s benefits for tomorrow’s.

Our political parties all exist on a five-year treadmill while landowners want to develop their properties now; planning for our future is the only way to manage these tensions.

We must, in era of instant gratification, be mature enough to change our thinking. Can we?

Next week: We conclude our examination of the land-use planning system and its impact on the real estate industry.

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

...there is a permanent tension between the constitutional rights of landowners to develop their property and the duty of the planning authorities to limit those rights.

We need to note that there is also a tension between the landowners themselves. This is because the interests of those who have already developed their land can be in conflict with those who are yet to do so.