Saturday Express Editorial

The disclosure by the leading official at the Town and Country Planning Division that her office has no power to stop illegal development anywhere in the country is ­startling, to say the least.

Acting director of Town and Country Planning Marie Hinds made this revelation during a session of the relevant joint select committee in the Parliament. She said the division had what she termed “a role to play” in the enforcement of ­regulations governing physical development in the country, but was virtually powerless in carrying out that role. She blamed this on a shortage of manpower. But, fundamentally, she said the division did not have the authority to issue “stop” orders demanding that a ­questionable development be halted.

Perhaps a critical starting point in addressing this dilemma is the fact that Ms Hinds herself is listed as “acting” in the ­position she now occupies. In too many instances across the broad range of agencies and institutions, particularly in the public service arm of the State sector, incumbents in critical decision-making ­positions are “acting”. This itself makes for arrangements which are far less than ideal, and often lead to a watering-down of ­administrative effectiveness.

To hear from this official that a total of 12 compliance officers are responsible for monitoring physical development projects of one kind or another across the country is by itself nightmarish. Her statement that the enforcement process is “time-­consuming” adds to the lived reality of lawlessness, well-known, if not ­accepted, as part of our public administration construct.

Ms Hinds comes across as the typical senior public ­officer whose hands are tied as a result of built-in administrative ­inefficiencies, such as an absence of proper monitoring and ­compliance systems, on top of a shortage of required manpower.

Her public call, during the meeting, for more and greater collaboration with other related State agencies is also telling. It would be instructive to enquire whether her reference to the need for closer working relationships with the Environmental Management Authority, the Forestry Division at the Ministry of Agriculture and the relevant units in the regional corporations has had any traction inside the related ministries.

Here again is the highlighting of a crippling absence of ­co-ordination among different agencies performing complementary functions in the broader national interest.

“If we were to do some training, that would empower us to increase our numbers, and that is exactly the thinking behind the Planning and Facilitation of Development Act,” Ms Hinds told the JSC meeting. It appears reasonable to assume these are suggestions which may have been made, in the right quarters, among the critical stakeholder groups, but that decisive action remains wanting. It is part of the continuing conundrum resulting in our national development malaise.

And, for good measure, just one of the many negative outcomes we face relative to unplanned and unregulated physical development was also highlighted in the JSC session. This was an assertion by UWI water management expert Dr Vincent Cooper that we face continued, unnecessary flooding, partly because of the renegade nature of our land-use practices.

Quick, sensible action by all those in the chain of authority is an urgent imperative.

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Although it comes at an unbearably high price, the COVID-19 pandemic brings opportunities for change that have been long needed but have hitherto gone to waste.

My headline today is not a typographical error. As suggested below, it is still uncertain whether the Government’s policy of siq, that is separate, isolate and quarantine, is a sound enough response to our COVID-19 crisis. We just don’t know yet.

COVID-19 is shaking civilisation to its core. Over one million persons are infected in 200 countries and over 55,000 have already died. Economies, industrialised and developing, are reeling. Global supply chains are being broken and the threat of shortages hangs in the air.

When we will have overcome the COVID-19 multi-pronged attack on Trinidad and Tobago, we will face associated problems ranging from the economy under severe stress such as it has never been before, with unemployment at a crisis level, disruption of the education system leaving all stakeholders confused, and possible shortage of foods.

The action taken by the Government over the past two or three weeks with respect to control and containment of the COVID-19 virus, which has been in line, by and large, with the action taken by other countries, ought to be supported if we are to weather this virulent epidemic.

It is a well-established truism that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

On the basis of and in recognition of this reality, conversations are taking place among various professional and sectoral elites about how not to let this moment pass without taking advantage of it.