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Reflections on Independence

Published Thursday 18th September, 2008

This column was conceived on Independence Day and the recent major flooding has given us cause for reflection.

The Claxton Bay flooding which took place on August 27 was completely unprecedented. For those of us who did not experience the unusually localised and extremely heavy rainfall, it was deeply shocking to see the images of water five to six feet deep on the Solomon Hochoy Highway.

Of even greater concern is the response the next day of Colm Imbert, Minister of Works and Transportation, who explained that there was an exceptional level of rainfall in that location. Minister Imbert went on to speak at length on the negative effects of unplanned and unauthorised development in our country.

Let us be clear here, the amount of rain that fell in Claxton Bay in the two or three hours before the crisis was equal to about ten days’ rainfall. That extreme would cause floods anywhere, so there are real limits to what planning can achieve in dealing with natural disasters.

The vital point emerging here is, to quote Imbert “…the unprecedented pace of development, both at the level of the State and private sector, was contributing to the flooding problem in the country.”

This episode is a signal warning to our nation and we would do well to pay proper attention. In previous issues of Property Matters we have used the phrase “the planning deficit” to refer to the withered state of our national planning system when one considers the rapid pace of physical development. To restate the key issues, we need to locate this moment in context:

Limited land

There was an authoritative 1997 publication which cited some critical data on our land: 57 per cent being forest, 34 per cent being agricultural or reserved for that use. That leaves a total of 9.0 per cent of our country’s land area being available for competing uses: housing, roads, drains, schools, business, recreation facilities, other public facilities and so on.

Most importantly, and something which we seldom consider, is that those limited lands also have to cater for the needs of future generations.

Rapid and unprecedented pace of development

We have never seen such a pace of development in our country and there is obvious pressure on those limited lands. The emerging picture is one of encroachment and denial with definitions being changed as we go along. More on this in a subsequent column.

Our outdated national land-use plan

The legally adopted plan was approved in 1983 by our Parliament and it is in need of urgent review.

Project fever

There seems to be no end to the capacity for ambitious announcements of many new projects. We have ample funding and imported expertise aplenty for these. Clearly they are priorities on the road to developed nation status.

The planning deficit

Despite the obvious availability of resources, our government seems unable to make planning a priority.

There is no way we are going to achieve developed nation status without making the time to plan our nation’s future openly. No way. The responsibility is ours and we should consider a few further points.

Our key partners in the race to development are foreign contractors and consultants from France, Canada, China and the USA. In not one of the home countries of those companies could this sort of unplanned race to development take place. Not one. There is the real danger that we are in fact becoming a laughing-stock for these development partners as we rush onwards. Many vexed thoughts of the colonial past and the extent to which things change, or not, are churning here, but we maintain the tone.

We have an ole time wishing at certain points in our country for a sign. If Claxton Bay is not a sign, we have to think again. The subsequent, widespread flooding on September 7, in which a small child drowned is yet another.

Even on the evening of September 15, we had the capital in gridlock for more than three hours after two hours of normal rainfall earlier that day.

The silence of the Minister of Planning, Housing and the Environment on all this is troubling and we will be tackling the rationale behind the merger of those portfolios in a subsequent column.

When, Madame Minister, can we expect a proper process to review our national plans? Can we expect that the full weight of the State, in terms of funding and sourcing the necessary expertise from wherever, will be put behind this process?

Having inherited the issue, what priority do you attach to addressing these concerns?

Silence is not an option here, we have a nation to build, together.

Quotes as published in the August 29 Guardian.

Minister Imbert’s comments on the planning deficit:

In the interim, Imbert said the Government intended to crack down on errant developers, since unsanctioned construction had contributed to the flooding problem in the country.

He said the level of flooding spoke volumes about the need to enforce existing regulations at his ministry, Town and Country Planning and the regional corporations.

“There is absolutely no doubt that we need to improve our enforcement capabilities,” he stressed.

“The regulations are there, the standards are there, the engineering designs are available.

“What has happened is that people have blocked water courses...They have built their homes right on the banks of rivers.

“They have put their boundary walls right in the paths of rivers and the enforcement capability within Town and Country Planning, within the regional corporations and within the Ministry of Works needs to be beefed up... There is no two ways about it.”

Imbert said the problem was of urgent importance.

“It is something that we have to address very, very seriously and to take very firm and decisive action against errant developers,” he added, predicting fallout from the action.”

The Association of T&T Insurance Companies recently issued a statement:

“Flooding has become far too prevalent where this risk was once seen as minimal in times past. Moreover, of greater significance is that flooding is now occurring in urban and developed communities where losses can assume catastrophic proportions because of the high values of properties and assets.

“This increased frequency of floods even with normal rainfall suggests the inability of the existing infrastructure to cope with the run-off of surface water which is a reflection on the inadequacy of the planning process.

“The country is paying the price for development and the insurance industry is the sector most affected when it has to provide compensation to insured. Insurance treats with unforeseen and unpredictable events but it is not there to handle certainty which flooding has now become with the slightest downpour.

“It is policyholders that will be called upon to pay higher premiums and to absorb increased deductibles as flooding risk is real and will not go away unless there are substantial investments in infrastructure upgrade and cessation of development in particular on higher ground. That assumes that insurance will continue to be available since some flood-prone areas could well be deemed as off limits for insurers.”

 

Afra Raymond is a chartered surveyor and a director of Raymond & Pierre Ltd. Feedback can be sent to afra@raymondandpierre.com.

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

Despite the obvious availability of resources, our government seems unable to make planning a priority. There is no way we are going to achieve developed nation status without making the time to plan our nation’s future openly. No way. The responsibility is ours and we should consider a few further points.

Our key partners in the race to development are foreign contractors and consultants from France, Canada, China and the USA. In not one of the home countries of those companies could this sort of unplanned race to development take place. Not one.

There is the real danger that we are in fact becoming a laughing-stock for these development partners as we rush onwards. Many vexed thoughts of the colonial past and the extent to which things change, or not, are churning here, but we maintain the tone.